Knesset Speaker Brings Israel to Brink of Constitutional Crisis

Alisa Odenheimer and Ivan Levingston

(Bloomberg) -- Israel is on the brink of a constitutional crisis, after the parliament speaker resigned rather than carry out a court order that could hurt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yuli Edelstein accuses the court of trying to usurp parliamentary authorities, while critics castigate his defiance of the bench as an assault on Israel’s democracy.

On Wednesday, Edelstein defied an order by the High Court of Justice to hold a vote on the Knesset speaker’s job by that day. Such a vote could position Netanyahu’s rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, to install an ally in Edelstein’s stead and take control of parliament’s agenda. Gantz appears to have the support to do so from 61 of the legislature’s 120 lawmakers, and Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, tried to delay a vote.

One piece of legislation that Gantz has considered bringing before parliament is a bill that would prohibit a person like Netanyahu facing criminal charges from serving as prime minister. Netanyahu has been indicted in three corruption cases, and Gantz is all but sure to muster majority support for such a bill if he were to submit it.

The constitutional crisis is closely linked to the political turmoil that has paralyzed Israel for more than a year as Netanyahu struggles to hold on to power amid his legal woes. Three back-to-back elections, in which he’s been pitted against Gantz, have ended inconclusively, and on top of the gridlock, Israel is now also facing severe economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak.

Israel’s High Court Rules Against Attempt to Undercut Parliament

Last week, shortly after the new Knesset was sworn in, Edelstein declared it closed, first saying he’d done so for virus-related social distancing, and then saying he was trying to force Netanyahu’s and Gantz’s parties to form a unity government. The judiciary ordered the parliament reopened, and gave Edelstein until Wednesday to set a date for a vote on the speakership.

After he refused to comply -- with the encouragement of Netanyahu allies including the justice minister -- the court issued a binding order for a vote by Wednesday. In his resignation later, he assailed the court’s decision as “an infringement on the sovereignty of the Knesset” -- and in quitting defied it.

“The Speaker’s actions over the past few days and his refusal to act in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling are bringing us dangerously close to anarchy,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israeli Democracy Institute research center, said in a statement. “While the Court’s decision was necessary, it is of course legitimate to disagree with the ruling. It is illegitimate, however, to raise the prospect of not complying with an explicit court order.”

Netanyahu’s Assault on Virus Brings Claims of ‘Dictatorship’ (1)

Netanyahu has also been accused by detractors of abusing his powers by using the coronavirus as cover to take steps such as putting the courts on an emergency footing in order to delay the March 17 start of his graft trial by two months.

Parliament’s legal adviser and the attorney general said Edelstein’s resignation doesn’t absolve him from having to call the vote on Wednesday.

Gantz’s Blue and White bloc joined other organizations in petitioning the High Court to hold Edelstein in contempt if he doesn’t comply.

“The Israeli parliament belongs to Israel’s citizens and their elected representatives will follow the laws of the state of Israel and the rulings of its courts,” Gantz said on Twitter. “No one is above the law.”

Edelstein told the court in response to the petition, “My conscience doesn’t allow me to carry out the ruling.”

This is a crucial period for Gantz, who’s been assigned the task of forming a new governing coalition amid the health and economic crisis created by the coronavirus outbreak.

Read more: Israel’s High Court Rules Against Attempt to Undercut Parliament

Israel has been without a permanent government since December 2018, with three elections producing deadlocks. The latest national vote on March 2 gave Gantz’s centrist bloc enough support from allies to get the first chance at forming a new government. But he has no easy path to do so because of resistance within his own camp to cooperating with the non-Zionist Joint List of Arab parties.

Netanyahu has called for an emergency government uniting Likud and Blue and White under his leadership to weather the virus outbreak. There have been talks, but no breakthrough.

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