The Knesset on Monday approved the establishment of the key Arrangements Committee after the Supreme Court ordered it to allow a vote and begin selection of a new parliament speaker, dealing a blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party.
Netanyahu's right-wing and religious bloc boycotted the vote to approve the formation of the panel whose members are charged with assigning members to all parliamentary oversight committees.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a close Netanyahu ally in Likud, suspended all parliamentary activity last week, citing procedural issues and restrictions on large gatherings due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The move triggered a wave of protests outside the Knesset, which led to arrests until the government reinforced the right to protest amid restrictions on the numbers of people gathering in one place.
The opposition Blue & White party, which is backed by a slim majority in the newly-elected Knesset, also said the country's legislature must continue to function at such a critical time.
"Democracy and law in Israel will be protected even if it's not comfortable for someone," Blue & White leader Benny Gantz said in a speech to the mostly empty chamber Monday. Israel has strictly limited the size of workplace gatherings due to the coronavirus threat.
Blue & White is expected to choose a new speaker and use its parliamentary majority to push through legislation banning a candidate under indictment from running for prime minister, a law that would likely block Netanyahu - who goes on trial in May for bribery, fraud and breach of trust - from attempting to run in the future.
The Likud party has lashed out at the moves, accusing Blue & White of relying on the votes of "terrorist-sympathizing" Arab members of Knesset to "trample democracy" amid a national state of emergency and vowed to boycott the vote for a new speaker.
A panel of five Supreme Court judges chaired by Chief Justice Esther Hayut earlier Monday ordered Edelstein to announce by Wednesday whether he planned to bring the selection of a new speaker up for a vote, or else they would be forced to rule against him.
In a harsh rebuttal, one of Netanyahu's closest surrogates, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, accused the court of "formally taking control of the Knesset" and turning its speaker into a rubber stamp.
" Chief Justice Hayut wants to put herself above the Knesset, she is invited to arrive at the building with her guards and open the session herself. That way it will be clear we are witnessing a coup," he said.
Earlier, Netanyahu's justice minister Amir Ohana had called on Edelstein to ignore the court's order.
The crisis comes amid an aggressive outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel, with Netanyahu looking to entice his rivals into an emergency unity government in the wake of the country's third inconclusive election in less than a year.
Around 350,000 people have been infected worldwide, and more than 15,000 have died. More than 100,000 people have recovered.
In Israel, daily life has largely shut down with cases multiplying greatly over the past week, reaching nearly 1,250 people testing positive for the new virus. One patient has died and 24 are in serious condition.
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 power-sharing overtures, concerned that he will not follow through on his promises to cede power in 18 months.
The opposition has also accused Netanyahu of using the coronavirus crisis as cover to undermine the country's democratic institutions. With the country in near-shutdown mode, Netanyahu has already managed to postpone his own pending criminal trial and authorize unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens.
Netanyahu is accused of receiving expensive gifts from wealthy friends and offering to exchange favors with powerful media moguls. The long-ruling prime minister denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a media-orchestrated witch hunt.
Even amid the health scare, Israelis have taken to the streets to protest what they consider an assault on democracy.
Wary of losing his job as speaker, Edelstein has argued he has discretion on convening the Knesset.
But in a formal response to the Supreme Court, Attornhey General Avichai Mandeblit wrote Sunday that the emergency measures should not prevent the Knesset from convening and carrying out its duties.
First published: 21:31 , 03.23.20