My Hero, Yuli

There once was a children’s song, “My Hero, Zero“.  Never heard it but I assume that it dealt with the simple fact that zero, by itself isn’t worth much. Actually, zero is worth nothing. Yet zero, in the right place and in the right combination, can save the day.

Last week’s politics might lead us to believe that the hero we are looking for is Benny Gantz. After three election campaigns, Gantz abandoned his campaign promise not to sit in a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and agreed to a unity government led by the same Netanyahu for the sake of the country. But, no, Gantz isn’t the hero. After all, joining a unity government when the only real alternative would be forming a minority government with support from the Joint List and then facing elections shortly afterward was far from appealing. Common sense, not heroics, was Gantz’s motivation.

And certainly, neither was Netanyahu the hero of last week’s drama. The only sacrifice that Netanyahu made was at the expense of his Likud ministers who will have to get by with minor ministerial positions or fight for the few plums available. Not to mention the Jewish Home Party, which most likely will be shortchanged by the addition of Gantz’s Israel Resilience faction into the government. The future promise to agree to rotation and hand over the PM chair to Gantz is far off and uncertain, so no real sacrifice for Netanyahu there.

No, in my opinion, the real hero of last week is the past Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, who, with much fortitude and conviction stood up to tremendous pressure to convene the Knesset so that a new Speaker could be chosen before the formation of a new government. Not even the High Court in Israel could budge him. Neither editorials, hectoring by the Press nor petitions had any effect. He stood, much by himself and when there was no other choice, resigned, rather than to violate his conscience.

Counting up, the story, the one many wanted to ignore, is this:

A majority of new MKs, 62 to 58, asked to convene the Knesset so that a vote could be initiated to replace the present Speaker, Yuli Edelstein (Likud), with Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid). Usually, a new permanent Speaker is only chosen after a new government is formed so that the Speaker can be a representative of the new government and work in coordination with it.  While the four parties comprising the bloc of 62 could have theoretically formed a majority government, the composite parts would not be able to agree on much and the resulting government would be inherently unstable. Edelstein believed that predetermining the speaker before the formation of a new government would prevent any possibility of forming a broader unity government and sought to delay the move. He cited his prerogative as per the Knesset bylaws allowing the Speaker to delay the vote. Representatives of the majority bloc turned the High Court which ordered Edelstein to convene the Knesset for the vote. To avoid complying, Edelstein resigned and dismissed the Knesset without holding the vote.

So, by the numbers:

  1. By the Knesset by-laws, there is a direct connection between establishing a new government and the election of a permanent Speaker of the Knesset. The Speaker, historically, has almost always belonged to a coalition that forms the government.
  2. A speaker of the Knesset is elected to the entire term of the Knesset (from election to election)
  3. A Speaker of the Knesset can be replaced by a 3/4 majority (90 votes), and then, only in case that the Speaker’s behavior is incompatible to his position.
  4. Electing a Speaker before forming a government could possibly mean that the government would be at odds with the Speaker and would hamper coordination between the Knesset and the Government.

Adds up that Edelstein thought that the request to hold elections for a permanent Speaker was pre-mature and would be an irritant to any efforts to form a unity government.

As for the High Court, there was no necessity for the Court to intervene when petitioned. It could have delayed its ruling, or it could have decided not to intervene in the workings of the Knesset. Unfortunately, the High Court in many instances has chosen to play an activist role and to strike down Knesset laws. While I usually disregard conspiracy theories, it seems as if the High Court almost relishes the political instability that its interference has caused (re the ruling on changes to Israel’s Induction Law from 2017  ). Political instability means, for the High Court, no Amir Ohana or Ayelet Shaked to confront when appointing judges or setting policies.

Faced with the High Court’s ruling Edelstein didn’t waiver or falter. He stood his ground. Grilled in Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post, accused of “destroying democracy” if not worse, “Defying judges, Knesset speaker has plunged Israel into constitutional anarchy“, “Edelstein undermined Israel’s rule of law – comment“. Given an ultimatum by the High Court to convene the Knesset, Edelstein opted to resign rather than acquiesce to what he saw as a gross violation of the sovereignty of the Knesset. In other words, knowing if he put himself first it would be a worthless act, so he put himself behind, as a support of the Knesset’s independence.


Edelstein’s delay could have been meaningless, but the time it bought enabled Gantz and Netanyahu to hammer out a rough agreement, and at this stage, it appears that Israel will have some type of stable government and will avoid going back to elections for the fourth time. And Edelstein? Evidently, Edelstein will not be going back to his old job as Speaker and perhaps he even dealt himself a fatal blow if he ever wishes to be elected President when Reuven Rivlin retires. Yet he will not come to naught, his place in History is probably already secure. Perhaps in time, his personal sacrifice will be seen as that of a person in the right place, doing the right thing at the right time. And that is what counts.

The Speaker of the Knesset manages the affairs of the Knesset and is in charge of preserving its dignity, maintaining order and decorum during its sittings and ensuring that its Rules of Procedure are observed. The Speaker represents the Knesset in its contacts with external bodies, and is also in charge of the Knesset Administration, the Knesset Secretariat and the preparation and implementation of the Knesset’s budget. The Speaker of the Knesset is elected in an open ballot for the entire term of a specific Knesset. Deputy Speakers of the Knesset are elected in an open ballot on the recommendation of the Knesset House Committee, for the entire term of a specific Knesset or for shorter periods. The Speaker and Deputy Speakers together constitute the Knesset Presidium. The Knesset Presidium convenes each week to determine the agenda of the Knesset Plenum and in order to approve urgent motions for the agenda , motions for quick debates and the tabling of private bills by Members of Knesset. The Speaker of the Knesset or one of his/her deputies presides over the sittings of the Knesset Plenum, puts resolutions to a vote and announces the voting results. The Speaker of the Knesset is vested with powers related to order and security on the Knesset’s premises. In the event that the President of the State of Israel is abroad, the Speaker of the Knesset serves as acting President of the State of Israel.
About the Author
Shlomo Toren has been a resident of Israel since 1980, and a transportation planner for the last 25 years. He has done demand modeling for the Jerusalem Light Rail and Road 6. He is married to Neera and lives in Shiloh.
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