Political chess moves turn into a constitutional crisis in Israel

Yuli Edelstein at The Knesset.

On the morning of  March 25 Yuli Edelstein, former Speaker of the Knesset, announced his resignation. The unprecedented action came in the middle of a political storm that started as a political stalemate, then turned into a constitutional crisis, that turned into an accountability crisis. Now, it verges on a widespread collapse of faith and trust in the system among broad segments of Israeli society says Udi Sommer, political science professor and Head of the Center for Study of the United States at Tel Aviv University.

“It happens at the most fragile moment in the history of the nation with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sommer says.

Blue and White supporters filled the streets protesting with black flags to signify the threat to democracy. Edelstein’s resignation followed a battle between him and The Supreme Court who ordered Edelstein to schedule a parliamentary vote for a new Knesset Speaker. Edelstein known for his centrist views opposed the order resulting in his resignation, weakening his chances to become President says Political Science Expert Yonatan Freeman.

“It’s no secret he wants to be the President of Israel after Rivlin. It paints him more to the right rather than an individual who is more objective,” Freeman says.

It’s the first time in history a Speaker of The Knesset announced his resignation and did not comply with court orders says Freeman. Days later Blue and White was blindsided when Gantz decided to form a separate contingent that would join Netanyahu’s government and place Gantz as the temporary Speaker of The Knesset.  It was a surprise move which undermined any sense of accountability to his voters says Sommer.

“Gantz presented himself as the candidate for the Speaker of the Knesset replacing Meir Cohen, a member of  the Kahol Lavan party, who through his candidacy realized he would not have the support of the majority of the members of the house,” Sommer says.

Gantz would now get the votes of  Likud and as a result return the mandate to form the government to President Reuven Rivlin allowing Netanyahu to form the government. According to Sommer, Gantz will serve as Netanyahu’s deputy and be appointed to a cabinet position. Other members of Kahol Lavan will be appointed to key positions in the cabinet to avoid any defects, but Netanyahu has publicly refuted those claims. It’s a slap in the face for Blue and White voters considering Gantz didn’t even wait until his deadline to form the government, to return the mandate.

“Gantz was the unequivocal leader of a camp whose number one goal was clearly and explicitly the removal of the Prime Minister. This was the reason people voted for Gantz or any of the other parties to join the block of 62 or 61 members in the recent elections that did not allow Netanyahu to form a coalition,” Sommer says.

There could be a few reasons behind what seems like Gantz’s political scheming such as fear of running the country during a global crisis, fear of having a coalition government supported by the Arab Joint List that both ideological and in practical terms would not survive. Also sending the country into a fourth election during the COVID-19 crisis would have been unethical in his eyes. But Sommer says there were other underlying pressures.

“Apparently there was a strong push from his fellow Gabi Ashkenazi to make this move and Ashkenazi will get the big prize of becoming the Minister of Defense which is a coveted position for him and has been for years,” Sommer says.

Whatever the reason Sommer says Gantz’s legacy is tarnished forever and it is unlikely he will succeed Netanyahu as Prime Minster. Sommer says though he may not be Prime Minster by a popular vote, he may serve as Prime Minister through a rotating unity government.

“Clearly voters in this camp, particularly those supporting Gantz, feel nothing less than a sense of betrayal. He probably undermined any chance that he will be able to lead a party and win the election ever again; voters are never going to trust him,” Sommer says. “He’s a flip flop now and a flip flopper doesn’t do well in any democratic system.”

There is a conflict of interest in terms of accountability Sommer says because Gantz got over one million votes in the last election and those voters were unequivocally “No Netanyahu” votes. What he did went against the political mandate that he received resulting in Yesh Atid and Telem splitting from Kahol Lavan. But Sommer emphasizes this has the possibility to amount to a long-term collapse of faith and trust in the system.

“With this constitutional crisis we have seen an attempt to undo the system of checks and balances. One element of that is the judicial proceedings against the Prime Minister were postponed until further notice which was done in a very targeted way while other judicial institutions carried on with their business. The idea of judicial independence was threatened as a result,” Sommer says. “The standard of any democracy, whether in Israel or beyond, is a peaceful transfer of power from the losers to the winners. The stalemate that you had with the Speaker of the Knesset was the exact opposite. In that respect we see aspects of a serious constitutional crisis.”

The latest political maneuvering maintains the status quo. Netanyahu now has his original 58 Knesset members block plus 15 members of Gantz’s list which leads him to a stable 73 majority coalition. This super majority has far reaching potential implications for Israel that Sommer says will allow Netanyahu to pass immunity clauses in The Knesset. There is a high probability Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, will remain the opposition leader and Edelstein will more than likely return as Speaker of The Knesset.

The promise of Gantz succeeding Netanyahu in 18 months is a promise that Sommer says can not necessarily be enforced. However, what it does is give Netanyahu the prospect of complete and long-term immunity.

“This would be under the scenario that once President Rivlan’s term expires Netanyahu will be elected President of Israel which happens in the legislature, and once he becomes President it could grant him immunity effectively for life.”

For now, everyone wants a resolution to happen due to the global COVID-19 crisis. Israel needs to work domestically, internationally, and regionally to deal with the crisis Sommer says. Though Gantz could still pass legislation barring Netanyahu from serving as Prime Minister, Sommer feels that’s the last thing on anyone’s mind.

“I am positive everybody that’s an insider on this deal wants this to be done as quickly as possible and to have a government which it hasn’t had for a year and a half, which has been an acutely problematic situation given the circumstances,” Sommer says. “In a parliamentary system once you have a coalition those things are done within the coalition and they can happen very, very quickly.”

About the Author
Patrice Worthy is a reporter at the Atlanta Jewish Times where she writes about Israeli politics, food, art and culture, ethnic Jewry and Jews in the Diaspora.
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