Israel is going through a constitutional crisis


(JTA) — Besides the coronavirus epidemic, Israel has another crisis on its hands. It’s inside the government and only tangentially related to COVID-19.

Here’s the short version: After Israel’s latest election earlier this month — its third in a year — Benny Gantz and his center-left coalition seem closer than ever to garnering enough support to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power, despite another close vote (not to mention an array of obstacles).

But now the speaker of the Knesset, the Jewish state’s parliament, is refusing to allow the customary election for his replacement, even ignoring a Supreme Court order that it be done by Wednesday. The speaker, Yuli Edelstein, is a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party. On Wednesday, Edelstein resigned rather than accede to the Supreme Court order. The resignation does not take effect for 48 hours, which means that a vote on a new speaker cannot be held until next week.

The Supreme Court and Edelstein opponents say he is undermining Israeli democracy because he is suspending parliamentary procedures in order to stay in power. Edelstein and his allies say he is protecting democracy by refusing to subordinate the legislative branch to the judicial branch.

How did Israel get to this point? How is it going to be resolved? What does this have to do with the coronavirus?

For the long version, read on.

Who is the speaker of the Knesset and why should I care?

It’s Israel’s version of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives: It’s the person who presides over the lawmaking body and manages its agenda. The Israeli speaker holds great power to set the direction of the nation’s legislative branch, including which laws are voted on.

One difference from the U.S.: Israel’s government is formed from a Knesset majority, and the parliament also elects the speaker, so its speaker almost always comes from the same party as the prime minister. It’s quite rare, in other words, to have a Trump-Pelosi situation.

Edelstein has served in the role since 2013 and is among the most popular members of Likud, as well as a Netanyahu ally. He has been in the Knesset since the mid-1990s after moving to Israel in 1987 from the Soviet Union, where he had been imprisoned for three years for being a leading Zionist activist.

Didn’t Israel just have an election?

Yes — the March vote was the third in less than a year. That’s the problem.

Elections in Israel typically produce a clear winner who assembles a governing coalition from a Knesset majority. That majority then elects the speaker.

But the balloting in March, as well as in April  and September last year, did not produce a clear winner. Going back to April, it looked like Likud was going to remain in power, so Edelstein ran as speaker unopposed and won. Since then, the Knesset has been deadlocked, but Edelstein has remained in the role, absent a clear successor.

What’s changed now is that the Knesset has a slim anti-Netanyahu (and hence anti-Edelstein) majority led by the centrist Gantz. That majority is really fragmented and has yet to actually form a government. But the anti-Netanyahu camp still wants to put one of its own members in the speaker’s job immediately, so that it can begin to pass laws.

So why don’t they just vote him out?

Because first, Edelstein has to call the vote for his own successor. And he isn’t doing that.

Is he allowed to do that?

Edelstein asserts that he’s following the law and Israel’s political norms. The law says that elections for speaker are supposed to come by the time a coalition government is formed. Beyond that, he says that he gets to decide when to hold the election for speaker.

In other words, no majority coalition, no speaker election.

Edelstein also says that he’s delaying the election in order to pressure Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White into forming a unity government — one that is formed together by the country’s two largest parties.

Last week, Edelstein took the unusual step of suspending Knesset for five days. He said he was doing so to force negotiations toward a unity government.

“I have done, and am doing, everything so that a unity government will form and a fourth round of elections will be prevented,” he wrote on Facebook. “The election of a speaker for the 23rd Knesset at this time, before a government is formed, will completely foreclose any chance of a broad unity government forming.”

But Edelstein’s methods have sparked a fierce backlash. Blue and White has accused him and Netanyahu of an undemocratic power grab.

“Across the globe, parliaments continue to function even in countries with thousands of infected people,” Gantz tweeted on March 18. “Here, Edelstein and Netanyahu decided to just burn the rulebook and erase Israeli democracy. We won’t let that happen.”

Is Blue and White trying to stop Edelstein?

Yes. The party basically said, “We’ll see you in court.”

Blue and White, along with other political parties, petitioned the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue. The court ruled against Edelstein, issuing a unanimous decision on Monday that he must hold elections for his own position by Wednesday while accusing him of harming Israel’s democracy.

Edelstein’s refusal to allow the vote “undermines the foundations of the democratic system,” Chief Justice Esther Hayut wrote in the decision. “It significantly hurts the Knesset’s standing as an independent authority as well as the transfer of power.”

So, will Edelstein hold the vote?

He doesn’t seem like he’s backing down. In a Facebook post Monday night, the speaker sounded defiant.

“I told the Supreme Court this evening — I won’t agree to an ultimatum!” he wrote. “The authority to set the Knesset’s agenda and the order of its discussions is given to the speaker of the Knesset.”

Is there any way for the sides to compromise?

The way forward is unclear.

Blue and White has been accusing Netanyahu and Likud of threatening Israeli democracy for some time. The main reason is that Netanyahu was indicted last year on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. The first prime minister to be indicted while in office, Netanyahu has vowed to fight the charges.

His trial was set to begin last week, but was postponed in the name of social distancing amid the coronavirus crisis. For Blue and White, Edelstein’s actions only strengthen the case that Netanyahu is trying to hang onto power at the expense of Israeli democracy.

Blue and White took charge of key Knesset committees on Monday, and has floated passing a law barring anyone under indictment from serving as prime minister.

“Let’s tell the truth: You don’t care about democracy anymore,” Yair Lapid, Blue and White’s deputy chair, said in a speech on the Knesset floor Monday, addressing Edelstein and Likud. “The prime minister understood that if there’s a democracy here, he’ll go to prison. So you decided that it’s better for there not to be a democracy.”

Netanyahu’s allies, meanwhile, have long complained that the Supreme Court is filled with liberal activist judges who subvert the will of the Knesset, the elected representatives of Israel’s voters, by declaring right-wing laws unconstitutional. For them, Monday’s court ruling only strengthened that case.

“The court has officially taken over the Knesset,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, a Likud lawmaker, wrote Monday on Facebook. “As of today, [it] has made the speaker of the Knesset a rubber stamp, while the judges of the Supreme Court control the Knesset. There isn’t anything like that in any democracy.”

What does this have to do with the coronavirus?

Thanks for the reminder.

Edelstein, as well as Netanyahu, say that a unity government is especially urgent to give Israel all the tools to fight the scourge.

“Benny Gantz, this time is a test of leadership and national responsibility,” Netanyahu tweeted Tuesday. “The citizens of Israel need a unity government that will act to save their lives and their livelihoods. This is not the time for fourth elections.”

Gantz also wrote on Facebook that he “intends to consider all possible ways to establish a unity government that will fight the coronavirus and other challenges.”

The thing is that both men believe they should head the government, and neither is giving in.

But the pandemic is only one of the many ways that Israel’s current political situation is unprecedented.The nation has never had two elections in a row, let alone three. It has never had a sitting prime minister under indictment. It has never had such a fierce dispute over the election of a Knesset speaker.

So there’s no playbook now. The court gave Edelstein a Wednesday deadline. It won’t take long to see what happens.

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