JERUSALEM – Israel's parliament speaker abruptly resigned Wednesday, dealing a blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and deepening the country's political turmoil as the embattled Israeli leader tries to cling to power amid a fast-spreading outbreak of the coronavirus and a looming corruption trial.
The resignation of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein clears the way for the opposition to move forward with efforts in parliament to topple Netanyahu. But by resigning, Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, also defied a Supreme Court order to hold a vote for his successor, throwing down a new obstacle that could delay the opposition from proceeding with its agenda for several days.
The move drew an angry reaction from the opposition Blue and White Party, which now has the backing from a slim parliamentary majority.
“The Israeli parliament belongs to Israel's citizens, and their elected representatives will follow the laws of the state of Israel and the rulings of its courts. No one is above the law,” Blue and White leader Benny Gantz tweeted.
Edelstein suspended parliamentary activities last week, citing procedural issues and restrictions on large gatherings due to the spread of the coronavirus. But opponents accused him of blocking the vote on his replacement to shield Netanyahu from legislation that would limit his lengthy rule. Netanyahu was recently indicted on various corruption charges and faces a criminal trial.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ordered Edelstein to hold a new vote by Wednesday, with the chief justice accusing him of “undermining the foundations of the democratic process.” While some members of Netanyahu's Likud party urged him to defy the order, he responded that he would “not agree to an ultimatum” and resigned instead.
Edelstein, the parliament speaker for the past seven years, called the Supreme Court decision an “arrogant intervention” in the legislative branch. Nonetheless, he said he was stepping down so as not to allow Israel to “descend into anarchy” and devolve into civil war. But in his last act he also said parliament would only reconvene next week, in apparent subversion of the Supreme Court order to hold the vote by Wednesday.
Blue and White said the move put Edelstein in contempt of court and indicated they would file another petition against him to force his hand.
The showdown marked the height of an ever-deepening standoff between Netanyahu's opponents and supporters in the wake of the country's third inconclusive election in less than a year. It also comes against the backdrop of a series of emergency executive measures the caretaker government has enacted to quell the spread of the new virus.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or even death. The virus is highly contagious and can be spread by those showing no symptoms.
As Israel tightened a lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, issued a televised address urging the public to respect the restrictions on movement. In a swipe at Edelstein, he urged politicians to “heed the orders of the courts.”
Rivlin said he was sure the court's order would be honored "and that Israeli democracy will come out stronger from this difficult test period." He called on the leaders of the large parties — Likud and Blue and White — to "find a way to find shared and responsible leadership.”
Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as the largest party in the election earlier this month, but along with his smaller religious and nationalist allies, won only the support of 58 lawmakers — leaving his right-wing bloc three seats short of the required majority in parliament.
Gantz is backed by a slim majority in the newly elected Knesset and has been pushing for the country’s legislature to continue functioning at such a critical time, even without a permanent government in place.
Israel's president has given Gantz one month to try to form a new government, and Edelstein's stalling tactics could cost him valuable time.
Due to deep ideological divisions within the opposition, it appears unlikely that Gantz will succeed in forming an alternative government. But they are unified in their opposition to Netanyahu and appear determined to cooperate to pass legislation that could prevent Netanyahu from remaining in the prime minister's post.
Once parliament votes, it is expected to approve Meir Cohen of Gantz's centrist Blue and White party as Edelstein's replacement. That would allow them to proceed with their planned legislation, which includes term limits for prime minister and a ban on indicted politicians, such as Netanyahu, from serving as prime minister.
Blue and White this week already convened several decision-making committees, including one devoted to the corona crisis, that would handle the anti-Netanyahu legislation.
Edelstein's resignation marked the first time in Israeli history that a Knesset speaker had stepped down.
In a televised address late Wednesday, Netanyahu repeated his calls for Gantz to join him in an emergency unity government devoted to handling the coronavirus crisis together.
“We are one nation, we are one state, and the order of the hour is unity,” he said.
Gantz has pledged to support the government in its effort to combat the virus. But he and his allies have been skeptical about Netanyahu's unity offers, concerned that he will not follow through on his promises to cede power in 18 months.
The country have been nearly entirely shut down, with hundreds of thousands put out of work and all but essential movement from the home barred.
New restrictions approved Wednesday limit all those besides personnel deemed essential from venturing more that 100 meters (yards) from their homes, and all places of worship shuttered. In a recent surge, nearly 2,400 Israelis have been infected — up from just 100 two weeks ago — with 39 in serious condition. Five Israelis, all over the age of 65, with pre-existing medical conditions have died.
The party accuses Netanyahu and his caretaker government of carrying out undemocratic measures amid the crisis, and using it as cover to cling to power.
Follow Aron Heller at www.twitter.com/aronhellerap
Ilan Ben Zion contributed reporting.