JERUSALEM — Israel, racing to contain a novel coronavirus outbreak and in the grips of a months-long political stalemate, was on the brink of a constitutional crisis Tuesday as the speaker of the parliament vowed to defy a Supreme Court order that he must allow lawmakers to vote for his replacement.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said he would continue to block moves in the newly elected parliament to elect a new leader of the body, despite an emergency court ruling that the vote be held by Wednesday.
A narrow majority of the Knesset members that were sworn in last week are from parties opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, of which Edelstein is a member. Sixty-one members of the 120-seat body signed a letter calling for Edelstein to be replaced.
Edelstein, citing the coronavirus crisis and the uncertain chances for Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz to build a governing coalition, had refused to convene the Knesset and allow the vote.
He maintained that it would destroy ongoing negotiations to form a unity government at a time of a national emergency. The court, acting on petitions filed over the weekend by members of the Knesset and pro-democracy groups, said the speaker’s refusal “undercuts the foundations of the democratic process” and ordered the vote to go forward.
Edelstein, accusing the court of interfering in the legislature’s business, said he would not comply with its “ultimatum.” Other Likud leaders also slammed the court, saying they would boycott Knesset deliberations.
“During one of the most difficult crises, the Justice system is promoting a coup in Israel,” said Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a member of the ultranationalist Yamina faction, according to Haaretz.
But activists said it was Edelstein’s threat to ignore the high court ruling that was precipitating a crisis.
“This marks the end for all of us and the beginning of anarchy,” commentator Ben Caspit wrote in the daily Maariv. “Publicly elected officials are calling for a rebellion.”
Former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch warned Tuesday that the standoff threatens Israel’s vaunted adherence to the rule of law.
“The implications of his refusal to accept the High Court of Justice’s ruling means utter chaos, it means breaking the basic frameworks of the democratic regime,” Beinisch said in an interview with KAN Radio.
The drama is unfolding in the midst of a worsening coronavirus crisis that has Israeli citizens largely confined to their homes as the number of infections soars. More than 200 positive cases reported overnight Monday brought the country’s total to more than 1,650. The Knesset is struggling to operate under conditions that prohibit public gatherings of any kind.
Politicians on both sides of the political standoff cite the looming health and economic disaster to justify their actions, dashing the hopes of Israelis who dared to dream the pandemic would unify the country’s fractured leadership.
Israel has a history of closing ranks at times of crisis, as rival politicians did during wars in 1967 and 1973 and during an economic collapse in the 1980s, said Amotz Asa-El, a historian and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
This time, despite fleeting signs that a deal on an emergency power-sharing arrangement between Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White party might be close, the infighting has endured even as the level of panic has risen over the novel coronavirus that causes the disease covid-19.
“This is deeply disturbing,” said Asa-El. “To the public, it is intolerable that they are continuing this political war in the middle of the medical war.”
The unprecedented political stalemate has lasted for more than a year, as three separate elections have failed to produce a governing coalition. Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc of parties won the most Knesset seats in the March 2 vote but still fell short of a majority. Last week, Gantz was granted the first shot at piecing together a government.
Since the vote, Netanyahu has become the face of Israel’s aggressive response to the outbreak. Appearing on television almost nightly, he has announced ever tighter restrictions on movement and far-reaching public surveillance, including the use of security agencies to track the cellphone data of citizens without their consent. The high court ruled that program could not continue without parliamentary oversight.
Opponents have complained that Netanyahu is orchestrating a power grab in the name of fighting the virus. His handpicked minister of justice abruptly suspended all court activities two days before Netanyahu was scheduled to begin his own trial on corruption charges.
And the prime minister’s allies have fiercely resisted the resumption of Knesset activities in which they will probably lose their long-standing majority status. One piece of proposed legalization would make it illegal for an indicted prime minister to form a new government, which would stymie Netanyahu’s hopes of staying in office.
Homebound Israelis have held virtual protest gatherings to oppose the actions. And a few hundred formed a convoy of cars, many flying black flags, heading for the Knesset in Jerusalem before they were stopped by police outside the city.
“Someone is going to have to climb down from the ladder,” Asa-El said of the political brinkmanship. “And I don’t know who it is going to be.”