Analysis

An Emergency for Israeli Democracy: Coronavirus Crisis Cannot Chip Away at Checks and Balances

The epidemic comes at a time when caretaker prime minister Netanyahu, who is indicted for corruption and fighting for his political and personal future, has too much authority and too much at stake

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an Brazil Trade Ministry event at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, December 15, 2019.
Emil Salman

A black warning flag is flying over Israel, and it’s not over the coronavirus epidemic. Unbalanced, unchecked power is now concentrated in the hands of the prime minister of a caretaker government, allowing him to take and institute draconian measures the likes of which we’ve never seen – and with dizzying speed.

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This is happening without a government, without a sitting parliament, and against an exhausted justice system, whose powers have been curtailed in the dead of night; this is happening using all the authority of the executive branch, particularly the army, the police and the Shin Bet security service.

Now, new rules banning gatherings of more than 10 people even prevent organizing protests. And the media, purportedly the only watchdog left, is having trouble keeping up with the pace of events.

At this time of emergency, democracy is at its most fragile. As we know, it’s very easy to sacrifice individual liberties, particularly other people’s freedoms, and even more so those of minorities, when you’re afraid of harm that can come to yourself and your loved ones. In an epidemic, everyone is equally in danger, and there is a broad consensus over the use of emergency legislation, or of breaking the law for a “justified purpose.”

Netanyahu supporters at a Hanukkah event in Jerusalem, December 22, 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

At such a time, it is crucial to maintain proportionality and oversight. And it is precisely now that the main mechanisms of oversight – the legislative and the judicial branches – are unable to function as required.

A hint of this danger was revealed Saturday night in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that, due to the need to stop the spread of the virus, “all means will be employed, including technological means [used in] the fight against terrorism, which I have avoided until now among the civilian populations.”

This refers mainly to tracking coronavirus patients by using cellphone geolocalization and other means, such as monitoring where their credit cards are being used.

Authorities can ascertain exactly where these people were and who they met before they got sick, and can ensure they are not violating quarantine requirements. The necessary technology is currently only available to security forces, and used to fight crime and terrorism.

Officials at the Justice Ministry’s Privacy Protection Authority said that, although they asked to be involved, they were not included in deliberations over the move. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit did condition his consent to the move upon a cabinet resolution approving it on Sunday, but does anyone really believe that this caretaker cabinet would not approve anything Netanyahu asked of it?

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at an event in Jerusalem, December 18, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Unrestricted tracking of any suspected carrier of the coronavirus is a dramatic step that cannot easily be reversed, if at all. Such a step should have been accompanied by full transparency and advance parliamentary oversight. Who can guarantee these methods will only be used with those who are ill, and only to curb the spread of the virus?

There are other, connected issues, including of where the information will be stored, who will be able to see it, and whether it will be deleted later. All of these questions are disturbing and unanswered.

Netanyahu claimed that this kind of strategy is already in effect in Taiwan. But according to its Representative Office in Israel, Taiwanese authorities are only using digital means to oversee patient isolation, and not to collect information on the activities of people who have the disease, through undercover security agencies.

According to local media reports, people in isolation in Taiwan who do not want to download the tracker application to their cellphones are provided with alternative equipment. Taiwan at the moment is a better functioning democracy than Israel, with all the required checks and balances.

And just after the scandalous, fast-track approval of the monitoring of civilians “by technological means used in the fight against terror,” a special order was issued at 1 A.M., signed by Justice Minister Amir Ohana, freezing court proceedings under a special state of emergency. As a result of the epidemic and with alleged support from the Health Ministry, Netanyahu’s criminal trial was delayed.

Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ohana at a Likud campaign event, Ramat Gan, Israel, February 29, 2020.
Tomer Appelbaum

The order was given for 24 hours - but if the move doesn’t prompt protests, it will go on and on. After all, the coronavirus will not be vanquished in a day.

The politicization of the health crisis has another destructive impact: Large portions of the Israeli public who do not want to see Netanyahu remain in office will now be convinced he is exploiting the situation, stoking fear for his personal needs. They are losing faith in the credibility of the steps being taken to address the coronavirus threat. And without broad public credibility, no epidemic can be halted.

Even in an emergency -- and we are only at the beginning, no one knows how or when it will end – checks and balances must be maintained. Israel is already on the edge when it comes to violations of individual rights. The foundations of our system of government must not be undermined under the auspices of a viral outbreak. This really is an emergency – over the protection of democracy.