Israeli Supreme Court, president criticize politics behind Knesset lockout

Head of Israel’s Supreme Court Esther Hayut and President Reuven Rivlin call on political leaders to end political feud after speaker adjourns parliament.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

The head of Israel’s Supreme Court and President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday criticized political moves that led to the Speaker of the Knesset suspending parliament.

Knesset Speaker and Likud Party member Yuli Edelstein abruptly adjourned the session Tuesday. The move appeared to have been a political tactic to block opposition efforts to put the issue of invasive coronavirus surveillance under legislative oversight as well as to thwart opposition Blue and White Party attempts to have Edelstein, a loyalist of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, replaced with one of their own.

In response, the opposition Blue and White Party appealed to the Supreme Court to force the Knesset back into session, Ynet reported.

“Why does everything need appeals [to the Supreme Court]?” Supreme Court head,Justice Esther Hayut asked. “Is it impossible to to exercise judgment?”

“Can the Knesset plenum be convened today and appoint committees? It is an emergency,” Hayut tol Knesset legal advisor Avital Somplinksi, who replied that there was no legal problem to resume the legislative session immediately, but in practice Edelstein was blocking the agenda.

With the newly appointed legislature in session Wednesday for only a few minutes, Edelstein stopped proceedings when an argument exploded over how many members each party would have on Knesset committees. Those committees are a necessary part of the legislative process, but coronavirus health restrictions limit the number of people in the room to 10, including a committee stenographer, which threatened Likud’s demand for equal representation on committees.

On the table for discussion was the government’s use of powerful surveillance tools, normally used to track terrorists via cell phone signals, which are now pressed into service to monitor the movements of people infected with the coronavirus. The tools let health officials find owners of phones that came in close contact with an infected person and warn them to quarantine themselves.

Although the surveillance has already alerted 400 people, opposition members said the use of the invasive technology had to be done under strict government supervision, which can’t happen without the Knesset committees being in place.

Tensions were already high when Edelstein exercised his power as speaker to arbitrarily adjourn the house.

Rivlin, himself a former cabinet minister under Netanyahu, talked later in the day to representatives of both Likud and Blue and White who were negotiating the terms of an emergency national unity government. He called on both parties to negotiate and not use the Knesset as a political football.

“One should be careful about the situation in which the Knesset becomes a hostage of coalition negotiations, and both parties should strive for its immediate convening regardless of the discourse between them,” Rivlin tweeted.

The court heard arguments for and against surveillance. Israel’s main civil rights association said the use of national security tools without judicial oversight opened “serious potential for harming civilians.” Government lawyers argued that the pandemic demanded urgent identification of virus carriers and those exposed, and having a judge follow protocol and review each case of surveillance would “not allow the Ministry of Health to obtain the data as quickly as necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”

The tumultuous week began with the newly elected Knesset being sworn in, after which Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was tasked with forming a new government that could potentially oust Netanyahu from the premiership.