JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political opponents on Sunday asked Israel’s Supreme Court to force parliament to resume its full activities, despite restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, last week suspended parliamentary activities, preventing the newly elected legislature from choosing a new speaker and forming committees.
Edelstein says the move is merely procedural given the state of emergency in the country and the health ministry guidelines prohibiting large public gatherings. But opponents claim it’s a calculated move aimed at blocking efforts to replace Edelstein and allow the newly elected anti-Netanyahu bloc from pushing through its legislative agenda.
“The Knesset must get back to work at full throttle, both to secure transparency in decision-making and to oversee governmental decisions,” said Avi Nissenkorn, a senior member of the opposition Blue and White party.
He spoke to spoke to journalists outside the Supreme Court ahead of the hearing. “We are here to ask the court to offer us relief, so that we can offer the public relief in turn, by fulfilling our roles as elected officials,” he said.
Israel is facing a growing threat from the coronavirus pandemic, which comes on the heels of the country’s third inconclusive election in less than a year.
Most people only experience minor flu-like symptoms and recover within a few weeks, but the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear well. It can cause severe illness, including pneumonia and even death in some patients, particularly in the elderly and those with underlying health problems.
More than 300,000 people have been infected by the coronavirus worldwide in about 150 countries and the virus has killed more than 13,000 people.
The number of those infected in Israel has multiplied greatly over the past week, reaching 1,071 detected cases so far with 18 patients in serious condition. The country reported its first death over the weekend. With the public largely confined to their homes, the economy in danger and tens of thousands of people losing their jobs, Netanyahu has called for the establishment of an emergency unity government with his rivals. For the first time, the long-time leader even agreed to step down in 18 months as part of such an agreement.
But opposition leader Benny Gantz and his centrist Blue and White party consider the offer insincere and have expressed skepticism over Netanyahu’s power-sharing overtures, concerned that he will not follow through on his promises to cede power.
Gantz and his allies have accused Netanyahu of using the coronavirus crisis as cover to undermine the country’s democratic institutions. With the country in near-shutdown mode, Netanyahu has already managed to postpone his own pending criminal trial and authorize unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens.
Backed by a narrow majority, Gantz, a former military chief, was tasked last week by Israel’s president this week to try to form a new government and has three weeks left to do so. In the meantime, he is trying to push through legislation in parliament that would in effect prevent the long-serving Netanyahu from serving as prime minister in the future. The legislation would impose term limits on the prime minister and bar a politician indicted on criminal charges, like Netanyahu, from being prime minister.
Likud said that if Edelstein, the parliament speaker, is “deposed” it will bring an end to unity negotiations and sentence Israel to yet another election, this time amid a global pandemic. Blue and White retorted that the Likud “ultimatum” proved it was bent on dragging the country into another pointless election.
“Since this country was founded, the speaker of the Knesset has always been elected by a Knesset majority, and this time will be no different,” the party said.
Even amid the health scare, Israelis have taken to the streets to protest what they consider an assault on Israeli democracy. It was amplified Sunday in an op-ed in the Yediot Ahronot daily penned by influential Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari and titled “An Attempted Coup d’État.”
“The coronavirus will ultimately pass, whereas we will have to live the repercussions of decisions that are being made at the current juncture in time for many years to come,” wrote Harari, author of the popular science bestseller “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”
“As long as the Knesset (parliament) isn’t functioning, we are living in a dictatorship,” he added.
Wary of losing his job as speaker, Edelstein has relied on his own legal council to argue that he has discretion on convening parliament, and he has dismissed allegations that he is railroading democratic procedures as “spin.”
But in a formal response to the Supreme Court, Israel’s attorney general said the emergency measures should not prevent parliament from convening and carrying out its duties.
Reporting by Aron Heller