Supreme Court President Esther Hayut fired a warning shot across the bow of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Thursday, demanding to know, “Why can’t the Knesset open today?”
Technically, she was sitting on a panel of justices addressing the constitutionality of the new Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) surveillance of citizens infected with the coronavirus. But the hearing ended up intertwining inextricably with related petitions connected to the fight between the Likud’s Edelstein and Blue and White about forming Knesset committees.
Blue and White demanded the committees open already Wednesday, including the Intelligence Subcommittee to oversee the Shin Bet’s new surveillance powers. Edelstein preferred to wait until next Monday in hopes of reaching a deal between Likud and Blue and White that could also prevent his ousting as speaker.
“Replacing the Knesset speaker would be the final nail in the coffin, ending the remaining chances of a national-unity government,” Edelstein said Thursday night following a full day of attacks from Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
Another moment linking the two issues was when Justice Noam Sohlberg appeared to be so perturbed by Edelstein’s halting Knesset business that he entered an interim order pressuring the Knesset speaker mid-hearing, while sitting next to Hayut hearing the surveillance issue.
Only hours earlier on Thursday, the Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel filed a petition to get the High Court of Justice to compel Edelstein to open the Knesset to votes relating to its committees and operations after Edelstein said he would not allow them. Blue and White joined the petition and added to it a request that the court force a vote for Knesset speaker.
Sohlberg’s order said Edelstein must explain himself in writing by Sunday at 10:00 a.m., that a hearing is set for Sunday at 4:00 p.m. and that both sides agree to an interim conditional order by the court cutting through procedural niceties so that the court can rule almost immediately.
Not far from the Supreme Court, a demonstration of some 200 people, who arrived in vehicles, protested what they called “damage done to Israel’s democracy” by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Edelstein. Eight protesters were arrested. The police gave fines of NIS 5,000, which is imposed on anyone who violates Health Ministry regulations forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people due to the coronavirus pandemic. The police denied accusations that the arrests and fines were political.
Around 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Sohlberg was sitting on a panel of justices hearing a petition to freeze Shin Bet surveillance of coronavirus-infected citizens. During the hearing, it is believed that a staff member came to Sohlberg to sign the order regarding Edelstein and that he signed while the arguments were ongoing on the Shin Bet issue.
That Sohlberg’s decision was issued while he was still at the Shin Bet hearing and did not wait until later in the day would appear to show how seriously he views the situation as being urgent.
The Shin Bet surveillance went into effect on Tuesday based on a government decision, but without a Knesset sign-off, when the Knesset Intelligence Subcommittee, headed by top Blue and White official Gabi Ashkenazi, demanded further clarifications.
Initially, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit had said the Shin Bet surveillance would not start without a Knesset sign-off but later reversed himself, saying political delays in the Knesset’s functioning made waiting impossible and could put lives in danger.
On Tuesday, the High Court rejected an immediate intermediate freeze but agreed to hold Thursday’s hearing.
It was unclear if the High Court would rule on the Shin Bet issue separately or wait until Sunday’s petitions regarding opening the Knesset committees.
The state responded Tuesday night to the Shin Bet surveillance petition, arguing that lives were at stake. Due to the stakes, the state said it could not wait for the Knesset, but that it hoped the Knesset would start functioning again soon to provide oversight. The state said Knesset oversight was ideal, but that the coronavirus crisis was too desperate to wait.