Edelstein to 'Post': I am fighting for the Knesset's 'future independence'

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: The former speaker doubles down on his decision to resign and to buck the High Court

YULI EDELSTEIN: I want to say loud and clear to every Israeli citizen, we all should obey the law. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
YULI EDELSTEIN: I want to say loud and clear to every Israeli citizen, we all should obey the law.
This was not the week to envy Yuli Edelstein.
Edelstein, who has been speaker of the Knesset for the last seven years, was at the center of a constitutional crisis the likes of which this country has never before experienced, a crisis that struck at the very core of how the country is governed.
And while Edelstein may have triggered the crisis by refusing to hold a vote to elect a new Knesset speaker – as a majority of 61 Knesset members demanded – it is just the latest in an ongoing saga over which branch of government has supremacy: the legislative, judicial, or executive.
In an unprecedented move, Edelstein resigned on Wednesday as Knesset speaker, rather than abide by the High Court of Justice’s order to hold a Knesset vote. His detractors, and they were loud and passionate, said he was undermining the country’s democracy and perhaps placing it on the road to autocratic rule. His supporters, equally loud and no less passionate, cast him as a hero finally standing up to creeping judicial tyranny.
“There has never been such an occurrence in this country where a leadership figure publicly and defiantly refused to uphold a court order, saying that his conscience does not allow him to carry it out,” High Court of Justice President Esther Hayut wrote in a decision late Wednesday night ordering a Knesset vote on Thursday for a new speaker.
That ruling also slammed Edelstein for failing to abide by a court order, saying that if he – a symbol of the state – fails to abide by its orders, then why should ordinary citizens feel themselves obligated to follow the law?
“I want to say loud and clear to every Israeli citizen, we all should obey the law,” Edlestein said in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post, explaining his position.
“If I was ever caught doing something wrong, including speeding, I would never say that I should not obey the ruling – not just a ruling of the Supreme Court, but even the ruling of a traffic or small claims court,” he said.
Asked, however, if this was not exactly what he was doing, he replied with an emphatic and drawn out “No.”
“The ruling was not based on any law. I didn’t break any law; no one is claiming I broke any law. The claim is that I should obey the High Court that decided to run the Knesset instead of the speaker. It’s as simple as that. I could not do that, because it is a precedent. And, by the way, it is not just a question of a separation of powers; it is also a question of the future of the independence of the Israeli parliament.”
Edelstein said that the manner in which he acted was in accordance with the procedures and bylaws of the Knesset, adding that the court’s written decision ordering him to hold a vote for the new speaker was not based on law or legal precedent, but was what he called a “public statement.”
To the argument that the Knesset speaker must accede to the majority in the parliament and hold a vote as the majority demands, Edelstein said that oftentimes the speaker does not accede to majority rule in the Knesset, and that parliamentary procedural matters are the purview of the Knesset speaker, and not the court.
“All of us like to talk about checks and balances,” he said. “But we have to understand that in the Knesset, the speaker is the check and balance. Many times in the last seven years the majority – a significant majority – demanded that I should not let the opposition speak during a particular debate, or limit it to a very limited time.” But, Edelstein said, he did not listen to those entreaties.
“The speaker does not obey the majority,” he said, adding that this is how the speaker remains independent and is not turned into a rubber stamp.
By interjecting itself into Knesset procedure, Edelstein warned, the court has now opened the door to involvement in committee debates as well. He envisioned a situation where if the chairman of a committee, in order to get a government ministry to cooperate with it, decides – as is often the case – not to put an item on the agenda, an item that is important to a particular minister, the attorney-general can now appeal to the court, which can then order it, “in the name of the public interest,” to put the item on the agenda and force a vote.
Edelstein argued that he was not fighting his own personal battle, but, rather, “for the future independence of the parliament.”
As to Hayut’s claim that this was the first time someone in such a position of authority flaunted the decision of the court, he said, “This is also the first time the High Court decided to intervene in the procedures of Knesset in such a way that will forever take the power out of the hands of the Knesset speaker and the chairs of the committees, and bring it to the court.
“There is an old saying that power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely. There need to be checks and balances between the different branches of government.”
Asked whether he really believes the court was trying to usurp the powers of the Knesset, he replied: “First, that is how it looks. Secondly, I think that is why this whole crisis has attracted so much attention. Because this is the first time in Israeli history that someone is trying to set some limits, someone is trying to say: ‘Enough.’”
IN HIS speech on Wednesday announcing that he was resigning, Edelstein said, “As someone who has paid a personal price of years in a labor camp for the right to live in the State of Israel, as a Zionist and as the speaker of this house, I won’t allow Israel to descend into anarchy, I won’t lend a hand to civil war.”
As to whether he really believes this is an issue that could lead to civil war, Edelstein clarified that he was not talking about “a civil war in the American sense of the expression, but I could easily imagine demonstrations from both sides turning violent.” He said the issue of the court’s authority is obviously a “very hot issue” at a time when the situation – because of the coronavirus and political instability – is already very tense.
Edelstein said he could imagine a situation where, had he not acted as he did and resigned, “there could have been violent clashes between my supporters and supporters of the Supreme Court, with both sides claiming that they were fighting for democracy. I don’t want bloody fights for democracy in my country; I want to see issues solved in the form of a dialogue.”
Edelstein said that a proposal he raised two years ago is even more relevant now: the need for the creation of a commission to strike the proper balance between the different branches of government – because right now “we are not in a healthy place.”
“No one is listening to each other,” he said. “Right now 50% of Israelis are absolutely sure that I am a national hero for finally setting limits to the Supreme Court, and there are another 50% of the people who are absolutely sure I am ruining Israeli democracy and the rule of law.”
Currently, he said, there is no conversation. “No one is listening. This is something that bothers me a lot. If we, as responsible members of the different branches of government, do not start discussing this and talking, it could be very disastrous. Two monologues is not a dialogue, and that is exactly what is going on.”
Edelstein justified wanting to postpone voting for a new speaker, by saying that if one is elected now, it would put a nail into the coffin of any unity government. The speaker, he said, wields a great deal of power, and, if he or she so desires, can wield that power in such a way as to effectively bring down a government within a few months.
“I can say with a cynical smile – as one of the most experienced Knesset speakers in Israeli history – that if I would like to play that game, it would take me two to three months to send any government home without breaking one ruling, one law or one Knesset decision.”
For that reason, he said, it would have been a mistake right now to elect as permanent speaker a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction to that job, because Lapid was the loudest opponent of a unity government at this time, and could have used the job of speaker to ensure that such a government would not last.
Edelstein’s actions over the last several weeks have triggered an enormous amount of criticism.
“In the last several days I learned about myself that I am Hitler, a Nazi, Stalin, Putin, and that I should die as soon as possible, amen,” he said, referring to some of the comments that he has read and heard about himself.
As to how he feels about such criticism, he replied: “I come from a place where we used to think that when you stand for the right thing, and something you believe in, you don’t just get a salary for that; you pay a price, and that is part of the price I have to pay.”