JERUSALEM — Israel's Knesset speaker Wednesday abruptly adjourned all parliamentary meetings until next week, apparently a response to the new coronavirus, in a move that froze opposition efforts to discuss bills seeking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ouster.
The decision drew angry accusations from Netanyahu's opponents that the embattled prime minister is using the coronavirus crisis to cement his hold on power. Netanyahu's rival vowed to challenge the parliamentary delay in the Supreme Court, while Israel's president warned the country's democratic system was being threatened.
"We must not let this crisis, as serious as it is, harm our democratic system," President Reuven Rivlin said, as he implored Parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein to ensure parliamentary activity. "We must do everything to deal with the crisis, being careful not to grievously harm our democratic system."
The parliament was sworn in this week after March 2 elections. But Edelstein has been preventing parliament members from forming the key committees that would allow the legislature to function.
Edelstein is a member of Netanyahu's Likud and his successor would be chosen from the opposing Blue and White party. He pushed off a vote for his successor as well.
Edelstein has cited procedural issues. But his opponents believe he is using the coronavirus crisis, which has brought the country to a near standstill, to prevent them from carrying out their legislative agenda.
The Likud party is insisting that because of Health Ministry restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 persons, the Knesset's key Arrangements Committee should have that many members, split evenly between the opposing blocs. The committee is authorized to create the parliament's other decision-making committees.
Blue and White demands representation reflecting the outcome of the elections, which would give it and its allies a majority of committee members.
Blue and White's leader, former military chief Benny Gantz, has received the support of 61 members of Israel's 120-seat Parliament, the Knesset, and has been tasked with forming a government. When formed, the committees' compositions would reflect the new parliament, with Netanyahu and his allies in the minority.
Blue and White has introduced a series of bills that would in effect end Netanyahu's career. Even before the formation of a government, it has the ability to push for votes on the legislation. They include proposals that would impose term limits on prime ministers and bar an indicted politician from forming or leading a government.
Gantz accused Edelstein of "systematically refusing to allow us to come together as the most basic democratic institution and to work on behalf of the people, even as we are in the throes of attempts to contain the coronavirus." He said there was "no choice" but to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Netanyahu has been indicted on a series of corruption charges and had been set to go on trial this week. The trial was delayed until May after his hand-picked justice minister shut down the court system, citing the coronavirus threat.
Netanyahu attacked Blue and White in a Facebook post, accusing Gantz's party of "underhanded, undemocratic" tactics.
"The delay of the formation of the Knesset committees stems from the fact that until now agreements haven't been reached for the formation of the committees," he said.
"Unfortunately, even in this hour of emergency, Blue and White continues close cooperation with terror supporters," he said, alluding to members of the mostly Arab Joint List.
Edelstein said he was working to resolve the parliamentary dispute as quickly as possible. "I have no intention to draw out this subject," he said.