(Israel Hayom/JNS) Last Wednesday morning, then-Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein knew he was about to do something unprecedented. Not only in Israeli terms but also internationally, there aren’t many instances of the head of a country’s legislature resigning in protest over a Supreme Court ruling.
So, what brought the former Prisoner of Zion, a pleasant man who has always been commended for his moderation, to take such severe action and disobey a decision by Israel’s High Court of Justice?
In the midst of all the recent chaos, we’ve managed to forget that it was a series of events that led to Edelstein’s resignation. On March 18, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid and the left-wing bloc launched their “they’ve shut down the Knesset, democracy is over” campaign. The following day, Blue and White and others filed a petition to the High Court demanding it force Edelstein to establish the parliamentary committees and vote for a new speaker. On March 23, the High Court suggested to Edelstein to allow the vote to take place later that week and gave him an hour to review his stance. After the hour had passed, and minutes after he gave them a negative answer, the judges published their decision that he must allow a vote for a new speaker to be held in two days–last Wednesday.
That’s why Edelstein refused. As he put it in his resignation speech:
“The High Court decision is incompatible with Knesset rules and demolishes the work of parliament. The High Court’s decision is a gross and arrogant intervention of the judiciary in the work of an elected legislature. As a democrat, as a Zionist Jew, as one who has fought against dark regimes, and as the speaker of the parliament, I have determined that the High Court’s decision is wrong and grave, a dangerous moral deterioration. As the leader of this house, I will not allow for Israel to move towards anarchy. I will not lend a hand to civil war. For the State of Israel and in order to renew the spirit of statehood in Israel, I hereby resign from my post as Knesset Speaker.”
Edelstein’s voice and that of the supporters of his decision were almost not heard. In fact, it’s hard to remember a crisis in which the gap between what was reported in the media and what actually happened has been so big. As he will explain in this exclusive interview with Israel Hayom, the parliament’s doors were never locked. And at least in his eyes, Edelstein, who for years has been commended even by his enemies as the epitome of a statesman, is the one who is preventing anarchy sown by the Supreme Court.
Q: Anarchy. That’s what your opponents say you have created with your refusal to carry out the High Court’s ruling.
A: We’re in the midst of a sad event that we are yet to comprehend the consequences of. True, what I did was unprecedented, but everything that’s happening now is unprecedented. We have three powers. The High Court has long ago taken over the discretion of the executive power. Now there’s a takeover, or at least an attempt to take over, the legislative power.
That’s new. I can understand the need for legal supervision of laws that the Knesset passes, to make sure they don’t contradict any Basic Laws. We’ve gotten used to laws passing with a majority of over 60 MKs being struck down by the High Court. But now, the intervention was into the procedure. The High Court told me, as speaker, that I must convene the plenum on a certain date for a certain issue because 61 MKs asked for it. Now [with the decision to appoint Labor Party leader Amir Peretz as temporary speaker] we’ve come to the situation where the High Court appoints the speaker of the Knesset. Where have you heard anything like this? That’s the anarchy.
Q: What exactly is the problem with the High Court intervening in decisions taken by parliament?
A: I’ve been in politics for 24 years. I thought and still think that members of parliament get paid to do the job by themselves, and not run to the High Court. It’s called separation of powers. If Knesset members run to file petitions at the High Court, they should study law and join one of the bodies that petition the court on a regular basis.
As I see it, nothing shames the Knesset more than legislators who sit on the bench at the Supreme Court and wait for whatever the judges will say. I have always held this view, even when I was a persecuted minority, for example during the  expulsion from Gaza. I had dozens of people ask me to join their petitions to the High Court, and I refused them all. As long as I am a Knesset member I will not go to the High Court. Separation of powers is a very important thing. With all due respect to the lofty role of the judicial power, I, meaning parliament, am equal to the other powers [the executive and judiciary]. What happened [last] week shows that if Knesset members want to keep their jobs, they should seriously legislate the Override Clause.
Q: But a parliament works with a majority and minority. Why not let the majority of Blue and White hold the sessions it wanted to?
A: First of all, it’s very interesting that the High Court is suddenly interested in the stance of the majority of legislators. Important laws—like the Nation-State Law [Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People]—that are approved with a 61[-seat] majority, they are up for review. But here, a technical majority is demanding a vote and they intervene.
And even more than that, the Knesset has rules, there is a law and there are rules. It’s not enough to have a majority. Do you know how many times I blocked the majority of the latest governments when they wanted to steamroll the minority?! The majority asked me to cut the length of speeches of the minority and the majority asked me to shorten procedures for the government. And I told them, “Just because you’re a majority doesn’t mean there aren’t rules. It’s my discretion to allow them to speak even when you don’t want [them] to.” That’s how the Knesset works.
Q: What is your message to the High Court with your resignation?
A: I cannot be forced into doing dangerous things for democracy that are against my conscience. The court can respect that. I work for democracy and considering my personal story one cannot suspect that democracy or the State of Israel are not important for me. I have never disparaged the court or disrespected it. But they disrespected the institution of Speaker of the Knesset and his discretion. By the way, it was reflected also in small things, like the message to my office that in one hour I must respond to the court.
There’s no plenum for me to manage? What is that? I gave them a reasonable and respectable answer, that my lawyers worked on for hours. But 25 minutes after it was submitted, there was already a 19-page ruling. So who here is creating a crisis? Therefore, I repeat that I understand the situation is complicated. I didn’t want to take it to a place of no return. I’m not one of those who say “the hell with it.” That’s why I resigned. I’m not going to fight the judicial power, I’m just moving aside.
Since the High Court justices know me—some of them worked here as the chairs of election committees and we meet at ceremonies and other opportunities—I hope someone there will do some introspection. They should ask themselves what made a man like me, who no one suspects is out to destroy the courts, take a step like that. I hope they will try to think about what red line they crossed when they made a man like me do what I did.
Q: So every time a court decision contradicts a man’s conscience he doesn’t have to carry it out?
A: It’s true that it’s an unprecedented event and it’s true that it’s the first time someone has told them “no.” But I will clarify: It’s not that every citizen can say no. I am taking these actions as Knesset Speaker and a Knesset member, not as a private person. That’s what immunity is for, so a public representative will not be deterred by the government or the courts. But I didn’t commit a traffic violation or crime, I fought against an issue in the parliament according to the law and its rules. I acted as the responsible adult, as I always have for years, and I resigned.
Q: You’re presenting serious and valued reasoning, but the question is if this is not a political trick to delay appointing a new speaker on Blue and White’s behalf and buy more time for the Likud.
A: I did not hide at any stage that I was in favor of a broad coalition, a unity government or emergency government. Our people deserve a government like that even before the [coronavirus] crisis and certainly now with coronavirus. From the day the Knesset was sworn in I did whatever I could to form such a unity government. And yes, this deed [the resignation—AK] was also done to block a vote for a permanent speaker for the 23rd Knesset.
Q: What’s the connection between being speaker and forming a government?
A: The appointment of a permanent Knesset Speaker before knowing the government’s composition is like planting a mine on the road of the new government. A hostile speaker can stop the functioning of a government. After he is chosen, a 90-MK majority is needed to replace him and a significant reason is needed for that. Meaning, there’s basically no way to replace him. If for example I was chosen to be the speaker of the new Knesset and afterward a minority government was formed, I could topple it in two months. I’m saying loud and clear: I wanted to get a few more days to avoid choosing a speaker hostile to the notion of a unity government [meaning MK Meir Cohen of Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, which opposes a unity government with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—AK].
People, even judges, don’t get how the Knesset works. High Court justices, who tried to force on me the decision to vote for a new speaker, showed a misunderstanding of how the Knesset works and what the institution of Knesset Speaker is. The justices don’t know what goes on in the Knesset, just as I have no clue about the processes of the court. It’s not their job. It’s really ridiculous and one could understand this from their questions during the hearing on [March 22]. These are the repercussions that can already be seen from their entrance into the political field. They simply don’t understand that their decision brings us closer to a fourth round of elections.
Q: Did Prime Minister Netanyahu know beforehand about your decision? Was this coordinated with him?
A: No one in the political system knew I was going to resign from the Knesset. The only ones who knew were my family and close advisers. I did speak with him and with [Blue and White Party leader Benny] Gantz in the days before my resignation and told them the same things about the need to form a unity government urgently. I appreciate the statement by Netanyahu to his ministers to back any step I took, but he didn’t know what I was going to do, did not influence or try to intervene. I am not his emissary and did not coordinate anything with him.
Q: Your opponents say that you shut down the Knesset.
A: That’s a lie that unfortunately reached many people in the country. On [March 18,] not only did I not close the Knesset, I artificially prolonged the plenum session until later in the afternoon. The whole day, as I did in previous days, and as I did after the previous elections, I did my best to lead the sides to compromises and forming a unity government. Even on Wednesday afternoon, when I closed the plenum, I gave a legal and binding announcement that it would reopen on Monday. I also clarified in a statement to the press that the vote on the committees would take place on Monday. I feel bad about the citizens who sat at home and heard political sources, legislators, jurists and pundits explain to them that the speaker shut down the Knesset. It never happened. They lied to the citizens and it’s irresponsible.
Understand one more thing: The Knesset until today has gotten things done through agreements. In 72 years—22 Knesset sessions—all the Knesset committees were formed through agreements. And with our system [of government], where there is a majority and a minority, it’s important for it to work because everyone always knew that the opposition also deserves things once in a while. This time, Blue and White was conducting a complete takeover. It was all divided between the representatives of the 61 MKs [of the Blue and White-led left-wing bloc]. That’s also a horrible precedent. It’s moving towards the American method of “winner takes all.” They don’t understand that they’re changing the regime method here. It’s also a result of inexperience.
Q: Finally, I have to ask whether, from your perspective, your fight against the Soviet regime in the 1980s is similar to your decision this week, which no doubt shakes the system to its core.
A: I never make the comparison between the dictatorship of the Soviet Union and our democracy. But where I grew up, I learned about standing for your principles and your views, even if sometimes you pay the price. That’s how I have conducted myself in the past, and that is how I am conducting myself today.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.