Netanyahu Wanted Polygraphs for Health Ministry Staff, Mendelblit Said No

According to one of the ministers, the Netanyahu was concerned about the possible consequences of the Shin Bet monitoring and asked to guarantee that the information wouldn’t leak out

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Israel's attorney general Avichai Mandelblit in Jerusalem, December 2019.
Israel's attorney general Avichai Mandelblit in Jerusalem, December 2019.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

In drawing up the emergency regulations for monitoring the whereabouts of coronavirus patients, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to include lie-detector tests for those senior Health Ministry officials who would have access to the data, in the event the information was leaked. Netanyahu’s request was denied because Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit objected to it.

The regulations approved by the cabinet allow the Shin Bet security service and the police to use digital measures, among them pinpointing the cell phone locations of coronavirus patients and those that were in their proximity, without having to seek a court order or any approval at all. The aim is to be able to send text messages to those who are at risk of infection and assure that those ill are not infecting additional people.

This information is meant to be revealed to senior Health Ministry officials, including ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov and the head of the ministry’s public health division, Prof. Sigal Sidetzky.

Netanyahu asked to include in the regulations the right to conduct polygraph tests for that limited group of people in the event that the material leaks. According to one of the ministers, the prime minister was concerned about the possible consequences of the Shin Bet monitoring and asked to guarantee that the information wouldn’t leak out. Another source saw the request as Netanyahu’s effort to rebuff complaints that the regulations involve violations of civil rights.

Mendelblit opposed the request on grounds that the polygraph is an invasive tool that would unduly harm Health Ministry personnel. According to one minister, Mendelbit made it clear that if there were a leak, he would launch a criminal investigation that could include lie-detector testing. “You cannot label the Health Ministry director general a leaker even before there’s a leak, and the chances that there would be a leak from any of these people is low to nonexistent. Why undermine them?” the minister quoted Mendelblit as saying.

Over the weekend Netanyahu said that the government planned to use digital monitoring methods to control the coronavirus that until now had been only used in the war on terror. The announcement led to vocal public criticism, and there were several ministers who objected to what they saw as an unreasonable invasion of privacy. As a result, it was made clear that the regulations would be in effect for only 30 days, and that the Shin Bet could not make any other use of the information it gathers. After that period, the information collected is to be erased.

In response to the criticism, the Justice Ministry clarified that this surveillance would be subject to Knesset approval. But the Knesset subcommittee on secret services hasn’t completed its discussions of the issue, and subcommittee chairman MK Gabi Ashkenazi (Kahol Lavan) refused to bring it to a vote without a debate. As a result, Netanyahu decided to circumvent the Knesset by getting emergency regulations to this effect approved early Tuesday morning. The move, which Kahol Lavan described as underhanded, will make it difficult for the legislative branch to supervise the surveillance or the use of the information that’s gathered.

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