Sidelined by Coronavirus and Netanyahu, Ministers Become Rubber Stamps

In private conversations, several ministers admitted that they can't criticize Netanyahu's decision-making because he is about to distribute portfolios in a new government and no one wants to cross him

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Israelis protest measures passed during the coronavirus crisis and the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, April 2020.
Israelis protest measures passed during the coronavirus crisis and the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, April 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Since the coronavirus crisis erupted, there has been an unofficial routine established in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces new instructions to the public in live broadcasts before the cabinet discusses them and approves them. These announcements are generally made during the main evening news broadcasts between 8 P.M. and 9 P.M., and the cabinet phone meetings take place only afterward, late into the night.

If the ministers insist on changing certain details in the draft resolution, the publication of the regulations gets further delayed by the legal advisers and they are only finalized right before they go into effect, without the confused public having a chance to digest them. The ministers don’t get much of an opportunity to study the proposals either, because very often their final versions and background material are sent out right before the cabinet meetings.

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Bibi's got the perfect exit strategy - just not for the coronavirusCredit: Haaretz

In addition, the Health Ministry seeks to publish an illustrated and accessible version of the regulations, but it generally ends up publicizing the version that was approved in the discussions with Netanyahu, ignoring the fact that the ministers still have to approve it and that sometimes there are changes. And to top off this whole problematic process, which Netanyahu manages in a centralized fashion, these guidelines are issued as emergency regulations, a path that circumvents Knesset oversight.

In private conversations several ministers have expressed frustration with the situation, and argue that Netanyahu’s way of doing things have turned them into mere rubber stamps. But when they complain to the cabinet secretariat, they avoid attacking the prime minister directly, and instead direct their anger at the Health Ministry, which is ostensibly rushing to issue instructions to the public that have yet to be approved by the cabinet.

This is what happened this past Saturday night, when several ministers were surprised to discover that not only had Netanyahu, in his public address, given the public details about the relaxed restrictions without the cabinet having had a chance to discuss them even once, but that the Health Ministry had disseminated these new regulations right after the speech, before a time head been set for the cabinet meeting to approve them and before the ministers had been sent the background information.

The frustration was evident on the cabinet’s WhatsApp group. “Why are they issuing the relaxed instructions before we’ve been convened to approve them?” asked Minister Zeev Elkin. To which Minister Yoav Galant replied, “It’s no different from regular cabinet meetings.” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan wrote, “It’s not right that it’s being presented to the public as a proposal from the Health Ministry, the ones who decide are the cabinet,” adding, “My fellow ministers, I admire and respect the Health Ministry director-general and the positions he presents to the public but the responsibility for promulgating regulations and giving answers to the public is ours, as the government.”

Erdan wanted to approve the plan clause by clause, rather than as a package. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Diaspora Affairs Minister Tzipi Hotovely agreed with him. Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich also wanted a detailed discussion. “The truth is it isn’t clear why we need a cabinet meeting at all if everything’s been decided and announced,” he wrote. “We are not obligated to what the Health Ministry issued. That’s their proposal but the authority and responsibility is ours. We can change any clause.”

Education Minister Rafi Peretz added, “I agree with Minister Erdan, I have objections to the outline on preschools.” Only Galant seemed reconciled to the situation. “I suggest that we demonstrate a bit more responsibility. This whole discussion is superfluous. We have to give the prime minister and those who have been authorized on this issue the ability and the backing to do it.”

In the midst of this argument, the cabinet secretary illustrated the problem. “There’s no timeline for sending materials and no time set for the meeting,” he told the ministers. At that point it was 10 P.M., an hour after Netanyahu’s address, yet the ministers still hadn’t seen the proposal or the background material.

In the end, the meeting began at 2 A.M. and ended at 7, and the ministers who were so upset at having been excluded from the decision-making process didn’t change almost anything in the plan other than raising the number of people permitted to pray together to 19 and lowering the fine for not wearing a mask in public. Elkin was the only one who voted against some of the regulations because he objected in principle to expanding the workforce without a solution for parents with children at home. Bennett, who had previously agreed “100 percent” with Erdan about debating every clause, dropped out of the meeting early, leaving instructions that he was in favor of everything.

The next day, none of the ministers dared attack Netanyahu over the way the decisions were made. Publicly they all aimed their fire at the Health Ministry, which they said had rushed “mistakenly” to publicize the instructions without cabinet approval, and stressed that an adviser to Health Minister Yaakov Litzman had apologized to them.

But in private conversations several ministers admitted that there is a problem with the way decisions are being made during this crisis and that they are politically unable to criticize this because Netanyahu is about to distribute portfolios in a new government and no one wants to cross him. Even the mild criticism expressed in the WhatsApp group was quickly hushed by Cabinet Secretary Tzahi Braverman, who warned that it could be leaked. “It’s true, under Netanyahu everyone’s a rubber stamp, but at least we have a seat at the virtual cabinet table to stamp from,” one minister quipped.

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