Analysis |

Netanyahu Dispatches His Mercenaries to Thrash Israel's Top Court

Amid Israel's constitutional crisis, Knesset speaker sinks to new lows and Benny Gantz faces the greatest dilemma of his life

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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A protest outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem against the 'assault on democracy', Thursday, March 19, 2020.
A protest outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem against the 'assault on democracy', Thursday, March 19, 2020.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky,AP
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Yuli Edelstein will end his seven year tenure as Knesset Speaker with a mark of disgrace and a tainted biography. He will go down in history as the first Knesset speaker – and hopefully the last – whose conduct was deemed by Israel’s High Court of Justice as “undermining the foundations of democracy,” and “damaging the Knesset's status as an independent authority, as well as the principle of peaceful transfer of power.”

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70Credit: Haaretz

Edelstein, who has demonstrated statesmanship, respect and courtesy through the vast majority of his term, is about to end it on a sour and shameful note. In its ruling on Monday, the High Court made sure to compliment Edelstein on his performance until now, but the compliment only reinforces the disgrace.

The High Court ruled unanimously on Monday that Edelstein, who has barricaded himself in his seat, must convene the parliament by Wednesday to hold a vote on electing a new speaker. The ruling was made just an hour and a half after he refused to do so.

The justices’ swift and determined ruling will fuel right-wing inciters against the judicial system – Netanyahu’s cronies, for whom Edelstein knowingly or naively became a pawn at this stage of the political game.

Edelstein stubbornly refused to convene the Knesset, even though the High Court made it clear where its ruling was heading. Edelstein stuck to his bewildering stance, bringing shame upon himself.

Knesset protocols allow the Knesset speaker some flexibility in setting the date for the vote to choose a new Knesset speaker, until the government is sworn in. Therefore, Edelstein’s official stance may have been somewhat understandable, though barely. But one would expect that the person holding the second most important statesman-like position in the country, after the president – who he serves as a replacement to – to know better.

Edelstein noted numerous instances in which a Knesset speaker was elected many days after the Knesset was sworn in, while ignoring the current chaos, not to mention the fact that a solid majority of those representing the public are demanding his immediate replacement. And of course, he also overlooked the fact that he does not serve as Knesset speaker as someone who received the public’s vote of confidence, but as someone who holds his position through sheer inertia.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in the Knesset, January 12, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwingenberg

Grasping at Knesset protocols while defying a majority of 61 seats out of 120 lawmakers is pathetic at best and everything Supreme Court President Esther Hayut wrote in her ruling at worst. Edelstein, once a courageous Zionist warrior in the Soviet Union, turned into a petty politician this week. He’ll emerge from all of this with his reputation shattered. If he still had plans to replace President Reuven Rivlin once he retires, he can probably now scrap them.

The High Court’s resounding ruling was the final chord struck on a day that may go down in memory as another step in Israel's deterioration from a strong democracy that survived countless crises, wars and the assassination of a prime minister to the abyss of dictatorship.

While Edelstein is digging his own political grave, and forcing the High Court to intervene to restore what is left of Israeli democracy, Netanyahu’s soldiers have already positioned themselves in the center and started shooting, with the High Court – the easiest target, and the one saving them from themselves on a daily basis – in their crosshairs.

To hear Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev rudely and ignorantly argue in the Knesset about “the Jewish minority” that established a common cause with “the Arab minority,” is simply shocking. Read the manifesto of hatred by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, a dreary technocrat with incipient attributions of fascism whose blandness is more frightening even than Regev’s raucousness, and tremble. Look at the Twitter post of the lawless thug known as “the minister of justice,” who recommends the Knesset speaker respond “No,” without explaining his reasons for doing so, to a High Court ruling, and remove your face mask for a gulp of fresh air to quell your nausea.

Levin and Amir Ohana are at least consistent: The former went into politics in order to realize his dream of destroying Israel’s fine justice system. The latter, let’s recall, declared on his first day on the job as justice minister that “not every verdict has to be respected.”

It’s the prime minister’s silence in the face of all this hate speech that cries out to the heavens. Defendant No. 1, who stands charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, didn’t bother to issue even a limp, general, insincere call to respect the High Court. He doesn’t have to. His democracy storm troopers express his will very clearly, and presumably his instructions as well.

Only two important figures in Likud played a different tune. MK Gideon Sa’ar was the first to denounce his party colleagues’ savaging of the Hight Court, soon followed by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. Social media was filled with gratitude for their “courageous act.” This is Israel today; this is the face of Benjamin Netanyahu’s wicked regim. Saying that the rulings of the High Court of Justice should be respected is considered an act of heroism.

What was once the province of the furthest fringes of the messianic extreme right is now the mainstream of the Israeli government, all in the name of the prime minister’s desire to evade justice.

Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz at a Kahol Lavan meeting in the Knesset, December 9, 2019Credit: Ohad Zwingenberg

Edelstein’s response to the High Court made it clear that he is continuing to stand his ground and to humiliate himself. His position is just barely defensible. The Knesset regulations do give him some flexibility in setting a date for voting for his replacement as speaker – until the new government is sworn in. But to cling to his post, in defiance of the will of 61 Knesset members, is pathetic at best. He’ll finish the ordeal with his hands on his head, his reputation in shreds and his chance of being president, or Likud’s next chairman, significantly reduced.

Netanyahu’s silence doesn’t only serve him, beyond the fact that he’s a greater danger to the state than any virus. Who will he call on for help if the Knesset passes laws prohibiting a criminal defendant from serving as, and perhaps even from running for, prime minister? The High Court of Justice, of course. After all, that’s where he runs, quick as a bunny, every time he doesn’t get what he wants. When he requested a “public” pre-indictment hearing, when he was mad at the Central Elections Committee, and in connection to myriad personal and partisan matters.

When he stays silent and lets his hired guns riot in the streets like anarchists, he consciously and directly helps to send the following message: The High Court lends a hand to a state takeover by Arab “terror supporters,” otherwise known as the elected representatives of the Joint List. No other interpretation is possible. To his hotheaded supporters, not only in Likud but also in the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism, it’s an explicit call to break the law, to violate court rulings, and if the need arises, to surround the Supreme Court building with burning torches and imprison the justices within it.

Benny Gantz faces the dilemma of his life, the kind of which even the worst battles of his military career never posed to him. On the one hand, he can choose to enter the government with around half of his Kahol Lavan party’s Knesset members in order to physically obstruct the bulldozer threatening the foundations of democratic rule (and to put himself in danger, in the minority, in the face of the capacious bag of tricks that is Netanyahu, a person who would find it hard to speak the truth even with a gun to his head). Or, on the other hand, he can drag the country into a fourth election, after which the Zionist vision is liable to go up in flames, as our very own Nero stands on the roof of his Jerusalem apartment building, playing the violin with hate.

Standing between Gantz and being the prime minister of a less-than-ideal narrow government are two racist MKs in his own party, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser. They keep babbling to their (nonexistent) voters about their sublime vision of a unity government. Strangely, it’s so hard for them to accept a narrow government but they’re willing to crawl to a government of the man who humiliated them both, knowing that he will do anything to break any agreement, on his way to completely corrupting Israeli politics.

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