Edelstein’s sudden resignation as Knesset speaker leaves country’s political future uncertain

March 26, 2020 by Dov Lipman - JNS
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Israel’s political chaos took another surprise twist on Wednesday when Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein suddenly resigned. The snap decision by Edelstein came after he rejected an order by Israel’s Supreme Court to hold a vote on replacing him as speaker.

Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem on Jan. 12, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

“As someone who has paid a personal price of years in a labour camp for the right to live in the State of Israel, as a Zionist and as the speaker of this house, I won’t allow Israel to descend into anarchy, I won’t lend a hand to civil war. Israel … I am hereby resigning from my role as Knesset speaker,” he told the Knesset. “Let us pray and hope for better days.”

Edelstein’s decision to resign allows him to avoid having to following the Supreme Court’s order. The Blue and White Party, led by Benny Gantz, is seeking to replace Edelstein with their own speaker, Knesset member Meir Cohen, so the party then can control the Knesset agenda. Blue and White seeks to move forward with legislation to remove Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office because he is under indictment for corruption charges.

However, the move to have a new speaker before a government coalition is formed has no precedent in the Jewish state’s 70-plus years. Gantz, who was designated by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin last week to form a government, has one week left to secure a coalition.

‘This is the climax of the war’

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, Edelstein told JNS that “the Knesset bylaws are clear that following an election, the vote for speaker does not have to be done until a new government is formed.”

Likud Tourism Minister Yariv Levin told JNS that he supports Edelstein’s refusal to fulfill the court’s decision, explaining that “in a normal democracy, the courts cannot tell the Speaker of the Parliament what issues to bring for a vote and when.” Numerous ministers and Knesset members from Likud and other right-wing parties criticized the court’s decision, though in the same breath said Edelstein must adhere to the court’s ruling.

Blue and White Knesset member Ofer Shelach said that Edelstein’s resignation “does not exempt him from having to fulfil the Supreme Court’s ruling to call a plenary session and call a vote for Knesset Speaker. This is the climax of the war that Netanyahu and the Likud declared on the Knesset and democracy.”

Following Edelstein’s resignation, a number of appeals were filed with the Supreme Court, asking the court to force a vote. Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit issued his opinion that since by law Edelstein’s resignation does not go into effect for 48 hours, he must call a session and allow the vote for Knesset Speaker.

The Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, agreed, but also said that there is no mechanism to force Edelstein to do so.

He did say that the only way to force a vote on Wednesday would be if the Supreme Court decides to actually call for the opening of a Knesset session, which would be an extreme step. Edelstein is protected by immunity, so the court cannot order his arrest. The most it can do is fine him for his refusal to obey their order.

The Knesset Arrangements Committee—the committee that runs the Knesset during this interim period, in which there is no permanent government in place—held an emergency session in the wake of Edelstein’s resignation.

During the meeting, the committee, which holds a majority from the Gantz-led bloc of 61 Knesset members, approved the appointment of Knesset member Amir Peretz, chairman of Labor-Meretz and the most senior member of the Knesset, to take over as speaker on Friday morning when Edelstein’s resignation becomes official.

Committee chairman Avi Nissinkorn of Blue and White told the committee that he spoke with Peretz, and that Peretz agreed to bring the vote for a new permanent speaker to the Knesset floor as early as next Sunday or Monday.

Despite the political acrimony, Netanyahu and Gantz spoke Wednesday about a national emergency unity government. Both sides agreed to resume talks tomorrow.

“The two ordered the negotiations teams to return to the negotiating table tomorrow to examine the possibility of forming a national emergency government,” a statement from Blue and White said.

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