Netanyahu Seeks Emergency Powers to Quash Protests Under Coronavirus Regulations

After inconclusive overnight debate, Netanyahu bids to circumvent Knesset with 2 P.M. lockdown looming ■ Opposition figures support tighter lockdown, but insistence on banning Balfour protests remains sticking point ■ High court says it will oppose

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Anti-Netanyahu protests as second lockdown set to tighten, Thursday, September 24, 2020.
Anti-Netanyahu protests as second lockdown set to tighten, Thursday, September 24, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking emergency powers Friday in order to enact restrictions that would prevent Saturday's protests against the prime minister in Jerusalem under the coronavirus regulations.

The Knesset, mired in political deadlock, failed to pass legislation that would limit the right to protest under the coronavirus restrictions that took effect at 2 P.M. Friday.

Special Haaretz briefing: How Israel’s COVID failure led to a second national lockdown

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Friday afternoon that he would bring a proposal for emergency measures to the government for approval. The measures will forbid all gatherings until the Knesset is able to pass legislation next week. Edelstein said that he had received a professional medical opinion, which stated gatherings were "a danger to public health."

Defense Minister and Kahol Lavan Leader Benny Gantz said his party would not support the move. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit also said he opposes the move and believes it would be shot down by the High Court.

The Knesset Legislative Committee convened Thursday night and held marathon debates through Friday afternoon. Coalition Whip Miki Zohar announced during the meeting that his party would seek emergency measures to limit protests as the law could not pass without opposition support.

Despite Zohar's claims, four of the objections to the law that stalled the committee were presented by Likud MK Shlomo Karhi, who demanded that the limits on the right to protest be enacted during partial lockdowns as well as total lockdowns. Karhi said, "In an emergency situation like this one, we must use stronger tools to eradicate the pandemic." The right-wing opposition party Yamina said they would support such a measure if it were to come to a vote in the Knesset.

Legal advisors in the Prime Minister's Office are working to draft of emergency measures that will almost completely wipe out the anti-Netanyahu protest on Saturday night, but the plan faces significant opposition from the High Court, as well as coalition and opposition groups. The emergency measures would stay in effect until Tuesday, when the Knesset can reconvene after the Yom Kippur holiday. 

Netanyahu believes that if a mass demonstration is held in Balfour on Saturday night, it will encourage hundreds of thousands to violate instructions on Yom Kippur and pray in synagogues.

In response, several groups from the anti-Netanyahu protest bloc sent out a message to followers explaining that they would hold Saturday's protests in a different form than they have for the past 13 weeks.

Organizations condemned Netanyahu's attempts to limit the right to protest; the statement said they would quell the in-person protests, "so as not to give excuses to the failing Netanyahu government."

The organizers said they would instead form a protest convoy that would make its way to Balfour street in Jerusalem, and would demonstrators would hold socially-distanced protests there while following Health Ministry regulations. They also encouraged citizens to protest in small groups near their homes, in accordance with the lockdown restrictions.

The protest organizers emphasized that exercising the right to protest is a "moral obligation" in a time of national emergency, and called on all citizens to join them in protesting in a socially distanced manner. 

In a message to Kahol Lavan party members, Gantz said, "The decision on the intensified lockdown is meant to curb the pandemic and not to block the right to protest or pray. We will continue in the framework of the democratic process of legislation, and avoid use of emergency measures, which are targeted solely at the protests, prayers or any other matter," he said.

The Attorney General's Office was alerted of the intention to seek emergency powers overnight Thursday. Sources in the office say that declaring a state of emergency as a solution to a political struggle within the coalition will be struck down by the High Court.

Mendelblit also spoke to Netanyahu Friday morning, in a conversation that included the head of the National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat, and explained his objections.

Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri, who is responsible for matters relating to the coronavirus, clarified to the committee that as long as there is a functioning Knesset, emergency measures cannot be used to circumvent it. He noted the High Court had previously ruled that the use of emergency measures is only for an emergency situation during which it is objectively impossible to pass legislation. 

"If the High Court shoots down the legislation, we will be in a tragedy we couldn't even imagine," Zohar said during the meeting of the committee.

Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy sent a letter on Friday to Netanyahu, Mendelblit, Edelstein and Ben-Shabbat, and urged that they "do everything possible, urgently, to prevent unfettered gatherings." According to professor Levy, the medical opinion of the ministry is that all uncontrolled gatherings, in particular those that take place indoors, and to a lesser degree, "but in no way inconsequential," outdoors, may cause a spike in infections.

The government approved specific regulations on Thursday restricting demonstrations during the closure, which have not passed in the Knesset. The regulations allow for protests in groups of up to 20 people up to one kilometer from the place of residence. However, if approved, the regulations may change the nature of the demonstrations in front of the prime minister's residence even after the closure.

At the request of the coronavirus cabinet, Israel Police, the Ministry of Health and the Attorney General have devised a plan that limits the number of demonstrators outside Netanyahu's residence to 2,000 in accordance with the capsule system.

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