Israeli Government Crafting Softer Version of Coronavirus Emergency Regulations Bill

The new justice minister is considering a maximum state of emergency of five months, not 10, while a Knesset committee would have veto power

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Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz, right, and a member of the opposition, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman.
Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz, right, and a member of the opposition, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Trying to allay harsh criticism, the governing coalition is considering softening the draft bill that would let the cabinet declare a state of emergency and wield wide-ranging powers during the coronavirus crisis.

Both the Supreme Court and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit have advised that such authority should be contained in legislation passed by the Knesset.

The Justice Ministry and other ministries are conferring to agree on a bill expected to be introduced next week and replace the draft that critics say would badly infringe on human rights.

That bill would give the government the power to impose curfews on homes and neighborhoods, halt public transportation, limit the number of people at places of employment and fine anyone who violates the orders.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz announced that the bill would not include several broad enforcement powers that appeared in the original draft. But they did not mention provisions that would let the cabinet bypass laws via temporary orders as well as the power to create new violations without Knesset approval.

“We will strike the proper balance between the need to enforce quarantine directives and the need to protect Israeli citizens’ individual rights and privacy rights,” Netanyahu told a meeting of Likud legislators.

In response to criticism of the original draft bill on emergency powers, Netanyahu said he would not let the police break into peoples’ homes without a warrant, but he did not present a new version that would make this clear.

At a meeting of Kahol Lavan legislators, Gantz acknowledged the public’s concerns about the legislation.

“We won’t permit violations of the rights of the individual,” he said. “We won’t advance any bill that doesn’t meet the principles that I have spelled out. We will continue to work on the plan and are currently improving it.”

A Thursday deadline has been set for comments from the public and government ministries on the original draft bill.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a government meeting in Jerusalem, May 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

One of the main changes that Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri are considering is allowing a state of emergency for five months, not 10. The cabinet would then have to reconsider the situation before extending the state of emergency for another five months.

Also, a Knesset committee, probably the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, would be able to rescind the state of emergency. The committee would be allowed to convene just a few weeks after the emergency is declared and decide whether it should continue.

This provision would give the Knesset supervision over the cabinet and prime minister during the extraordinary period.

Even as originally drafted, the legislation would not apply to the courts, the Knesset or the president, but Nissenkorn wants the legislation to state explicitly that they retain freedom of action. A provision might be added, for example, to ensure that visitors have access to the Knesset building to meet with legislators and not only attend Knesset committee meetings or sessions of the full Knesset.

Another provision under consideration would state that the courts are authorized to hold hearings by video conference rather than not hold hearings at all.

The Prime Minister’s Office seeks to advance the bill before the expiration of the current three-month emergency regulations, which were approved by the cabinet. According to the draft bill and its explanatory notes, legislation is necessary to let the government combat the coronavirus after the three-month period.

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