Top Likud Ministers Change Tune on High Court Ruling, Back Vote on Knesset Speaker

Critical of justices' decision, senior members of Netanyahu's government still warn of serious damage to Israel's 'constitutional regime' if Edelstein does not give parliament a shot at replacing him

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Jerusalem, March 2020.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Jerusalem, March 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Senior ministers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party called on Tuesday on Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, also of Likud, to honor a High Court of Justice ruling calling on him to allow Israeli lawmakers to vote on his replacement.

This follows harsh criticism by some other Likud members after justices issued their ruling on Monday. Some of them, including Justice Minister Amir Ohana, explicitly urged Edelstein to defy the court, deepening a constitutional crisis exacerbated in the fallout from Israel's undecisive March 2 election, the country's third in a year.

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"Contrary to the position of the Speaker, contrary to my position, the High Court justices unanimously decided that the Knesset should elect a permanent Speaker by tomorrow [Wednesday]," Minister Tzach Hanegbi said. "Despite all the frustration, the decision of the judiciary must be upheld. Ignoring it will seriously damage our constitutional regime."

Ze'ev Elkin said that while the High Court had "violated the balance of powers," its decision must be respected. "Even though I think this intervention is wrong and illegitimate, and does not conform to the state of the law, this is no time to go into a crisis between the authorities," Elkin said in an interview on Army Radio.

Minister Ze'ev Elkin, from Netanyahu's Likud party, in Ramat Gan, Israel, January 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Hanegbi, who heads the Agriculture Ministry, and Elkin, minister for Jerusalem affairs and environmental protection, are joining Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Likud parliamentarian Gideon Sa'ar, who is known as a Netanyahu rival, in supporting the court's decision.

Despite also voicing criticism of the ruling, on Monday Erdan said "we must respect the ruling or else resign ourselves to anarchy," while Sa'ar stressed that calls not to accept a direct court ruling are "unacceptable."

Other ministers and the Likud party itself were not as conciliatory, with a few calling the decision a "coup," rhetoric that has been used by Netanyahu supporters throughout the groundhog election campaign to describe an alleged takeover of Israel's legislature by judiciary authorities.

Israel's High Court issued the ruling on Monday in response to several petitions filed by Benny Gantz's centrist alliance Kahol Lavan and other political groups.

"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."

Edelstein had refused to convene the parliament to address the issue, on the basis that electing a new speaker would hinder efforts by Likud and Kahol Lavan to form a unity government.

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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