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Israeli Parliament Speaker Quits, Easing Constitutional Turmoil

JERUSALEM — The speaker of Israel’s Parliament, Yuli Edelstein, a staunch ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, abruptly resigned on Wednesday rather than comply with a Supreme Court order to allow lawmakers to choose his successor.

The move will allow Benny Gantz’s opposition Blue and White party and other opponents of Mr. Netanyahu to take control of the legislative process.

In a parting gift to the embattled prime minister, Mr. Edelstein said his resignation as the Knesset speaker would become effective only on Friday, ensuring that anti-Netanyahu lawmakers would have to wait until the coming week to assert their newfound power.

But the Blue and White party said it would seek to set aside the delay and choose a new speaker immediately.

The resignation of Mr. Edelstein, 61, a refusenik who spent three years in a Soviet prison before immigrating to Israel in 1987 and who had led Parliament since 2013, appeared to avert a constitutional crisis that had been brewing for weeks.

Opponents of Mr. Netanyahu, whose caretaker government remains in control of the state machinery, won a slim majority in parliamentary elections on March 2the third straight inconclusive ballot in the past year.

Their leader, Mr. Gantz, has a limited window to form a government and has made overtures to Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party about joining a unity coalition, among other things, citing the emergency posed by the coronavirus outbreak. But Mr. Netanyahu has insisted that he remain prime minister in any case.

To apply pressure on Mr. Netanyahu, who is awaiting trial on corruption charges, Mr. Gantz and his allies want Parliament to enact legislation that could prevent Mr. Netanyahu from running if the country is forced into a fourth election.

But Mr. Edelstein, a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, stood in the way. Citing the virus, Mr. Edelstein first disbanded Parliament last week and then let it reconvene but said he would not allow a vote to choose a new speaker.

On Monday, the Supreme Court declared that Mr. Edelstein’s stance “undercuts the foundations of the democratic process” and ordered him to relent by Wednesday.

Some Likud ministers accused the court of a “judicial coup” and urged Mr. Edelstein to defy the ruling. But Mr. Edelstein demurred.

“As a democrat, as a Zionist Jew, as someone who fought dark regimes, and as chairman of the House, I will not let Israel deteriorate into anarchy,” he said in a statement. “I will not enable a civil war.”

He denounced the high court’s ruling as a “one-sided, extreme interpretation” of the law that “undermines the foundations of Israeli democracy,” but said he was resigning “for the good of the State of Israel and to renew the spirit of statesmanship.”

He added: “We will pray and work for better days.”