The brass-knuckles maneuvering cast Israel’s already chaotic political system into further disarray in the midst of the growing coronavirus crisis.
Edelstein had vowed to defy a ruling Sunday by the high court that he allow Knesset opponents to vote on replacing him. He had refused to allow the vote, asserting that a leadership election would destabilize ongoing attempts to form an emergency unity government. But as the deadline imposed by five Supreme Court justices approached, Edelstein bowed to pressure from democracy activists and some members of his own party not to ignore the court.
“The decision of the judges constitutes an arrogant intervention by the judiciary in the affairs of the elected legislature,” Edelstein said, speaking to an empty chamber because of virus-related restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people in a closed space.
But, he continued, “These days, when an epidemic threatens us from the outside and the rift rips us from the inside, we all have to act like humans.”
Outside the Knesset, dozens of pro-democracy protesters — spaced at least six feet apart in accordance with rules on public gatherings, cheered and waved Israeli flags and black banners on the news of Edelstein’s resignation. Activists have accused the speaker and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of exercising a power grab in the name of fighting the pandemic. A week ago, Netanyahu’s justice minister abruptly suspended all court activities two days before Netanyahu was scheduled to begin his own trial on corruption charges.
The parliamentary standoff is only the latest battle in Israel’s ongoing political stalemate during which three elections in a year failed to produce a governing majority. The latest, on March 2, was held just as the epidemic was emerging and attempts to negotiate a workable coalition have been further complicated by the widening crisis.
Netanyahu has become the face of Israel’s aggressive response, appearing on television regularly to announce 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.
While a deal to form an emergency unity government incorporating Likud and the Blue and White party of his rival, former Army chief of staff Benny Gantz, is still considered possible, opponents are also pursuing a strategy of wresting parliamentary power from Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc.
A narrow majority of the Knesset members that were sworn in last week are from parties opposed to the prime minister. Forcing Edelstein, a member of Likud party, from his post is the latest in a string of Knesset power plays by the Gantz-led group.
On Monday, Blue and White party and other opposition parties, succeeded in voting into existence four key parliamentary committees, placing their representatives as chairmen. Representatives of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc collectively boycotted the vote and the formation of all the committees was unanimously approved.
Among the committees created was one to oversee the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, another was the Knesset Finance Committee, possibly the most important parliamentary panel because of its dealings with the state budget and other areas of the country’s economy.
For all of Netanyahu’s terms in office, the committee has been in the hands of United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party that critics said prioritized the needs of that community ahead of other sectors in Israeli society.
Other parliamentary moves are possible. One piece of proposed legislation would make it illegal for a member of the Knesset who is under indictment, as Netanyahu is, to be allowed to form a government. Likud members said such a move would destroy chances for an emergency government to form.
The committees held their first sessions on Wednesday, with members of Likud refusing to attend.
Edelstein’s abrupt shutdown of the session left it unclear when the Knesset would be able to convene for the election of a new speaker, which the court had ordered to occur Wednesday. The Knesset’s legal adviser said that because Edelstein’s resignation would not go into effect until Friday, he was still legally obliged to fulfill the court’s order to hold the vote.
“It would be deeply unfortunate if after serving in his position for seven years, Edelstein’s final act as speaker of the Knesset would be one of contempt of court,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.