Israel's Law to Bypass Its Public

Haaretz Editorial
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From left: Then Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, PM Netanyahu, Knesset whip Miki Zohar, Jerusalem, February 9, 2020.
From left: Then Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, PM Netanyahu, Knesset whip Miki Zohar, Jerusalem, February 9, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Haaretz Editorial

The Knesset convened late Wednesday night to give its final approval to the “Law Granting Special Authorities to Combat the Novel Coronavirus,” also known as the “Big Coronavirus Law.” In force for a year, the law grants the government the ability to declare a state of emergency and thereby issue regulations for combating the coronavirus, which will go into effect even without Knesset approval.

In the wake of widespread public criticism as well as opposition from within the coalition, a complicated mechanism was inserted into the law by which government regulations will “normally” go into effect only after 24 hours, and the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee or other relevant committees may prevent them from going into effect, or approve them in advance.

But if the committee does not reach a decision, the regulation will go into effect after 24 hours. At that point, a retroactive approval mechanism will go into effect (similar to the way the Coronavirus Committee has been operating in the past two weeks, by a temporary order that was approved at a late-night meeting two weeks ago).

The Knesset plenum, which is not capable of holding a discussion on a detailed level and is essentially a rubber stamp for the coalition, was also authorized, as a default position, to approve the regulations post facto. In addition, in “urgent cases,” the government can skip those 24 hours and decide that the regulations will immediately go into effect.

This sets a very dangerous precedent in which the Knesset delegates to the cabinet the authority to set norms and to balance health interests and fundamental rights. It contradicts the principle of the division of authorities and subverts the Knesset’s position as the entity that represents the people, which is the sovereign in a democracy.

Yes, the government must take firm action to combat the pandemic, but this doesn’t mean it must bypass the Knesset. There is no difficulty in convening the Knesset and getting a regulation approved by a committee, in one vote, is certainly not a lengthy and convoluted process.

The push for the law derives from a desire to operate far from public view. The cabinet is bothered by the fact that, unlike it, the Knesset operates with transparency, its discussions are public, alternative proposals are heard, and experts are given an opportunity to speak. This is not how decisions on regulations are made by the cabinet.

In terms of the outcome, too, the retroactive approval process will hurt the fight against the virus. The public has completely lost faith in the government. A situation in which a law (which includes criminal violations) is announced and then delayed for 24 hours and then goes into effect and then is possibly canceled – will only spawn chaos, contempt and, ultimately, unwillingness to obey the law. Getting the public to follow the rules and regulations should be the government’s main objective. That is the only way to combat the virus.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.