At half-past three in the afternoon on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, Israel came the closest it’s ever been to a total failure of parliamentary democracy. A majority of the Knesset members who had been elected just 16 days earlier and sworn in only on Monday, demanded an immediate vote on appointing a new Knesset speaker and empaneling committees to oversee the government’s actions in this moment of acute global crisis. But Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the former Knesset, who still has control of parliamentary procedure until a new speaker is elected, adjourned the Knesset until next Monday.
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By next Monday, Israel may well be under total shutdown due to the coronavirus. In charge will be a government that was inaugurated way back in May 2015 on the basis of an election that took place five years ago this week, and a prime minister who has failed in three consecutive elections over the last 12 months to win a majority and the Knesset’s confidence. Netanyahu has been a caretaker prime minister leading an interim government for 15 months now. And this is now a minority government shutting down the country and ordering draconian invasions of privacy while its representatives prevent any form of parliamentary oversight, and while Benny Gantz has already been endorsed by a majority of MKs to form a new government.
Israel has never in its history been even close to a coup. In the early months of the state’s existence, senior members of the Irgun underground urged their leader Menachem Begin to take power by force. Begin, whether because he knew he would be crushed by the Haganah’s far superior military units or because he truly believed in democracy, rejected these ideas and resigned himself to 29 years of irrelevancy in opposition under a domineering Mapai (Labor) government.
In 1967, as the generals of the IDF pressured Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to stop hesitating and give the order to attack the troops that Egypt was amassing on the southern border, Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon muttered to his colleagues in the General Staff that they should lock the cabinet ministers in and announce to the nation that the military had taken control. But none of the other generals took him seriously.
Ten years later, in 1977, when Begin, after eight consecutive defeats, finally won an election, there were those in Likud who feared that Labor had gotten too used to being in office to ever relinquish power. But the government changed hands in orderly fashion. For all the limits to its democracy, Israel’s elections and parliamentary process have worked since the first election in 1949. Labor has held power for half the time, Likud and the short-lived Kadima party for the rest. Governments have come and gone. Prime ministers have been held to account and in Ehud Olmert’s case, even gone to prison. The system has worked.
Since the April 2019 election, the first one in Israeli political history not to yield a new government, the system has been stuck. Today, it is perilously close to breaking down. For the first time, a majority of newly-elected Knesset members have been blocked by an outgoing minority government from exerting in parliament the will of the voters.
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Likud claims that this is just a temporary, coronavirus-induced hiccup. The Knesset will soon be reconvened and anyway, Gantz may have received the mandate but he doesn’t currently seem to have a coalition, so Netanyahu’s is the only government, and it’s busy dealing with the pandemic. Besides, they argue, the opposition only wants to take control of the Knesset to pass “personal laws” targeting an indicted prime minister.
Edelstein protests that he is only carrying out the will of the public, which he has divined as being in favor of “unity,” and therefore he is taking refuge in a contested interpretation of the bylaws to delay a vote that would “interfere” with the negotiations he claims to be mediating between Likud and Kahol Lavan.
Whether or not these protestations are sincere, or, as looks much more likely, they are a campaign of obstruction by Netanyahu’s proxies to keep him in power, they of course have no merit. The minority coalition has no business suspending parliament, no matter what the majority plans on doing with its votes. Sixty-one Knesset members isn’t an incidental majority and it doesn’t need to support a coalition to carry out its parliamentary business. Israelis in their elections don’t vote for a government, a coalition or a prime minister. They vote for Knesset parties and those parties’ members are the sole sovereigns of democratic power in Israel.
For now, Edelstein, at Netanyahu’s behest, has suspended Israeli democracy for the first time in its history. Potentially, Israel is now facing its biggest constitutional crisis ever. This may prove to be a brief hiatus that will either be ended by the Supreme Court on Thursday or on Monday, if the Knesset is indeed reconvened then. But for now – and the clock is ticking – Israeli democracy has been shut down.