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The Plot to Paralyze Israel's Parliament

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein could have stood up to Netanyahu’s henchmen. Instead he humiliated himself and let Israeli democracy take an unprecedented blow

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Israeli legislature last month.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Israeli legislature last month. Credit: Emil Salman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In the history of the Knesset there have been lawmakers who were renowned for their ability to conduct what in parliamentary jargon is called a filibuster. This is a legitimate delaying maneuver that calls for skill in verbal improvisation, strong vocal cords and an iron bladder. This week, a new precedent was set in our troubled democracy – and the person employing this tactic is none other than the legislature’s speaker.

Yuli Edelstein, who was re-elected to his post when the 21st Knesset convened in April 2019, is hunkering down in his office while clinging to flimsy and ridiculous excuses. Trying to add a statesmanlike veneer to his abject conduct, he is in fact betraying his mission and the trust that was placed in his hands, as he giving a hand to a Balfour Street-concocted plot to paralyze parliament for as long as possible. The idea is to delay selection of his replacement (which is ultimately inevitable), since that will be followed by legislation preventing an indicted prime minister from serving, as well as the introduction of vitally needed oversight of the government during the gravest health and economic crisis to embroil the state since its establishment.

Will Israel's cyber spies let Bibi use coronavirus to kill democracy?Credit: Haaretz

The effective emissaries of the prime minister are Ze’ev Elkin and Yariv Levin, two silent and seasoned henchmen. The first one is sophisticated as a desert fox, while the second is as wily as a street cat. They tackle Edelstein, hemming him in, suffocating him. He could have risen to the challenge and decided otherwise, even if it is contrary to what the electoral base of the Likud’s boss expects. Instead, he chose to shrivel up.

We’ve had Knesset speakers who went against their parties at times of crisis, against a parliamentary majority or against a prime minister. For some, it meant the end of their career. The last one was elected president, specifically because of his statesmanlike behavior. Edelstein lacks even the humility of someone who is sitting where he is because of a relatively new amendment to the law, in which a speaker remains in his post until a new one is elected.

Edelstein also made a mockery of himself in promoting a “compromise” to which the epithet “shameful” would be too complimentary. He proposed setting up a Knesset Arrangements Committee (which manages Knesset procedures) on an equal-representation basis, half of the members coming from Likud and half from Kahol Lavan. If the right wing-Haredi bloc had won 61 Knesset seats would he also have made such a proposal?

Moreover, the speaker is following the Health Ministry’s guidelines like a technocrat, in the meantime fulfilling the wishes of Elkin and Levin (i.e. of Netanyahu). The ministry forbade committee meetings attended by more than 10 MKs. The Knesset and its speaker are sovereign and can decide otherwise. This decision imposes an artificial deadlock, one that spits in the faces of the majority of voters, whose democratic representation will in practice be skewed. Why not hold debates in which some participants are on video conference, just as meetings of cabinet members and their director generals are being held now? Instead, another excuse is invoked in claiming that Knesset rules do not allow this. With one quick vote this could be changed today.

It’s possible that Edelstein is doing this at the behest of the outgoing prime minister. It’s possible that these are his own positions. In any case, the humiliation he is bringing on himself is greater than the one heaped upon him by Netanyahu and family at different points in time. Making a mockery of oneself in a way that tramples the sacred ethos of someone elected to protect the dignity and status of the legislature – it doesn’t get any lower than that.

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