“Yesterday, March 25, 2020, a date which will live in infamy, Israeli democracy and rule of law were suddenly and deliberately attacked by the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, acting on behalf of a criminal defendant, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
So might a Franklin Delano Roosevelt describe Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s stunning refusal on Wednesday to adhere to a High Court of Justice injunction ordering him to convene the Knesset in order to vote on his replacement. Never before has such a senior public official – Edelstein is second in line to President Rivlin in the state’s official hierarchy – thumbed his nose so directly at Israel’s judicial system, sparking an unprecedented constitutional crisis in the midst of the coronavirus crisis which is plaguing both Israel and the world.
There’s no direct analogy, of course, with the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor that spurred FDR to make his famous “infamy speech” while asking Congress to approve a declaration of war against Japan – other than in the potential if not existential threat that Edelstein’s move poses to Israel’s future. Edelstein’s impudent insurgence was another one in a lengthening list of developments that were hitherto considered unthinkable. It can’t happen here, Israelis would have said, but increasingly, it seems, it can and does.
Edelstein’s decision to resign rather than obey the court made him an instant hero in the eyes of Netanyahu’s minions. Some political analysts said Edelstein’s defiance is an opening bid in his campaign to ultimately replace Netanyahu as leader of Likud. It is sad evidence of the State of Israel’s ruling party that its potential leaders must prove themselves ready, willing and able to defy the law and undermine democracy.
Edelstein’s defiance sparked renewed petitions to the High Court to get it to enforce its original ruling, which set Wednesday as a final deadline for a Knesset vote on a new speaker. It spurred President Reuven Rivlin to address the nation and to call for “compliance” by one and all. Rivlin spoke of the threat of coronavirus, which is infecting more and more Israelis at an exponential rate, but it is the threat to Israeli democracy that elicited his warning that continued disavowal of the law would lead to “destruction of our house.” No less.
In practical terms, the brouhaha may turn out to be nothing more than a flash in the pan. Even if the High Court refrains from ordering the Knesset to meet its original Wednesday deadline, Edelstein’s resignation will take effect after 48 hours; his replacement, by virtue of seniority, will be none other than Labor Party leader Amir Peretz. Whether Peretz presides over only one Knesset session in which a new speaker is chosen or remains at his post as speaker is anyone’s guess, at this point.
Nonetheless, Edelstein’s insurrection was another landmark in the steady degradation of Israeli democracy; a red line was crossed, battle lines were drawn and seeds of potential civil strife were planted. Although Netanyahu maintained silence, as is his wont – most of his most ardent allies were ultimately left twisting in the wind – he pointedly refrained from standing up for the High Court. He left that task to the president.
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His senior party and cabinet colleagues, however, lauded Edelstein, attacked the High Court and inflamed the fanatic right-wing base to believe that the country’s highest court was acting on behalf of a vast left-wing conspiracy. Expressions of hate and threats of violence flourished on social media.
Edelstein’s mutiny against the Israeli constitution confounded both Likudniks and their rivals. The Knesset speaker has never been counted among the prominent Likud figures who have made it their life mission to undermine Israel’s separation of powers, curtail the court’s authority to review government actions and Knesset laws and to pave the way, in effect, to near-absolute rule by the executive branch.
The outgoing Knesset speaker’s past, after all, is nothing less than illustrious: Soviet refusenik, Prisoner of Zion, hero of Israel. Up until this week, he’d had an admirable present as well: successful politician, Israeli cabinet minister and speaker of the Knesset. Nevertheless, Edelstein’s future will inevitably be dishonorable. He will be remembered as the man who declared mutiny against Israeli democracy and rule of law in the service of the personal interests of Netanyahu, a prime minister but also criminal defendant.
It is unclear, to friends and foes alike, what motivated Edelstein to sully his good name and to sacrifice his hitherto promising career – he was considered potential presidential if not prime ministerial material – in the service of Netanyahu’s never ending quest to avoid accounting for his crimes. It is baffling what warped sense of reality or loyalty could have compelled Edelstein not only to defy the High Court and savagely attack its decision but to actually compare Israel’s widely esteemed judicial body with the totalitarian and murderous Soviet regime that he once so valiantly fought. Even Israel’s worst enemies would hesitate before daring to make such a hideous analogy.
Edelstein’s excuse for refusing to hold a vote on his replacement was outside his purview from the outset: He claimed that it would derail efforts to set up a national unity government. He defied the clear 61-seat Knesset majority led by Benny Gantz and refused to recognize its right to select a new speaker, activate vital Knesset committees or set the parliamentary agenda. It takes considerable mental dexterity to portray his actions, as Edelstein has, as a defense of democracy.
Simply put, Edelstein is refusing to accept the results of the elections or their consequences. He has turned into yet another of Netanyahu’s useful idiots, serving the prime minister’s personal and allegedly criminal interests while waxing idealistic and patriotic. The direct consequences of his actions might be reversed, but not their long-term corrosive effect on Israeli democracy.
One thing’s for sure: If you’re planning on carrying out any kind of putsch or palace revolution, an outbreak of a global pandemic provides the optimal backdrop. Your citizens are cowering terrified in their homes, locked in under curfew. Public attention and media hysteria about the pestilence overshadow your revolution and, no less importantly, no one in the world is paying attention or cares. Netanyahu can deny free speech, lock up his opponents and declare himself Emperor for life the world wouldn’t lift a finger, not even an eyebrow. The international community – and its conscience – are otherwise engaged.