“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.”
– Haaretz Weekly Ep. 71: Bibi’s shameful, sinful ‘corona coup’ suffers massive setback
Haaretz Weekly Ep. 71Haaretz
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.