Israel’s President has warned of possible harm to the country’s democracy, after the Speaker of Parliament refused to hold key parliamentary votes.
Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who has the power to decide the Knesset’s schedule, ended Wednesday’s session just a few minutes after it began, making it impossible to form committees to oversee government actions during the coronavirus crisis.
Edelstein has also refused to hold a vote to choose a new Speaker of the Knesset, a position he has held since 2013, despite the clear parliamentary majority to replace him.
“A Knesset that is out of action harms the ability of the State of Israel to function well and responsibly in an emergency,” said President Reuven Rivlin in remarks addressed to Edelstein. “We must not let this crisis, as serious as it is, harm our democratic system.”
Edelstein is a senior member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party Likud, which risks losing its grip on power now that opposition party Blue and White has received the first chance to create a governing coalition.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz commands a wafer-thin majority in parliament. It may ultimately prove insufficient to form a government because of bitter rivalries within his bloc but is enough to elect a new speaker and advance parliamentary business. Among the first pieces of legislation Blue and White wants to pass is a bill that would make it illegal for an indicted lawmaker to become Prime Minister.
Hundreds of protesters, waving flags and banners from their cars, drove from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem Thursday to rally against Edelstein’s move. Police attempted to stop the convoy as it drove along the highway, claiming they were driving slowly and causing violations.
After a temporary delay, protesters succeeded in making it past the police roadblock to eventually gather outside the High Court and the Knesset. Along with Israeli flags, they waved black flags to symbolize the death of democracy. One person held a banner bearing the words in English, “Crime Minister.”
Critics have accused Edelstein of acting in defiance of the public will. They point to the timing of a tweet he made on Sunday, just moments after President Rivlin tasked Gantz with trying to form a new government.
“Hasty political moves, like choosing the permanent Speaker of the Knesset and passing controversial legislation, will block the possibility of unity that the nation wants. I will not give a hand to a process … whose objective is to carry out a kidnapping of the legislature,” wrote Edelstein.
But his supporters say he is trying to build a legislative consensus on the formation of committees, which has always been done by agreement between the government and the opposition.
Edelstein argued on Twitter that he did not close the Knesset so much as order an “intermission” to allow time for negotiations between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White to create a unity government between the two main parties – rather than a coalition of center-left parties supported in some form by the Joint Arab List party and a right-wing party led by former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
“I emphasize: as soon as possible, the Knesset should form the relevant committees for full parliamentary oversight on the government,” he added on Twitter.
But achieving any sort of agreement seems out of reach, given the climate of deep distrust that exists between the main factions in parliament.
Israel, like most countries, is in the midst of a huge public health crisis, with health officials arguing for even tougher restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus. In the absence of a breakthrough by Gantz in coalition negotiations, Netanyahu remains the country’s prime minister, even though his last outright electoral victory was five years and four elections ago. His government has been a transitional one since it was dissolved fifteen months ago.
Now without Knesset committees, the government is operating with no parliamentary oversight. Gantz warned of damage to Israel’s economy and its citizens’ security, saying that a functioning Finance Committee is required to pass the budget to mitigate economic damage, while a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is required for oversight of a controversial cell phone tracking program.
The opposition leader blasted Edelstein and Netanyahu, calling the refusal to convene the legislature unprecedented and anti-democratic. “No crisis, whatever its scope, should be exploited as a means to trample upon values of national decorum and responsibility, and to undermine the will of the voting public,” Gantz said in a video statement. “The Knesset is a critical institution at all times, including times of crisis. It is neither possible nor desirable to manage a crisis of this scope without a functioning parliament.”
Gantz said he would appeal to Israel’s High Court to force Edelstein to convene the Knesset and to conduct parliamentary business. The hearing is scheduled for Sunday.
As the accusations flew back and forth between Likud and Blue and White, Netanyahu said it was actually Gantz who was operating undemocratically.
“I call on Blue and White to stop distributing fake news … and to join a national emergency government to fight for saving lives of the citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu said in a message on Facebook. “This is a moment of leadership, of national responsibility, and cooperation. We can and should form a government now.”
CNN’s Michael Schwartz and Amir Tal contributed to this report.