The political battle in Israel has been played out in the Knesset (parliament), denuding the bedrock of democracy such as it is. In a sense, Wednesday’s development has deepened the political crisis. It has extended the loop of Benjamin Netanyahu’s denouement, with the resignation of the Speaker, Yuli Eldenstein, a right-wing ally of the Prime Minister now on his way out.
This clears the way for a vote that could see him replaced by an opponent of the embattled premier. It also facilitates the attempt by Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz, who is trying to form a government, to position an ally in the powerful post. With Netanyahu facing trial on corruption charges, a new Speaker could enhance the risks for the Likud party.
Lawmakers who oppose Netanyahu have demanded a law blocking him from remaining Prime Minister while facing the charges, all of which he denies. Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, had refused to schedule a speakership vote until a new government was formed. He resigned instead after the Supreme Court set a Wednesday deadline for the vote.
The latest drama has unfolded after a year of political turmoil that has seen three inconclusive elections, followed by Netanyahu imposing strict legal and security measures against the novel coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 2,000 Israelis.
Anti-Netanyahu forces claimed 62 seats in the 120-member Knesset in the March 2 election, with the Prime Minister’s right-wing party and its religious allies winning 58. Gantz does have an edge, having been tasked to form a government.
Netanyahu’s continuance has become impossible following two previous elections last year, while Gantz’s position is compromised not least by the deep divisions within the anti- Netanyahu bloc which includes the mainly Arab Joint List and its bitter rival, the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party. There is no guarantee that Gantz will fare better this time. Hence the rising shrill for a short-term unity government to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the divides within the anti-Netanyahu camp, it has been unified in backing legislation that would bar any one under criminal indictment from serving as Prime Minister. Removing Edelstein as Speaker could hasten so dramatic a piece of legislation.
Netanyahu has made a series of offers to Gantz on forming a unity government, including deals that would see the premier’s job rotate between the two. “There’s deep unrest among all parts of the nation, we must put it aside,” he said in a televised address late on Wednesday focusing on anti-coronavirus measures.
“I call for the immediate formation of a national unity government to deal with the crisis.” As he announced his resignation, Edelstein said that Israel needed a unity government “as a pandemic endangers us from without”. Israel is in political crisis at a forbidding juncture for the world. “We all need to act like human beings, to act, to unify, to rise above,” was the parting advice of the outgoing Speaker.