Top Court Rules Speaker Must Convene Knesset to Elect His Successor

High Court of Justice sets Wednesday deadline for speaker after he refused request to hold the vote ■ In his refusal, speaker criticizes 'unprecedented interference' by court in political realm

Jonathan Lis
Netael Bandel
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Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a speech outside his office at the Knesset, January 12, 2020.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a speech outside his office at the Knesset, January 12, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Netael Bandel

Israel's High Court of Justice ruled on Monday that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein must convene the parliament by Wednesday to hold a vote on electing a new speaker after he refused to heed a request to do so.

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

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

These came in response to Edelstein's refusal to convene the parliament to address the issue. According to the Edelstein, electing a new speaker would hinder efforts by Likud and Kahol Lavan to form a unity government.

In order to avoid a ruling on the matter, the court requested inform it on his decision by 9:00 P.M. on Monday. Edelstein refused to do so.

"With all due respect, so long as the court presents me and the Israeli Knesset with an ultimatum to hold the session 'no later than the 25.3.20,' I cannot agree," Edelstein wrote.

"It would mean the Knesset's agenda would be set by the Supreme Court and not by the Speaker of the Knesset, who is entrusted with this duty."

"The court's interference in the judgement of the speaker regarding the Knesset's agenda and to call a vote for his replacement is an unprecedented intercession in the political realm."

He said the court's interference in the matter "would bear a clear political nature, and should the court decide to intervene, it may be perceived as dipping its toes in the political swamp, which would severely hurt the public's trust."

Edelstein said that he will bring the matter of choosing a new speaker to the agenda “as soon as possible,” when all the circumstances justify it, any time from the next few days and “no later than when the Knesset convenes to establish a government.”

Protesters against 'weakening Israel's democracy' outside the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 23, 2020
Protesters against 'weakening Israel's democracy' outside the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 23, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

According to Edelstein, the intervention of the High Court in the issue would allow for the “political exploitation of a difficult moment to pick a Knesset Speaker, who may yet become a ‘speaker of conflict’, who would hurt the work of the Knesset and the government.”

In the court's ruling, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut wrote that “the continued refusal to allow for a full vote in the Knesset for the election of a permanent Knesset speaker undercuts the foundations of the democratic process. He blatantly harms the standing of the Knesset as an independent body as well as the peaceful transfer of power, and as the days since the swearing in of the 23rd Knesset tick by, the validity of [such actions] changes."

There is no escaping the conclusion that in these particular circumstances, this is one of those rare instances that requires the intervention of the court in order to prevent damage to our system of parliamentary government,” the ruling said.

Hayut added that the Knesset by-laws do allow the Knesset speaker to delay voting until the formation of a government, however in court they are of the opinion that “given the fact that this is an acting speaker who presides under the law of continuity,” meaning that he was elected speaker in the previous Knesset, “and given the fact that this a matter that affects him personally, his judgement on the matter is not broad, rather it is exceedingly narrow and limited.” 

According to Hayut, “The Knesset speaker holds this job as ‘a temporary trust’ until the appointment of a permanent speaker and this rare state of affairs certainly influences the scope of authority and consideration that should be given to him, similar to how a transitional government that acts with power given to it through the principle of continuity, is also obligated to act with restraint.”

Hayut pointed out that 61 Knesset members are interested in voting for a new Knesset speaker, and that “intervening in this effort, led by a majority of Knesset members, is a violation of the will of the voters.” 

She also also responded to Edelstein’s claim that replacing the Knesset speaker at this time would harm negotiations for a unity government: “The Knesset speaker’s position that holding an election for a permanent speaker would harm the formation of the government is a causal inversion. The Knesset is sovereign. The Knesset is not ‘the cabinet’s fan club.’”

Earlier on Monday, ministers in Israel's caretaker government slammed the ruling that Edelstein must inform the court on whether he intends to hold the vote, calling the move a "coup."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party said all right-wing parties would boycott Knesset deliberations slated for Monday.

After the court published its request to Edelstein, Justice Minister Amir Ohana tweeted a photo of it and wrote: "Were I Knesset speaker, I would've said: No."

Gideon Sa'ar, who ran against Netanyahu for the Likud leadership ahead of Israel's last election, tweeted that Edelstein "is allowed and should stand up for his stance in the proceedings taking place at the High Court," but stressed that calls not to accept a direct court ruling are "unacceptable."

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin of Netanyahu's Likud party issued a scathing response, saying that "the court has officially taken over the Knesset." Levin harshly criticized what he says is justices' interference in the parliament's activity, saying they "have turned the Knesset speaker into a rubber stamp."

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich said, "During one of the most difficult crises, the Justice system is promoting a coup in Israel. Nothing less."

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan also lashed out at the High Court on Twitter, saying, “The High Court has made a bitter mistake by entering into the political process and the management of Knesset affairs. The Knesset speaker doesn’t need to open a vote due to pressure from the High Court judges and should stick to his guns.”

Erdan backtracked slightly, however, adding, “However, if the High Court passes a ruling forcing an election for a Knesset speaker once unity government negotiations are underway, we must respect the ruling or else resign ourselves to anarchy.”

Kahol Lavan responded in a statement saying: "Democracy is democracy... Respect the majority's verdict and stop harming the state's institutions."

Last week, Edelstein adjourned the Knesset session amid reported talks on a national unity government, effectively postponing all Knesset operations as Israel works to contain an outbreak of the coronavirus.

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