Knesset Passes Law Granting Emergency Powers to Cabinet Amid Coronavirus Crisis

During emergencies the cabinet would have the authority to circumvent the Knesset ■ The cabinet could repeatedly extend the state of emergency by 60 days

Jonathan Lis
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The Coronavirus Committee during their meeting to discuss the bill at the Knesset, July 19, 2020.
The Coronavirus Committee during their meeting to discuss the bill at the Knesset, July 19, 2020.Credit: Knesset Spokesperson
Jonathan Lis

The Knesset passed Wednesday night a law granting the cabinet the authority to declare a state of emergency amid the coronavirus crisis and impose restrictions to stem the renewed outbreak of the pandemic.

The legislation will remain in effect until June 30, 2021, replacing the law allowing the cabinet to bypass the Knesset on COVID-19 regulations, which the parliament passed in the beginning of July.

LISTEN: Protests, pandemics and Netanyahu's day of reckoningCredit: Haaretz

Members on the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee attempted to amend some clauses in the proposed bill prior to its passing, but failed to gain the necessary majority to do so.

However, the committee extended the Knesset’s ability to oversee new coronavirus directives issued by the cabinet.

The law allows the Knesset to block new regulations before they go into effect. Any regulation approved by the cabinet would be frozen for 24 hours, during which one of the Knesset committees could convene to decide whether to approve it, reject certain sections of it or to change the duration of its validity. Only after the Knesset passes them, would the regulations become official and go into effect.

According to the law, If a Knesset committee does not discuss the new regulations within 24 hours, it would immediately go into effect, but the committee could decide to revoke it within two weeks. During emergencies, the cabinet will have the authority to approve special regulations that would immediately go into effect. This has sparked criticism among the opposition, which argued that it renders the Knesset's approval for new regulations meaningless.

In case a Knesset committee does not discuss a coronavirus regulation within the two weeks from the day it is issued, the Knesset speaker may bring the regulation up for approval by the entire parliament, where the coalition holds a majority. The regulations would be in force for two to four weeks, depending on the matters they pertain to, and their validity could potentially be extended.

The cabinet now has the authority to extend the state of emergency by 60 days, instead of 45 days, as was stated in the original wording of the bill. This was proposed as a compromise in wake of the request to freeze new regulations for 24 hours. The Knesset could strike down the declaration at any stage, while the government would be obligated to end the state of emergency if significant improvement occurs in battling the pandemic.

After the law was passed, the cabinet was given a transition period of two weeks to formulate regulations. At the end of this period all the emergency regulations that were issued since the start of the crisis will expire and the new regulations would go into effect on August 10. Extending the state of emergency amid the coronavirus crisis would require the approval of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. The cabinet will not have the powers to issue any regulations to prevent demonstrations, prayer services or religious ceremonies, but it could set conditions for holding them.

According to the official wording of the law, the cabinet is authorized to declare a state of emergency if it is convinced that “there is a real risk of a nationwide outbreak of the coronavirus and of significant harm to public health if actions are not taken by power of the authorities stipulated in this law.” The move would only be possible if the cabinet bases its decision on a professional opinion submitted by the Health Ministry.

The committee’s legal adviser, attorney Gur Blai, said “the arrangement goes off the right track. It is irregular and unprecedented. We believe committee approval is necessary as a condition for [a regulation] going into effect.

"While the regulations can be approved within seven to 14 days by the cabinet, the committee could convene immediately to approve or reject them. The amendment made is an improvement compared to the original arrangement, but it could have been improved more. A period of at least 72 hours or longer for oversight from the outset ought to be instituted. It should be noted that the new proposal does give the cabinet flexibility in urgent cases in which the entire approval will be post facto.”

Matters concerning the declaration or cancellation of a state of emergency, and the institution of regulations pertaining to restricting private and public space, will be brought before the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. Other regulations will be brought before the Education Committee, the Labor and Welfare Committee, the Finance Committee or another committee as determined by the Knesset House Committee.

The law does not explicitly mention the coronavirus committee, probably due to the clash between Likud and  Yifat Shasha-Biton, who chairs the coronavirus committee and who blocked approval for regulations issued by the cabinet last week.

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee decided to include in the law a directive for establishing a national department within the Israel Police that would determine enforcement policy with the aim of reducing friction with the population without harming deterrence.

The committee reduced the amount of administrative fines levied to business owners for opening their businesses in a restricted area contrary to restrictions. Now, a business with up to five workers would be fined 2,000 shekels, a business with up to 50 workers would be fined 4,000 shekels and business with more than 50 workers would be fined 6,000 shekels.

As per the committee’s demand, the full or partial closure of an institution that was visited by a coronavirus carrier will not exceed 72 hours from the time the carrier was diagnosed. In special cases an institution would close within 120 hours for the purpose of epidemiological tracing and preventing infection.

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