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Knesset Speaker adjourns Parliament to maintain Netanyahu’s grip on power

What happened: Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) abruptly adjourned parliament after a few minutes yesterday, denying the opposition – which holds a 61-seat majority – the opportunity to vote to replace him and form a majority on the influential Knesset Arrangements Committee. This morning Edelstein indicated that he would convene the full plenum only next Monday to vote on the Arrangements Committee.

  • The opposition, led by Blue and White, slammed the move as “hijacking” democracy, with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz saying: “Likud lacks a majority in the Knesset – so it has gone ahead and closed it. We won’t allow that. The Knesset is a critical institution at all times, including times of crisis.”
  • The Arrangements Committee is the first committee to be established after the swearing in of a new Knesset, and is then tasked with forming other key committees like Finance, Foreign and Defence, and a new Coronavirus Oversight body.
  • Edelstein and Likud have demanded that the Arrangements Committee consist of only 10 parliamentarians – as per social distancing guidelines – and that it be divided evenly between the government and opposition. Traditionally, the Arrangements Committee is divided proportionally per Knesset seats (i.e. the Knesset majority holds a majority in committee) and is chaired by a representative of the prime ministerial candidate (at present Benny Gantz).
  • The Knesset legal counsel directed the government to allow the convening of parliament. Channel 12 news reported that he said in closed meetings: “The Knesset has died the kiss of death. It no longer exists. This situation is unlike any other democratic state in the western world, which suffers from the Coronavirus no less than we. When we refuse to establish these institutions [Knesset committees], we tell the world that we are a crippled democracy.”
  • President Reuven Rivlin, in a call with Speaker Yuli Edelstein, said yesterday: “A Knesset that is out of action harms the ability of the State of Israel to function well and responsibly in an emergency. We must not let this crisis, as serious as it is, harm our democratic system.”

Context: The parliamentary impasse is a direct consequence of the larger political impasse following the 2 March general election and the Coronavirus crisis.

  • Gantz earlier this week received the mandate to form a government from President Rivlin. Gantz has 28 days to form a coalition, although it is unclear whether he has a realistic path to a government.
  • In the meantime he is working with opposition parties to take control of parliamentary procedure – including replacing the speaker – in order to advance several pieces of legislation aimed at curbing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to remain in power because of his impending criminal trial.
  • Netanyahu and his right-wing allies have blasted the opposition for acting “undemocratically,” adding that Blue and White were considering allowing “terrorist supporters” – his words to describe Joint (Arab) List MKs – to serve as committee chairs.
  • In the background, Likud and Blue and White negotiating teams have been meeting to discuss the option of a national emergency/unity government. It remains unclear what the details of such an arrangement would look like.

Looking ahead: Speculation is rife that the Netanyahu government will impose a full enforceable closure in the coming days, to combat the spread of the Coronavirus.

  • Such a move may complicate the work of the Knesset, despite the fact that the institution is not beholden to emergency decrees issued by the government.
  • A petition by Blue and White to the Supreme Court, forcing Speaker Edelstein to convene the Knesset, may not be necessary given Edelstein’s promise to hold a full vote next Monday.
  • Blue and White-Likud unity talks notwithstanding, it appears that Netanyahu’s strategy is to play for time until Gantz’s mandate to form a government expires in a few weeks.