Netanyahu, Likud Ministers Sought Israeli Parliament Closure Under New Coronavirus Regulations

Knesset shutdown, which would prevent voting on motions that threaten Netanyahu's hold on power, was rejected by other ministers in overnight discussion

Yossi Verter
Noa Landau
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Yariv Levin, left, and Zeev Elkin in Jerusalem, November 2019.
Yariv Levin, left, and Zeev Elkin in Jerusalem, November 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yossi Verter
Noa Landau

As the cabinet debated the new emergency closure orders applied to all Israelis from Friday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and three Likud ministers demanded that the Health Ministry not exempt the Knesset from those orders, arguing for the shut down of Israel’s legislative body.

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Will Israel's cyber spies let Bibi use coronavirus to kill democracy?Credit: Haaretz

During a cabinet meeting, conducted by telephone conference call Thursday night, Netanyahu, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin and Communications Minister David Amsalem all said – each with their own justifications – that the Knesset must not be allowed to continue work as part of compliance with the regulations, according to people who participated in the conversation.

Continuing parliamentary activities, they argued, would endanger Knesset members, some of whom are at higher risk of complications from the coronavirus. They added that they must serve as an example for the Israeli public. 

Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz responded, saying "There will not be a government in Israel if there will not be a functioning Knesset, as democracy demands." 

As part of the regulations, activities in the public space are reduced and restricted, and restrictions on trade, recreation and leisure activities were set for an initial period of 7 days. According to these regulations, Israelis will only be allowed to leave home to get to work, for employees not working from home or on leave, to buy food and medicine, receive medical care, donate blood, protest, and attend court hearings and religious ceremonies. The Health Ministry regulations also forbid gatherings of more than 10 people in one space, which would make convening the full Knesset plenum for a vote impossible.

The swearing in of the 23rd Knesset, done in 40 batches of three lawmakers at a time, March 16, 2020.
The swearing in of the 23rd Knesset, done in 40 batches of three lawmakers at a time, March 16, 2020.Credit: Gideon Sharon / Knesset Spokesperson

Shutting the Knesset would prevent two major initiatives of the center-left bloc from moving forward – a vote to replace Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of Likud, and the passage of legislation preventing a person indicted for criminal offenses from serving as prime minister. If brought to a vote, both initiatives are expected to pass by a narrow margin, dealing a major blow to Likud’s hold on power.

The move would also prevent Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief rival, from forming a government in the 24 days he has left to do so, after being given the task by President Reuven Rivlin on Monday.

The ministers’ positions were ultimately rejected by the rest of the cabinet. The ministers changed their position and the cabinet unanimously voted to allow the Knesset to resume work after it reopens Monday afternoon.

The three Likud ministers also asked to limit the right to protest – supposedly to safeguard public health – but this stance was also rejected by the cabinet, two ministers who attended the meeting said. The debate between the three and the other cabinet members became heated on occasion, and voices were raised.

Communications Minister David Amsalem enters a government meeting, Jerusalem, August, 2019.
Communications Minister David Amsalem enters a government meeting, Jerusalem, August, 2019. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Levin said the Knesset was not authorized to exempt itself from restrictions and bans imposed on the public, because it is not “ex-territorial” and is part of the general public.

Elkin agreed with Levin, arguing an exemption might lead to "mass infection," potentially putting many political and military leaders at risk.

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov announced he intends to recommend only that Knesset members keep a distance of two meters (6.5 feet) from each other, as is advised for the general public.

Amsalem argued that opening the Knesset would personally endanger him and his family as he would have to be in attendance three days a week. “I am responsible for my family like everyone else. We Knesset members and ministers are not different creatures, we’re not aliens,” he said.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Tzipi Hotovely proposed that the Knesset could easily find alternative ways to hold its sessions, including holding “video conferences” from adjacent rooms, without gathering any large groups in a single space – similar to how the cabinet has been meeting. If cabinet members have been voting on the emergency regulations for the past week using WhatsApp, the Knesset can also act accordingly and adapt itself to the new situation, she argued.

Some ministers suggested that lawmakers would be allowed to vote from home, as did government ministers over the past week. However, Elkin said that the Knesset rules of procedure require the physical presence of lawmakers during a vote, adding that the Knesset’s legal adviser "isn't a fan" of such a change.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who participated in the conference call, had already ruled that the Knesset is a sovereign body and can decide on its own operations and that the cabinet has no right to tell the Knesset how to conduct its business, except that it must follow the Health Ministry instructions.

On Thursday, protesters made their way to the Knesset to oppose the “assault on democracy” amid the coronavirus outbreak. Protesters explained that they opposed the imposition of draconian orders, like cyber tracking of civilians, by a caretaker government with no oversight, restriction of civilian movement, and the adjourning of the Knesset by Edelstein on Wednesday – a move that prevented the vote to replace him and delays the establishment of government committees that could oversee the cabinet’s actions.

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