The Knesset Has Resumed Its Business, but Both Sides Have Broken Unwritten Rules

March 27, 2020 | Haviv Rettig Gur
About the author: Haviv Rettig Gur is the senior analyst for the Times of Israel.

Yesterday, eleven months of political stalemate in Israel appeared to have come to an end as the sitting prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his main rival, Benny Gantz, agreed to form a unity government together with some of the smaller parties. This development has fractured Gantz’s Blue and White party into its constituent factions. Meanwhile, the resignation of Yuli Edelstein as interim Knesset speaker—a position meant to be occupied for just a few hours, but which he has held for nearly a year—has allowed the Knesset to resume business as usual.

Although Edelstein’s parliamentary tactics are legally defensible, his opponents have decried them as violations of informal norms and traditions—even as these same opponents have been trying to exploit the unusual political circumstances to give themselves control over legislative committees, and to pass laws that would prevent Netanyahu from remaining prime minister. Haviv Rettig Gur explains:

While Blue and White rails at Edelstein’s “undemocratic” delays, it has proposed several sweeping and never-before-seen constitutional modifications, including legislation that would prevent the current Knesset from dissolving to new elections if it fails to form a government. It suggests passing these amendments using only the threadbare majority at its disposal. That, too—attempting to pass such significant constitutional changes in a newborn Knesset, one that has yet to negotiate a ruling coalition—is unprecedented.

[Yet] Edelstein has acted less nobly than he pretends. He claimed to be delaying the plenum votes in order to force Gantz and Netanyahu to compromise. Perhaps. Then again, his steps only weakened one side’s negotiating position.

Meanwhile, Blue and White, while decrying Likud’s “undemocratic” delays, is hard at work drafting constitutional changes that target a single individual, who also happens to be their chief political opponent. A longstanding but informal Knesset tradition once decreed that significant changes to electoral laws should be allowed to come into force only at a distance of an election cycle or two, to ensure that the rules of the game wouldn’t be altered merely to serve the political needs of the present majority.

Israel’s political system is deep into uncharted waters, and clear-cut answers are few and far between. But one thing became crystal clear on Wednesday: the old rules and longstanding customs that ensured respect across party lines and the smooth functioning of parliamentary politics [have fallen] prey to an unrelenting and debilitating political stalemate.

Whether the new coalition agreement will be able to gain formal approval, and what the legacy of this stalemate will be, remains to be seen.

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