Knesset Speaker Resigns, Subverts High Court Ruling to Hold Vote on His Replacement

President Rivlin says it is 'unthinkable' to defy the court after justices order defiant Speaker Edelstein to allow Gantz-led majority to vote on his replacement

Edelstein speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem, January 12, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Israel's Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, resigned Wednesday, following a High Court ruling requiring that he permit a vote on his replacement by Wednesday. 

In his resignation speech, Edelstein charged that "the High Court's decision undercuts the foundations of democracy." According to Knesset protocols, Edelstein's resignation will come into effect in 48 hours.

The Knesset won’t be able to vote on a new Knesset speaker until then. Edelstein had refused to have the Knesset convene for a vote until Monday.

"I'm not interested in being in contempt of the court. Respect the dictates of my conscience," Edelstein said. "My replacement will be able to do as they please in 48 hours." 

But Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said that Edelstein's submission of his resignation "does not allow him to refrain from complying with the ruling" that he hold a vote on his replacement. Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon said, however, that without special instructions from the High Court, the Knesset would not be able to convene. 

Yinon told the High Court that a plan that would authorize the Knesset Arrangements Committee to hold a vote on a new speaker on Wednesday could not be adopted, as it violates Knesset protocol. The interim speaker, he added, could only begin his or her term on Friday.

In response to Edelstein's decision, President Reuven Rivlin said, "We are witnessing a severe clash between the judicial authoritiy and the legislative authority… But I know that the vast majority of the Israeli leadership knows court orders must be obeyed, and that it is unthinkable to defy it."

He added, "Even if one believes the court has erred...we must follow the rules of the democratic game. Now that the Knesset speaker resigned, I’m sure democracy will be respected and emerge stronger from this."

He also called on politicians to "Find a way to form a united leadership for Israeli society, undergoing tough times. Join forces for the Israeli people.”

By resigning, Edelstein achieves two things: First, in the battle over  the independence of the Knesset, he will not be allowing the justices to set the Knesset's agenda. Secondly, by resigning, he shortens the amount of time that the center-left bloc headed by Benny Gantz has to pass legislation that would bar Netanyahu from serving as prime minister while under indictment before Gantz's current mandate to form a government expires.

As the Knesset member with the longest tenure in parliament, Labor Party leader Amir Peretz will replace Edelstein until the vote on a permanent speaker takes place, and will begin his term on Friday at 11 A.M. Early next week, Peretz will hold a vote on a permanent replacement. Legislative sources have indicated that Peretz may eventually be given the nod as permanent speaker, particularly in the event of a Gantz-Netanyahu unity government.

President Reuven Rivlin and Speaker Yuli Edelstein in the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 17, 2020.
Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson's Office

The plans were spelled out by Knesset Arrangements Committee chairman Avi Nissenkorn of Kahol Lavan. For his part, Edelstein called Peretz on Wednesday to discuss the transition.

'No contempt of the court'

On Wednesday afternoon, Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut gave consideration to statements from Edelstein and his legal advisers in connection with a petition filed by the non-profit group New Contract. The organization has been seeking to have Edelstein convene the Knesset by the end of the day Wednesday. Contempt of court provisions give the High Court authority to compel anyone to comply with a court decisio by imposing a fine or through imprisonment.

Hayut told the court: “Absurdly, as soon as the Knesset speaker resigned there is no longer any contempt of the court because he is no longer under obligation to carry out [the ruling]. It could have all happened more elegantly, but oh well.”

Following Edelstein's resignation, the court held another hearing but it ended with no immediate ruling. 

Kahol Lavan chose not to ask the High Court to hold Edelstein in contempt of the court after Yinon made it clear to Arrangements Committee chairman Nissenkorn that he should begin hearings on Wednesday on the selection of a new speaker.

Following Edelstein's resignation announcement, Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz met with him and told him that he was obligated to hold a vote on the selection of a Knesset speaker. Gantz also tweeted: "The Israeli Knesset belongs to Israeli citizens, and elected officials there will abide by the laws of the State of Israel and the decisions of the court. No one is above the law."

Following Edelstein's announcement, the chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel,  Eliad Shraga, said the "Knesset speaker did a terrible thing by paralyzing the Knesset, just to buy himself another 48 hours. We are now approaching the High Court, asking for additional measures. This is a black day for democracy."

Shortly after Edelstein announced his resignation, a motorcade of hundreds vehicles began making its way toward the Knesset in protest against the speaker. The demonstrators called on the leaders of Kahol Lavan to act to convene the Knesset to vote on a new Knesset speaker before the end of the day. The protesters vowed to stay outside the Knesset building all day if necessary.

The Soviet-born Knesset speaker was a prominent pro-Zionist activist in the country of his birth and spent time in a labor camp for his activities, which included efforts to teach Hebrew when Soviet authorities were seeking to stamp out Jewish identity.

"As someone who paid a personal price, and was jailed for years in order to live in the State of Israel, I don't need to explain myself. As a Zionist, Jewish democrat who has fought against backward regimes and as the Knesset speaker, I won't allow Israel to deteriorate into anarchy," Edelstein said in his resignation speech.

The High Court ruling ordering him to convene parliament by Wednesday and hold a vote to elect a new speaker "isn't based on the law, but on a radical unilateral interpretation," he said.

"The High Court's decision contradicts the Knesset protocols and is destroying the Knesset's functionality and constitutes blatant and vile meddling by the judicial system in matters that are under the purview of the legislature. This decision is causing unprecedented damage to the Knesset and the people's sovereignty," Edelstein said, calling it “grave and wrong” and an expression of "a dangerous cultural decline.”

"I won’t take part in a civil war, and will act in accordance with [the late Likud leader] Menachem Begin's legacy. Israeli citizens currently need a unity government. These days a pandemic endangers us from the outside, while internal rifts are destroying us from the inside. We all have to rise above this and unite. I hereby resign from my position as Knesset speaker.”

Likud lawmaker Shlomo Karhi said Edelstein's decision to resign is "unfortunate because he chairs the legislature. For the sake of statesmanship and a functioning regime, he should have told the High Court it has no authority to rule regarding the Knesset. Yuli, you can still retract your resignation. Otherwise we will all pay a hefty price in the future."

On Monday, the High Court of Justice ruled that Edelstein had to  convene parliament by Wednesday to hold a vote on electing a new speaker, after he had refused to do so.

"Interference here is necessary," the justices wrote in their ruling, "for without it, the democratic fabric of life and the foundations of our parliamentary system would be compromised."

The court directed Edelstein to allow the Knesset to debate the selection of a new speaker by Wednesday after several petitions were filed by Gantz's party and political groups.

The ruling was in response to Edelstein's refusal to convene the parliament to address the issue. But for his part, Edelstein took the position that the election of a new speaker would hinder efforts by Likud and Kahol Lavan to form a unity government.