Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem

Supreme Court to rule on demand to reopen Knesset

Civil rights group petition court against decision by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to suspend parliamentary activities, preventing Blue & White from nominating a new speaker and forming committees vital to fighting coronavirus

AP, Moran Azulay |
Published: 03.22.20 , 15:47
The Supreme Court was set to hear a petition Sunday from civil rights groups demanding the Knesset resume its full activities even amid restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus outbreak.
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  • Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud party, last week suspended parliamentary activities, preventing the newly elected legislature from choosing a new speaker and forming committees critical to the country's fight against coronavirus.
    בית המשפט העליון: עתירה העוסקת בהפעלת אמצעים אלקטרוניים בעת משבר הקורונהבית המשפט העליון: עתירה העוסקת בהפעלת אמצעים אלקטרוניים בעת משבר הקורונה
    Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem
    (Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)
    Edelstein says the move is merely procedural given the state of emergency in the country and the Health Ministry guidelines prohibiting large public gatherings.
    But opponents claim it's a calculated move aimed at blocking efforts to replace Edelstein and allowing the newly elected anti-Netanyahu bloc from pushing through its legislative agenda.
    The petitioners saw support Sunday from former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, who said the Knesset should be operating with certain adjustments despite the coronavirus outbreak.
    The Yamina leader, a member of Netanyahu's right-wing bloc, said that parliaments in the rest of the world had not ceased activity during the outbreak and that provisions should be made to offset the votes of MKs who are in isolation.

    מחאה מול הכנסת מחאה מול הכנסת
    Israelis protest the suspension of the Knesset last week. The banner reads: Protect the democratic space
    (Photo: Shalev Shalom)
    Israel is facing a growing threat from the coronavirus pandemic, which comes on the heels of the country's third inconclusive election in less than a year.
    The number of those infected in Israel has multiplied greatly over the past week, by Sunday reaching 945 detected cases with 20 patients in serious condition.
    Most people only experience minor flu-like symptoms from the coronavirus and recover within a few weeks, but the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear well. It can cause severe illness, including pneumonia, in some patients, particularly in the elderly and those with underlying health problems.
    More than 300,000 people have been infected by the coronavirus worldwide in about 150 countries and the virus has killed more than 13,000 people.
    The country reported its first death over the weekend as an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor from Jerusalem succumbed to the virus, and is bracing for more.
    With the public largely confined to their homes, the economy in tatters and tens of thousands of people losing their jobs, Netanyahu has called for the establishment of an emergency unity government with his rivals. For the first time, the long-time leader even agreed to step down in 18 months as part of such an agreement.
    מחאה מול הכנסת מחאה מול הכנסת
    Israelis protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem last week against the suspension of parliament
    (Photo: AP)
    But opposition leader Benny Gantz and his centrist Blue & White party considers the offer insincere and has expressed skepticism over Netanyahu's power-sharing overtures, concerned that he will not follow through on his promises to cede power.
    Gantz and his allies have 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 citizens using methods previously only employed against terrorism.
    Backed by a narrow majority, Gantz, a former IDF chief, was tasked last week by President Reuven Rivlin this week to try to form a new government and has three weeks left to do so.
    In the meantime, he is trying to push through legislation that would impose term limits on the prime minister and bar a politician indicted on criminal charges, like Netanyahu, from being prime minister.
    Likud says if Edelstein is "deposed" it will bring an end to unity negotiations and sentence Israel to yet another election, this time amid a global pandemic. Blue & White retorted that the Likud "ultimatum" proved it was bent on dragging the country into another pointless election.
    "Since this country was founded, the speaker of the Knesset has always been elected by a Knesset majority, and this time will be no different," the party said.
    Even amid the health scare, Israelis have taken to the streets to protest what they consider an assault on Israeli democracy.
    Wary of losing his job as speaker, Edelstein has relied on his own legal council to argue that he has discretion on convening parliament, and he has dismissed allegations that he is railroading democratic procedures as "spin."
    But in a formal response to the Supreme Court, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said the emergency measures should not prevent the Knesset from convening and carrying out its duties.
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