It takes a particular kind of moral and personal courage in a democracy for a politician to publicly defy the High Court of Justice.
In a country that often favors magnetic personalities or IDF generals as leaders, most Israelis had forgotten the extent to which Edelstein, a polite politician in a suit, could become a stubborn steely warrior when his conscience is aroused.
His personal history prepared him well for this moment.
This, after all, is a man who stared down the former Soviet Union over the right to be publicly Jewish and immigrate to Israel. A former refusenik from Ukraine, he was jailed for three years in Siberia (1984-1987) on trumped up charges, as punishment for teaching Hebrew.
Edelstein’s time as a Prisoner of Zion proved he was willing to pay a high price for his convictions. But it also reflected a kind of understanding, particularly evident to those who have endured totalitarian regimes. In such a regime, rule of law is not always an instrument for good, and a judicial system can lack moral authority, even if its will is upheld physically and technically.
It is the kind of thinking that empowers Edelstein to perceive that he is once again at a critical crossroads in his personal and political life, where the demand of the hour is that he should take a stand against what he believes to be an erroneous judicial ruling.
Cynics have charged that the two situations are not analogous. In the first instance Edelstein was fighting for equal rights and religious freedom. This time around, cynics have argued, he is dismissing the court as part of a power play that could weaken a democratic judicial system, out of a desire to remain Knesset speaker, now that he has been on the job for seven years.
But if this were merely an attempt to gain personal power, Edelstein’s story would be simply a tale of a politician who once battled for good but has now allowed his ego to get the better of him.
Edelstein’s decision Wednesday to quit rather than carry out a High Court of Justice edict that he must hold a plenum vote for a Knesset speaker went a long way to dispel that argument.
That argument is also dispelled by the intense debate that has followed, particularly during the corona pandemic. Edelstein’s actions clearly struck a nerve with respect to questions already dividing Israeli society about the nature of the country’s democracy.
There is the question of whether a politician can take a civil disobedience stand without endangering democratic rule of law.
This is dwarfed by the larger debate that has marked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure, about the limits of judicial power and the expansion of parliamentary independence.
Edelstein’s decision to defy the courts also comes at a time when Israel feels particularly vulnerable democratically.
The country has been ruled since December 2018 by an interim government. Based on the February election, the government led by Netanyahu lacks a 61-seat majority. Yet it is taking autocratic steps to stem the spread of the coronavirus, steps deemed medically necessary, but which nonetheless weaken individual democratic rights.
Under Netanyahu’s government, right-wing politicians have argued that the courts are not a neutral body but, rather, one that advances a left-wing agenda at the expense of a democratically elected government. These politicians would like to empower the legislature to be more of a determinative body.
Edelstein, both in his statements to the court and upon his resignation, has stated that he sees himself as defending democracy. He spoke of the democratic danger of a court system that interferes with the parliament. He and his supporters also believe that the refusal to hold such a vote also preserves the rights of a Netanyahu-led government. The right-wing believes that since Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz cannot form a government, he should not be now setting the agenda in the parliament by pushing for votes that would unfairly empower him.
Opponents of Edelstein believe that an independent judiciary holds an important role in ensuring that parliament upholds democracy, and that Edelstein is tampering with that power. They have also argued since a 61-member bloc of MKs has said they would accept a Gantz-led government, he represents the majority of the voters, instead of Netanyahu.
To the right wing, Edelstein will emerge from this as a hero. To the left wing he has been knocked off of his pedestal as a freedom fighter, because he took steps to help the Netanyahu-led minority bloc unfairly keep its hold on power.
But what binds the Right and Left is their agreement that Israeli democracy is at one of its most vulnerable moments, and, right or wrong, by defying the courts, Edelstein has made that democracy seem even more vulnerable.