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Israeli parliament amid double crisis

Amid an unprecedented challenge to Israeli democracy unfolding amid the country’s battle against the rapid spread of Coronavirus, the Israeli parliament will select a new speaker on Thursday.

Outgoing Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein resigned in protest Wednesday. A close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Edelstein had refused to comply with a high court order to convene the plenum for a vote on his successor the same day, angrily accusing the court of an “arrogant intervention” in the legislative branch. Even in stepping down, Edelstein tried to stall the vote for several days, as his resignation would take effect 48 hours later.

The court responded by stripping Edelstein of his authorities even before his resignation took effect, and ruled overnight that the Knesset’s longest-serving member can act as interim speaker to carry out the vote.

In her ruling, Chief Justice Esther Hayut lambasted Edelstein for his “unprecedented violation of the rule of law,” warning that it posed a dire threat to the rule of law.

The confrontation comes just as the government enacted new restrictions requiring Israelis to almost completely stay at home, under threat of fines. In a televised address, Netanyahu warned that if citizens didn’t obey the stringent guidelines, a total lock-down would be imposed.

Nearly 2,500 Israelis have been infected by the new virus, with 41 in serious condition. Five elderly Israelis with preexisting medical conditions have died and there are growing fears that Israel’s medical system will eventually be overwhelmed.

The global pandemic erupted in Israel immediately on the heels of the country’s third inconclusive election in less than a year and at the height of an ever-deepening standoff between Netanyahu’s opponents and supporters.

It came to a boil with Edelstein, a former Soviet dissident and longtime lawmaker, who cited restrictions on large gatherings due to the spread of the Coronavirus in suspending parliamentary activity. But opponents accused him of clinging to his seat even though he lacked majority support in order to shield his party leader Netanyahu from legislation that would limit his lengthy rule.

With the number of Coronavirus cases rising, and the tide turning against him in parliament, Netanyahu reiterated his call late Wednesday for Gantz to join him in an emergency unity government devoted to battling the virus crisis, despite the bad blood between them.