JERUSALEM – The speaker of Israel’s parliament, an ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, resigned on Wednesday, sharpening a battle with the Supreme Court over its concerns that democracy could be a casualty of the coronavirus crisis.
Yuli Edelstein’s resignation could facilitate plans by the opposition to fast-track legislation that would bar Netanyahu, as an indicted suspect in three corruption cases, from forming a new government following Israel’s March 2 election.
Edelstein announced he was quitting in a speech to parliament, accusing the court of “gross and arrogant meddling” in legislative affairs by ordering him to schedule a vote for the speaker’s position at Wednesday’s Knesset session..
With Netanyahu’s opponents, led by Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, now holding a slim majority in parliament after the national election three weeks ago, Edelstein was likely to have lost his post if a vote had gone ahead.
Netanyahu, who has denied accusations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, made no immediate comment on the loss of an ally who could have run interference in efforts by Blue and White to pass laws weakening his 11-year grip on power.
After announcing his resignation, Edelstein adjourned parliament and it was not clear when a vote for a new speaker would be held.
Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, had cited the coronavirus crisis and pursuit of the Israeli leader’s call for a “national emergency government” with Blue and White as reasons for postponing any vote for the speaker’s position.
In a ruling on Monday, Chief Justice Esther Hayut wrote that Edelstein’s reasoning “undercuts the foundations of the democratic process”.
Netanyahu currently heads a caretaker government and his critics have accused him of taking a turn towards autocracy during the coronavirus outbreak, an allegation he denies.
Citing social distancing requirements, the justice minister, a Netanyahu loyalist in Likud, limited court sessions – a move that led to a two-month delay, to May, in the start of the prime minister’s trial.
Drawing alarm from civil liberties groups, Netanyahu’s government has also issued emergency regulations allowing the Shin Bet counter-terrorism agency to monitor cell phone location data to alert people who had been near coronavirus carriers.
Leading Likud members had called on Edelstein to disobey the court’s ruling.
Quitting instead, Edelstein said: “I won’t let Israel spiral into anarchy. I will not lend a hand to a civil war … Knesset members, citizens of Israel, in these days our people need unity. They need a unity government.”