The threats to oust MK Yifat Shasha-Biton (Likud) as head of the Knesset’s ad hoc Coronavirus Committee, which stem from her refusal Monday to approve all the restrictions the cabinet sought to impose, is a continuation of the antidemocratic deterioration Israel has undergone since the coronavirus crisis began. This deterioration is especially evident in the attempts to turn the Knesset into a rubber stamp for cabinet decisions.
Last week, in the dead of night, after holding all three of the required votes in a single day, the Knesset passed a law authorizing the cabinet to impose far-reaching restrictions on people’s daily lives and the economy without prior approval from the Coronavirus Committee.
The law was passed because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to act freely and effectively. In his view, the power to severely infringe on Israelis’ human rights should be given to him and the cabinet, without the need for the “bureaucratic” process of approval by the Knesset, which includes consultations with experts, legal advisers and the public. But this completely ignores the fact that the Knesset, not the cabinet, is both the representative of Israel’s sovereign power – the people – and the branch of government responsible for legislating.
The law’s supporters sought to reassure us. True, the cabinet’s decisions will take effect immediately, they said, but they will have to be retroactively ratified by the Coronavirus Committee within a few days, so parliamentary supervision will exist.
Well, the first test case arrived on Monday, when the committee was asked to retroactively approve the cabinet’s decision to close public swimming pools and gyms. Committee members, headed by Shasha-Biton, asked for the data that served as the basis for this decision. But the data they received was not persuasive, so they decided to overturn the decision, despite heavy pressure on the committee chairwoman.
Coalition whip Miki Zohar didn’t take long to respond. He announced that his Likud party wanted Shasha-Biton replaced. He thereby let the cat out of the bag. The cabinet isn’t prepared to tolerate any form of parliamentary supervision – not in advance, not after the fact, not ever.
The cabinet wants to set the rules and have the Knesset ratify them as a rubber stamp. Granted, Zohar later retracted his threat. But he added that for now, nothing connected to the coronavirus would be brought to the Coronavirus Committee.
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The Knesset Constitution Committee is currently holding lengthy, serious discussions on the so-called coronavirus bill, which is meant to replace the temporary legislation passed in the dead of night last week.
Given the farce that occurred on Monday, it has become even more essential that the committee nix any possibility of the cabinet receiving wide-ranging powers to promulgate regulations that will be “approved retroactively” by the Knesset.
This is necessary not only to protect human rights, but also because the battle against the pandemic requires cooperation from the public. The public’s faith in the government and the restrictions it imposes has been gradually eroded, and the cabinet’s aggressive move on Monday won’t restore it. But standing firm on principles, as Shasha-Biton did, actually will.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.