JERUSALEM -- Israel's Supreme Court on Monday ordered the parliament speaker to hold an election for his successor by Wednesday, deepening a standoff between opponents and supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yuli Edelstein of Netanyahu's Likud party, the current speaker, had dismissed the court's call to hold a vote for his successor. Last week he suspended parliamentary activities, citing procedural issues and restrictions on large gatherings due to the virus.
In her decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut said "the continued refusal to allow the vote in the Knesset plenum on the election of a permanent speaker is undermining the foundations of the democratic process."
The order exacerbates the country's deep political crisis while the longtime leader steers the country through the coronavirus outbreak and fends off a looming corruption trial.
Israel’s parliament reconvened Monday after the country's Supreme Court ordered it to reopen for the selection of Edelstein's successor.
The opposition Blue and 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.
"Democracy and law in Israel will be protected even if it's not comfortable for someone," Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said in a speech to the mostly empty chamber. Israel has strictly limited the size of public gatherings due to the coronavirus threat.
Blue and 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 and White of relying on the votes of Arab members of parliament to “trample democracy” amid a national state of emergency and vowed to boycott a vote for a new speaker.
The Knesset on Monday voted 61-0 in favor of convening the key Arrangements Committee, which is authorized to create the parliament’s other decision-making committees. Netanyahu and his allies boycotted the parliamentary vote.
A panel of five judges chaired by Hayut had 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, Cabinet 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.
Earlier, Netanyahu's justice minister had called on Edelstein to ignore the court's order.
Edelstein wrote in reply to the court that he will "not agree to an ultimatum" and that "a permanent Knesset speaker has never been elected at a time of such great uncertainty concerning the composition of a future coalition." He said he would not put the Knesset speaker vote on the agenda until the political situation becomes clearer.
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 1,450 people testing positive for the new virus. One patient has died and 29 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 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 Israeli leader 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 Israeli democracy. ———
Associated Press writer Aron Heller contributed to this report.
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