Blue and White threatens to oppose extending lockdown amid enforcement dispute

Bill to up fines for rule-breakers stalls, as Gantz’s party rejects Likud compromise with Haredim on closing rebellious schools; ultra-Orthodox MK says party smearing Haredi public

Minister of Defense Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister of Defense Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition infighting continued on Wednesday over a bill that would step up enforcement of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown by hiking fines for institutions that violate the rules.

The Blue and White party has said that unless a proposal for far stricter enforcement passes, it will oppose the extension of all lockdown restrictions beyond Sunday. That discussion is planned for Thursday.

According to Channel 12 News, the Health Ministry wants a week-long extension but may settle for four days.

Blue and White is pushing for stricter enforcement and heavier fines, measures that are opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies. Many institutions in the Haredi sector have continued to operate throughout the lockdown despite the fines, angering critics who say that the current level of enforcement isn’t enough.

The thorny issue has been threatening to thwart the extension of the lockdown altogether and has inflamed tensions within the battered coalition, with the Likud party caught between its ultra-Orthodox allies and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White.

Likud on Wednesday proposed a compromise bill that would allow authorities to close schools without first issuing a fine, but would require giving schools a 48-hour notice before they actually close.

Blue and White rejected the proposal, and the discussion was shelved for the time being, according to Kan News.

According to the current version under discussion, fines will be raised but not doubled as previously planned, institutions will only be forced to close after receiving two fines, and lower-ranking officers will not have the authority to hand out fines.

Likud said Wednesday it will support the bill in its current form in its second and third readings, adding that it does not object “if Blue and White and the ultra-Orthodox parties reach agreements on small changes.”

But if no agreement is reached, Likud will back the current proposal, the party said.

Kan reported that coalition whip Miki Zohar of Likud, considered a close ally to Netanyahu, pressured the ultra-Orthodox parties to compromise with Blue and White and to agree to allow for immediate school closures for schools that violate lockdown rules.

Likud MK Miki Zohar seen at the Knesset, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zohar objected to a proposal from United Torah Judaism’s MK Yaakov Asher that would only allow high fines be given to schools with over 40 students present. Zohar said all schools that open against lockdown restrictions should be fined, Kan reported.

Zohar also feuded with Blue and White over the fines, accusing the party of opposing all compromises and endangering the public to advance its political interests.

Asher, who heads the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, accused Blue and White of smearing the Haredi public. He said raising fines would hurt small businesses and would fail to deter schools from opening illegally.

“You’re knocking a million business owners in the name of populism,” Asher said. “This is character assassination of the Haredi public.”

The bill on the fines passed its first reading earlier this week, but the ultra-Orthodox parties have fumed over the fact that it seeks to double current fines.

Pressured by his Haredi allies — who have threatened to nix their political partnership with him ahead of the elections — Netanyahu sought to tone down the bill and ensured the legislation went to a Knesset committee controlled by the United Torah Judaism party before its two final readings, scheduled for Thursday.

United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher at the opening event of their election campaign, ahead of the Israeli elections, in Jerusalem, on February 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Blue and White is vehemently opposed to the compromise, arguing that it will cause the continuation of the current state, which it alleged sees tougher enforcement in non-Haredi areas compared to Haredi areas — where infection rates are much higher.

Likud, which depends on the ultra-Orthodox parties in the upcoming March 23 elections, hasn’t budged.

The Knesset on Sunday approved extending the lockdown rules through Sunday, despite Gantz’s threat to oppose an extension until the bill on hiking fines is advanced. Blue and White said it will not allow the cabinet to meet Thursday to extend the lockdown unless the legislation on increasing fines goes ahead.

“There will be no cabinet meeting on extending the lockdown if there is no equal enforcement for all,” the party said. “Either everyone heeds the lockdown — or there will be no fake lockdown.”

A Blue and White source quoted by Hebrew-language media responded said that “Likud is again caving to its Haredi allies and putting political interest above the public interest. Instead of bringing the original law agreed upon by the government, it is bringing a neutered law that won’t allow effective enforcement of the lockdown they are demanding. We won’t allow them to continue to toy with human lives.”

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