Netanyahu ally resigns, deepening Israeli political turmoil

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A man holds a sign, center, that reads, "Keeping Israel Jewish and democratic," during a protest by supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in front of Israel's Supreme Court, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Israel appeared on the verge of a constitutional crisis Tuesday as top members of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud urged their party colleague and parliament speaker to defy a Supreme Court order to hold an election for the prime minister's successor. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JERUSALEM – Israel's parliament speaker abruptly resigned Wednesday, dealing a blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and deepening the country's political turmoil as the embattled Israeli leader tries to cling to power amid a fast-spreading outbreak of the coronavirus and a looming corruption trial.

The resignation of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein clears the way for the opposition to move forward with efforts in parliament to topple Netanyahu. But by resigning, Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, also defied a Supreme Court order to hold a vote for his successor, throwing down a new obstacle that could delay the opposition from proceeding with its agenda for several days.

The move drew an angry reaction from the opposition Blue and White Party, which now has the backing from a slim parliamentary majority.

“The Israeli parliament belongs to Israel's citizens, and their elected representatives will follow the laws of the state of Israel and the rulings of its courts. No one is above the law,” Blue and White leader Benny Gantz tweeted.

Edelstein suspended parliamentary activities last week, citing procedural issues and restrictions on large gatherings due to the spread of the coronavirus. But opponents accused him of blocking the vote on his replacement to shield Netanyahu from legislation that would limit his lengthy rule. Netanyahu was recently indicted on various corruption charges and faces a criminal trial.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ordered Edelstein to hold a new vote by Wednesday, with the chief justice accusing him of “undermining the foundations of the democratic process.” While some members of Netanyahu's Likud party urged him to defy the order, he responded that he would “not agree to an ultimatum” and resigned instead.

Edelstein, the parliament speaker for the past seven years, called the Supreme Court decision an “arrogant intervention” in the legislative branch. Nonetheless, he said he was stepping down so as not to allow Israel to “descend into anarchy” and devolve into civil war. But in his last act he also said parliament would only reconvene next week, in apparent subversion of the Supreme Court order to hold the vote by Wednesday.

Blue and White said the move put Edelstein in contempt of court and indicated they would file another petition against him to force his hand.