Only working institution is unelected gov't with PM who lost

Blue and White’s Lapid: Virus response shows Israel ‘no longer a democracy’

Benny Gantz’s No. 2 lambastes government’s closure of courts ahead of Netayahu trial, digital tracking of patients; claims measures being taken by ‘illegitimate government’

Blue and White MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Blue and White MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Blue and White MK Yair Lapid on Tuesday night censured several recent moves announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s transitional government to curb the spread of the coronavirus, declaring that Israel “is no longer a democracy.”

He cited the introduction of mass surveillance of Israeli citizens — to track virus cases and those with whom they interact — without parliamentary oversight, and decisions to shut down the operations of the judiciary and legislature due to the spiraling virus outbreak.

On Wednesday morning, responding to widespread criticism of his attacks on a government dealing with a pandemic, Lapid tweeted that “the instruction [not] to leave home is not the problem; the fact that it is given by an illegitimate government is definitely a problem.”

In his Tuesday video, posted on social media, Lapid said: “It’s possible that it doesn’t really interest you with all this coronavirus in the air, but as of today, you no longer live in a democracy.”

“The judiciary was closed four days ago, in an order given at 1 a.m., without anyone knowing about it,” he said, referring to Likud’s Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s decision to close the courts, days before Netanyahu’s corruption trial was set to begin.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) seen with MK Amir Ohana at a Likud party meeting in the Knesset on January 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

That move prompted accusations that Netanyahu was using the COVID-19 crisis to evade justice, though many other governments across the globe have already implemented, or are about to implement, similar restrictions on their legal systems.

“The legislature was closed today, illegally,” Lapid continued. “The previous Knesset speaker, who wasn’t elected to the position [in the current legislature], closed the Knesset. Before that, he refused the request of a majority of the Knessset, 62 MKs, to pick a new speaker instead of him.”

Blue and White, in a Friday letter to Speaker Yuli Edelstein, informed him of its intention to hold a vote on naming a new speaker shortly after all 120 MKs were officially sworn in Monday, following the March 2 Knesset election. The move by Blue and White was seen as an attempted power play ahead of coalition-building attempts, as the party believes it can secure a majority in the new legislature to take the reins of parliament from Likud for the first time in more than a decade. It was blocked by Edelstein.

Control of the  speaker position would give the opposition parties more power to advance legislation, including a potential bill that would prevent a person facing criminal charges from forming a government — effectively disqualifying Netanyahu from doing so.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein is tested for fever outside the Knesset on March 16, 2020. (Knesset spokespersons’ office)

After Edelstein refused to hold the vote, the Blue and White party appealed to the Knesset legal adviser to determine whether he had the power to do so. Some Hebrew reports said the Knesset speaker does not need to approve a vote on his replacement until a new government is sworn in.

Edelstein’s maneuver meant that Knesset committees would not convene, continued Lapid, “including the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which will ensure that you aren’t being monitored illegally.”

He was referring to the government decision overnight Monday-Tuesday to use advanced technologies to track citizens in a bid to limit exposure to sick individuals.

The approval of the emergency measure bypassed the Knesset — a move Netanyahu had said would not be done — after a subcommittee meeting on Monday on clandestine services stopped short of approving the highly controversial surveillance program, pending additional debate.

Former justice minister and Netanyahu ally Ayelet Shaked, of the Yamina party, on Tuesday called for the Knesset committees to be staffed to oversee the government monitoring and prevent abuse.

In his post, Lapid argued that the Knesset could convene remotely via video, charging that the caretaker government doesn’t want oversight “because it knows it’s making serious mistakes, fateful ones, both medically and — mostly — economically.”

A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. At left is Benny Gantz. Center, with back to camera, is Benjamin Netanyahu (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

“Right now, the only functioning institution in the country is an unelected transitional government, with a prime minister who lost the election,” continued Lapid. “If there is no majority in the Knesset — he closes the Knesset. If he needs to stand trial — he closes the courts.”

The caretaker government “told us we cannot leave our homes,” said Lapid, referring to Health Ministry restrictions introduced on Tuesday. “If you want to appeal this decision, or even ask that someone evaluate it — there is no one to ask. As of now, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yuli Edelstein have shut down Israeli democracy.”

Echoing Lapid, fellow Blue and White MK Moshe Ya’alon accused Netanyahu of using the coronavirus to neuter Israeli democracy.

“Blue and White will establish as broad an emergency government as possible, even if we start with a narrow government, to save the country. We won’t allow Netanyahu to turn Israel into a dictatorship,” Ya’alon, a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, tweeted.

Gantz earlier on Tuesday called the restrictions on parliament, ostensibly to combat the virus, “a dangerous precedent for democracy.”

“Likud, via Netanyahu and MK Edelstein, are trying at any cost to prevent the Knesset from working,” said Gantz. “It isn’t enough that the Knesset hasn’t been functioning for an entire year; now they also want the new Knesset to not do the minimum amount of work that is necessary in a crisis.”

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman also assailed Netanyahu over his response to the coronavirus outbreak, accusing him of leading Israel to “total collapse.”

Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Lieberman (C) meets Tuesday March 10 with Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz (2L), Yair Lapid (2R), Gabi Ashkenazi (R) and Moshe Ya’alon (L) (Courtesy/Elad Malka)

Israel has introduced a series of sweeping restrictions since the outbreak began, requiring all Israelis returning to the country to self-quarantine for 14 days and barring foreigners unless they displayed an ability to quarantine. It also shut schools, cafes, malls, gyms and more. Ministers early on Tuesday approved a highly controversial measure to allow the government to track Israelis’ phones to locate where carriers of the virus had been.

On Tuesday, widening the restrictions, the Health Ministry told Israelis not to leave their homes or visit parks and beaches, with exceptions made for essential needs, like food shopping, medicine shopping, medical care, and work.

As of Wednesday morning, there have been 427 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Israel.

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