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Netanyahu ally resigns as speaker of Israel parliament

Israeli parliament speaker Yuli Edelstein, an ally of Benjamin Netanyahu, could by replaced by an opponent of the embattled premier
Israeli parliament speaker Yuli Edelstein, an ally of Benjamin Netanyahu, could by replaced by an opponent of the embattled premier Eric Feferberg AFP/File
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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel's parliamentary speaker, an ally of Benjamin Netanyahu, resigned Wednesday, clearing the way for a vote that could see him replaced by an opponent of the embattled premier.

Yuli Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, had refused to schedule a speakership vote until a new government was formed, but stood down after the Supreme Court set a Wednesday deadline for the vote to take place.

"The High Court ruling constitutes crude and arrogant intervention of the judiciary in the matters of the elected legislature," Edelstein said.

"I won't allow Israel to descend into anarchy. I won't lend a hand to civil war," he said as the court's deadline approached.

"I hereby resign from my position as Knesset speaker."

The announcement could pave the way for the opposition, led by the centrist Blue and White party, to take control of the legislative agenda.

It also came after a year of political turmoil that has seen three inconclusive elections, and after Netanyahu imposed strict legal and security measures to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected more than 2,000 Israelis.

Anti-Netanyahu forces claimed 62 seats in the 120-member Knesset in the March 2 election, with the premier's right-wing party and its religious allies claiming 58.

Blue and White's leader Benny Gantz has been tasked with trying to form a government.

That proved impossible following two previous elections last year, given the deep divisions within the anti-Netanyahu bloc, which includes the mainly Arab Joint List and the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party.

There was no guarantee Gantz would fare better this time, fuelling widespread calls for a short-term unity government to respond to the pandemic.

Netanyahu, in power since 2009, is also facing criminal corruption charges, which he denies.

Despite the divides within the anti-Netanyahu camp, the bloc has voiced unity on legislation that would bar anyone under criminal indictment from serving as prime minister.

Removing Edelstein as speaker may expedite that legislation.

But Netanyahu has made a series of offers to Gantz on forming a unity government, including deals that would see the premier's job rotate between the two men.

"Benny Gantz, this is a crucial time for national leadership and responsibility," Netanyahu tweeted on Tuesday.

"Let's meet now and set up a government."

As he announced his resignation, Edelstein also said Israel needed a unity government "as a pandemic endangers us from without.

"We all need to act like human beings, to act, to unify, to rise above," he said.

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