JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli parliament will select a new speaker on Thursday after the Supreme Court forced the vote amid an unprecedented challenge to Israeli democracy and as the country is battling against the rapid spread of coronavirus.
A new speaker from the opposition Blue and White party will deal a blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he tries to cling to power while averting a looming corruption trial.
Outgoing Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein resigned in protest Wednesday. A close Netanyahu ally, Edelstein had refused to comply with a high court order to convene the plenum for a vote on his successor the same day, angrily accusing the court of an “arrogant intervention” in the legislative branch. Even in stepping down, Edelstein tried to stall the vote for several days, as his resignation would take effect 48 hours later.
The court responded by stripping Edelstein of his authorities even before his resignation became official, and ruled overnight that the Knesset’s longest-serving member, Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz, can act as interim speaker for the sake of the vote.
In her ruling, Chief Justice Esther Hayut lambasted Edelstein for his “unprecedented violation of the rule of law,” warning that it posed a dire threat to the rule of law.
“Until today, we have never seen a case in state history of a ruling figure openly and brazenly defying a court order by saying his conscience wouldn’t allow it,” she announced. “If this is how a person of authority behaves, why should the citizen behave otherwise?”
The confrontation comes just as the government enacted new restrictions requiring Israelis to almost completely stay at home, under threat of fines. In a televised address, Netanyahu warned that if citizens didn’t obey the stringent guidelines, a total lock-down would be imposed.
Nearly 2,500 Israelis have been infected by the new virus, with 41 in serious condition. Six elderly Israelis with preexisting medical conditions have died and there are growing fears that Israel’s medical system will eventually be overwhelmed.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or even death. The virus is highly contagious and can be spread by those showing no symptoms.
Netanyahu’s caretaker government has passed a series of emergency executive measures to try and quell the spread of the new virus. They have included authorizing unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens and a slowdown of court activity that forced the postponement of Netanyahu’s own pending criminal trial on serious corruption charges.
The global pandemic erupted in Israel immediately on the heels of the country’s third inconclusive election in less than a year and at the height of an ever-deepening standoff between Netanyahu’s opponents and supporters.
It came to a boil with Edelstein, a former Soviet dissident and longtime lawmaker, who cited restrictions on large gatherings due to the spread of the coronavirus in suspending parliamentary activity. But opponents accused him of clinging to his seat even though he lacked majority support in order to shield his party leader Netanyahu from legislation that would limit his lengthy rule.
Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as the largest party in the March 2 election, but along with his smaller religious and nationalist allies, won only the support of 58 lawmakers — leaving his right-wing bloc three seats short of the required majority in parliament.
Opposition leader Benny Gantz is backed by a slim majority in the newly elected Knesset and has been pushing for the country’s legislature to continue functioning at such a critical time, even without a permanent government in place.
Due to deep ideological divisions within the opposition, it appears unlikely that Gantz will succeed in forming an alternative government. But the bloc is unified in their opposition to Netanyahu and appear determined to cooperate to provide government oversight and pass legislation that could prevent Netanyahu from remaining in the prime minister’s post.
Parliament is expected to approve Meir Cohen of Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party late Thursday as the new Knesset speaker. That would allow the bloc to proceed with planned legislation that includes a ban on indicted politicians, such as Netanyahu, from serving as prime minister.
With the number of coronavirus cases rising, and the tide turning against him in parliament, Netanyahu reiterated his call late Wednesday for Gantz to join him in an emergency unity government devoted to battling the virus crisis, despite the bad blood between them
“I know that there is considerable unrest in all parts of the people, in both parts of the people. I say as clearly as possible: We must put an end to this,” he said. “We are one people. We are one state and the order of the day is unity.”
Gantz, who has pledged outside support to government efforts to combat the virus, has thus far rebuffed Netanyahu’s unity offers, deeming them insincere. His allies are concerned that Netanyahu is manipulating the crisis for his own means and will not carry out his promises to relinquish power within 18 months.
But following a live televised plea from Israel’s largely ceremonial President Reuven Rivlin late Wednesday, the two spoke by phone and instructed their teams to resume talks.
“Find a way to present a shared leadership, a responsible leadership, for Israeli society in its time of crisis,” Rivlin appealed. “We simply do not have an alternative. Join together for the good of the Israeli people. If not now, when?”
Reporting by Aron Heller
Image: Israelis hold national flags during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the national parliament in Jerusalem, Monday, March 23, 2020 (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)