Israeli parliament (Knesset) speaker Yuli Edelstein, on a state visit to Paris, France, May 2018. (Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images)

Resignation of Israel’s Parliament Speaker Threatens Netanyahu Tenure

The move could pave the way for the passage of legislation barring the caretaker prime minister from continuing in his capacity

In a dramatic move, the speaker of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, on Wednesday tendered his resignation – a development that could spell the end of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decade-plus-long tenure.

Yuli Edelstein’s shock announcement followed a Supreme Court ruling requiring him by day’s end to call a vote that would almost certainly have seen him replaced, a scenario he has been accused of trying to delay through undemocratic means.

In a speech explaining his ostensible rationale for stepping down, Edelstein argued that the court judgment “undermined the foundations” of democracy.

“I will not let Israel [descend into] anarchy. I will not give my support to a civil war,” he said, later adding that he refused to abide by the judicial order “because it goes against my conscience.”

Following his resignation – which only takes effect in 48 hours – Edelstein closed the legislature until next Monday, prompting a warning from parliament’s legal adviser that the soon-to-be-former speaker could be held in contempt of court.

“This is a very serious precedent in which a public official violates an order from the Supreme Court, and even more so when this refers to the head of the legislative branch,” Dr. Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, wrote in a statement provided to The Media Line.

“This is a grave violation of the rule of law,” he elaborated. “If the speaker of the Knesset was really interested in ‘an honorable exit’ while also avoiding the violation of a court order, he could – and still can – declare that he is unable to fulfill his role. In that case, [an existing parliamentary committee] could exercise its authority… and appoint the most senior [lawmaker to] immediately begin serving as the Knesset’s interim speaker.”

Edelstein had already come under fire last week for briefly shuttering the Knesset, a decision he attributed to the failure of his Likud party and the rival Blue and White list – led by former military chief Benny Gantz – to agree on the formation of a so-called national unity government. However, critics perceived the maneuver as a political ploy aimed at preventing Edelstein’s removal and stalling votes on bills to prohibit an indicted prime minister from either continuing to serve in the post or from forming a new coalition.

The latter’s actualization would effectively oust Netanyahu, whose trial on corruption charges in three separate cases was scheduled to begin two weeks ago but was postponed until May after the judiciary was placed on emergency footing due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Netanyahu has for years accused the courts and state attorneys of conducting a witch-hunt against him and has taken steps to diminish the legal fraternity’s power. Some of his fellow Likud legislators and other political allies had called on Edelstein to ignore the Supreme Court, which they purport maintains an overall left-wing bias.

Notably, Edelstein wrote in his response to the judges that he “regrets that [they] had decided… in an unprecedented way to meddle in the Knesset’s work.”

His bombshell announcement comes on the heels of the Knesset’s reconvening on Monday, when Blue and White and its allies wrested control from the Likud of key parliamentary committees.

“Netanyahu’s stranglehold over the Knesset has now ended since the speaker’s role is extremely important. The person in that position sets the Knesset’s agenda and, crucially, can delay votes from taking place in the plenum,” Dr. Galia Golan, professor emerita at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former chair of its Political Science Department, explained to The Media Line.

“The [majority bloc] basically rules the legislature as there are few checks on the balance of power which is unlike the situation in many other democracies,” she continued. “As such, there will probably be a bill passed that prohibits Netanyahu from remaining in his post. This is presumably the reason Edelstein closed the Knesset.”

Whereas Golan denounced Edelstein’s politicking as inconsistent with political norms and dubious from a legal standpoint, she nevertheless noted that, historically, a new Israeli speaker has been chosen only after the creation of a permanent government.

Though Gantz holds the official mandate to form the next coalition, he does not have a clear path for doing so. The prospect of him leading a minority government backed from the outside-looking-in by the primarily Arab Joint List has fizzled out. Two Blue and White lawmakers have nixed such an eventuality, which effectively wipes out Gantz’s otherwise razor-thin, and highly fragile, one-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset.

Additionally, there appear to be unbridgeable differences between the bloc’s nationalist politicians and those within the Joint List that oppose Jewish self-determination.

Disunity within Gantz’s own political house could also be impeding the creation of a unity government, a scenario the Blue and White leader is reportedly still contemplating.

“Some members of the list want Gantz to join a Netanyahu-led coalition – at least for the time being – in order to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. They are warning that the current dealings in the Knesset [preclude] this possibility,” Dr. Avi Bareli, professor of the political history of Israel at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told The Media Line. “But there are others pressing Gantz to move forward with the legislation to remove Netanyahu, so the head of Blue and White may be stuck in the middle.”

Bareli emphasized that Netanyahu’s present options seem limited to repeated overtures to Gantz to join forces. “It seems that the route Likud has chosen is to court Blue and White while simultaneously biding time. After all, Netanyahu is still caretaker prime minister.”

Nevertheless, Edelstein’s resignation was a reminder of how quickly political dynamics can change. The principle perhaps applies even more so to a country in which three consecutive inconclusive elections have been held, and that has been without a formal government since December – of 2018.

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