In the latest chapter in Israel’s political dysfunction, longtime Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein dramatically resigned his post on Wednesday rather than fulfill an overreaching order of the Supreme Court to hold an immediate vote on the assignment of a new speaker.
In Israel’s 72-year history, a vote for a new speaker after an election has never taken place prior to the formation of a new ruling coalition.
Blue and White and its left-wing allies, together with the support of the Joint Arab List have been attempting to wrestle control of the parliament and to replace the speaker in order to pass retroactive and personal legislation specifically designed to make it illegal for Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new government.
According to Knesset bylaws, “The Speaker shall run the affairs of the Knesset, represent it externally, uphold its dignity, maintain order during its sittings, and oversee the observance of its Rules of Procedure. He shall preside over the sittings of the Knesset, and run them, determine the results of votes, and in addition fulfill any task assigned to him by law.”
In between an election and the formation of a new government, Knesset bylaws state that the incumbent Knesset Speaker remains in his role. The bylaws also state explicitly that a new Knesset Speaker does not need to be voted upon until the very same day that a coalition is formed.
When Edelstein refused Blue and White’s call to hold a snap vote for speaker prior to the bylaw’s deadline, the party sent a petition to the Supreme Court.
The High Court could have decided not to accept the petition on the grounds that ruling on legislative bylaws oversteps judicial boundaries.
During the hearing, Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon objected to a snap vote to replace a speaker prior to the formation of a coalition, stating that such an unprecedented move “could harm democracy.”
“We’ll have a crisis every other day of opposition factions trying to foil the government. It will be impossible,” he told the court, adding that appointing a speaker before the creation of a coalition would essentially be “planting a bug in the system, and that too constitutes harm to governance.”
Yet the court, composed almost exclusively of left-wing justices who select their own replacements, quickly rejected the opinion of the legal adviser and ruled that the right-wing Edelstein must hold an immediate vote on his replacement. A snap vote is largely expected to result in the installation of a left-wing speaker.
‘This is one of those exceptional cases’
In its ruling, High Court president Esther Hayut rejected Yinon’s legal opinion as well as the authority granted to Edelstein as speaker, stating that “the continued refusal to allow the Knesset to vote on the election of a permanent speaker is undermining the foundations of the democratic process.”
She added that Edelstein’s refusal to hold a vote before the legally prescribed deadline “clearly harms the status of the Knesset as an independent authority and the process of government transition, all the more so, as the days pass since the inauguration of the 23rd Knesset.”
Hayut closed her remarks stating that “there is no escaping the conclusion that in the circumstances created, this is one of those exceptional cases where this court is required to intervene to prevent a violation of our parliamentary system.”
Rather than being a party to gross judicial intervention, Edelstein decided that it would be better to resign his post.
In announcing his surprise resignation, the Likud Party member stated “the Supreme Court of Justice decided that the Knesset Speaker must hold a vote this week to choose a new Knesset Speaker. The Supreme Court’s decision is not based on how the law is worded, but according to a one-sided and extremist interpretation.”
Edelstein said that “the Supreme Court’s decision contradicts the Knesset protocol. The Supreme Court’s decision destroys the Knesset’s work. The Supreme Court’s decision is gross and audacious interference on the part of the judicial authority in the affairs of the elected legislative authority. The Supreme Court’s decision harms, in an unprecedented fashion, the sovereignty of the nation and the sovereignty of the Knesset. The Supreme Court’s decision undermines the basis of Israeli democracy.”
After spending years in prison as a Soviet refusenik before being allowed to immigrate to Israel, Edelstein told the parliament, “Knesset members, as someone who has paid a heavy personal price, of years in prison and slave-like work, for the right to live as a citizen in the State of Israel, there is no need for explanations regarding how much I love the State of Israel and the nation of Israel. And so, as a democratic individual, as a Jewish Zionist, as someone who has fought against evil powers, and as the Speaker of this hall, I will not allow Israel to deteriorate to anarchy. I will not play a part in a civil war.”
Members of the opposition pushing to replace Netanyahu, have said that Edelstein’s refusal to hold a vote undermines democracy and is creating a constitutional crisis, even though he has followed the Knesset bylaws to the letter.
But for Edelstein, who has loyally served the State of Israel in numerous capacities, including the last seven years as Knesset Speaker, his last act in his current position may have been finest. By resigning, he is refusing to allow the parliament he ran diligently to become an extension of the judiciary branch under his watch.
And resigning, in this case, may be the best way that Edelstein could adhere to the bylaws and carry out the Knesset duty vested in him as speaker to “uphold its dignity.” The integrity Edelstein exhibited today is likely to bolster him in the next stage of his political career.
Alex Traiman is the managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.