The High Court on Monday ordered the country's parliament to reconvene for the selection of a new speaker, dealing a blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he tries to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis and fend off a looming corruption trial.
The current speaker, Yuli Edelstein of Netanyahu's Likud party, suspended the parliament's activities last week, citing procedural issues and restrictions on large gatherings due to the virus.
But the opposition Blue & White party, which is backed by a slim majority in the newly elected Knesset, said the country's legislature must continue to function at such a critical time.
The party accused Edelstein of shuttering the halls of the legislature in order to keep his job and shield his beleaguered party leader.
Blue & White is expected to choose a new speaker and use its parliamentary majority to push through legislation that could prevent Netanyahu from serving as prime minister in the future.
The Likud party has accused Blue & White of relying on the votes of "terrorist-sympathizing" Arab members of parliament to "trample democracy" amid a national state of emergency and vowed to boycott a vote for a new speaker.
A panel of five judges, chaired by Chief Justice Esther Hayut, ordered Edelstein to announce by late Monday 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.
"If Chief Justice Hayut wants to put herself above the Knesset, she is invited to arrive to the building with her guards and open the session herself. That way it will be clear we are witnessing a coup," he said.
“I call on the Knesset speaker to announce that only he will determine when the plenum convenes and what will be on its agenda.”
Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked said that “only the Knesset is sovereign to decide when it convenes and when it votes, in accordance with the law.”
Her fellow Yamina party member Bezalel Smotrich, the transportation minister, similarly called on Edelstein “not to succumb to the blatant intervention by the High Court in the Knesset’s work and refuse to accept its impositions.”
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.
Most people only experience minor flu-like symptoms and recover from the virus 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 and even death in some patients, particularly in the elderly and those with underlying health problems.
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.
Former IDF chief Benny Gantz and his centrist Blue & White party have pledged to support the government in its effort to combat the virus but appear reluctant to join in themselves. Gantz and his allies consider Netanyahu's offers insincere and have expressed skepticism over 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 on serious corruption charges and authorize unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in connection to a series of scandals. He 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.
His hand-picked interim justice minister declared a state of emergency in the court system a day before Netanyahu's scheduled trail was to begin, forcing its postponement for more than two months.
Even amid the health scare, Israelis have taken to the streets to protest what they consider an assault on Israeli democracy.
Besides replacing Netanyahu's speaker of parliament, Gantz's party is also seeking to pass legislation that would impose term limits on the prime minister and bar a politician indicted on criminal charges, like Netanyahu, from being prime minister.
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 High Court, Israel's attorney general said the emergency measures should not prevent parliament from convening and carrying out its duties.