Israel’s parliament speaker has abruptly resigned, dealing a blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and deepening the country’s political turmoil as the embattled leader tries to cling to power amid a fast-spreading outbreak of the coronavirus and a looming corruption trial.
The resignation of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Wednesday clears the way for the opposition to move forward with efforts in parliament to topple Netanyahu.
But by resigning, Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, also defied a Supreme Court order to hold a vote for his successor, throwing down a new obstacle that could delay the opposition from proceeding with its agenda for several days.
The move drew an angry reaction from the opposition Blue and White party, which now has the backing from a slim parliamentary majority.
“The Israeli parliament belongs to Israel’s citizens, and their elected representatives will follow the laws of the state of Israel and the rulings of its courts. No one is above the law,” Blue and White leader Benny Gantz tweeted.
Edelstein suspended parliamentary activities last week, citing procedural issues and restrictions on large gatherings because of the spread of the coronavirus.
But opponents accused him of blocking the vote on his replacement to shield Netanyahu from legislation that would limit his lengthy rule. Netanyahu was recently indicted on various corruption charges and faces a criminal trial.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ordered him to hold a new vote by Wednesday, with the chief justice accusing him of “undermining the foundations of the democratic process”. While some members of Netanyahu’s Likud party urged him to defy the order, he responded he would “not agree to an ultimatum” and resigned instead.
“The Supreme Court decision destroys the work of the Knesset. The Supreme Court decision marks a harsh and arrogant intervention of the judicial branch in the affairs of the elected legislative branch,” Edelstein, the parliament speaker for the past seven years, charged in his last appearance as the speaker.
He said he would step down so as not to allow Israel to “descend into anarchy” and devolve into civil war. But in his last act, he also said parliament would only reconvene next week, in apparent subversion of the Supreme Court order to hold the vote by Wednesday.
Blue and White said the move put Edelstein in contempt of court and indicated they would file another petition against him to force his hand.
“This is a black day for democracy,” said Eliad Shraga, the chairman of the non-profit Movement for Quality Government in Israel.
The showdown marked the height of an ever-deepening standoff between Netanyahu’s opponents and supporters in the wake of the country’s third inconclusive election in less than a year and against the backdrop of a series of emergency executive measures the caretaker government has enacted to quell the spread of the new virus.
Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as the largest party in the election earlier this month, but along with his smaller religious and nationalist allies, won the support of only 58 legislators – leaving his right-wing bloc three seats short of the required majority in parliament. 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.
Israel’s president has given Gantz one month to try to form a new government, and Edelstein’s stalling tactics could cost him valuable time.
Because of deep ideological divisions within the opposition, it appears unlikely that Gantz will succeed in forming an alternative government. But they are unified in their opposition to Netanyahu and they appear determined to cooperate to pass legislation that could prevent Netanyahu from remaining in the prime minister’s post.
Once parliament votes, it is expected to approve Meir Cohen of Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party as Edelstein’s replacement. That would allow them to proceed with their planned legislation, which includes term limits for a prime minister and a ban on indicted politicians, such as Netanyahu, from serving as prime minister.
Blue and White this week already convened several decision-making committees, including one devoted to the coronavirus crisis, that would handle the anti-Netanyahu legislation.
Edelstein’s resignation marked the first time in Israeli history that a Knesset speaker had stepped down.
Netanyahu has called on Gantz to join him in an emergency government devoted to handling the coronavirus crisis together and to avoid the continued political deadlock that would likely force yet another election – one that may not even be possible to carry out given the current state of lockdown and contagion. But with Edelstein’s resignation, the option of unity appeared off the table.
The country has been nearly entirely shut down, with hundreds of thousands put out of work and all but essential movement from the home barred.
New restrictions approved on Wednesday limit all those besides personnel deemed essential from venturing more than 100 metres (328 feet) from their homes, and all places of worship shuttered. In a recent surge, more than 2,170 Israelis have been infected – up from just 100 two weeks ago – with 37 in serious condition. Five elderly Israelis with pre-existing medical conditions have died.
Gantz has pledged to support the government in its effort to combat the virus. But he and his allies have been sceptical about Netanyahu’s power-sharing overtures, concerned that he will not follow through on his promises to cede power in 18 months.
The party accuses Netanyahu and his caretaker government of carrying out undemocratic measures amid the crisis, and using it as cover to cling to power.
Netanyahu has already managed to postpone his own pending criminal trial on serious corruption charges and authorise unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens.
Even amid the health scare, Israelis have taken to the streets and waved black flags to protest against what they consider an assault on Israeli democracy. Netanyahu supporters have held small counter rallies as well.