Cabinet delays decision on new virus rules as Netanyahu pans protest ‘farce’

Ministers adjourn meeting without compromise on limiting mass demonstrations, synagogues; Haredi minister threatens to resign if restrictions placed on prayer but not on protests

Police arrest a man who drove toward police and demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside the PM's official residence in Jerusalem, on September 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police arrest a man who drove toward police and demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside the PM's official residence in Jerusalem, on September 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the weekly demonstrations against him as a health hazard at Tuesday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting, during which ministers failed to reach an agreement on stricter lockdown measures that would limit those rallies as well as public prayer.

Instead ministers agreed to convene a task force to study limiting both prayer gatherings and protests, giving the group some 12 hours before presenting its findings Wednesday morning.

While indoor prayers have been curtailed, and may face drastically stricter restrictions, outdoor protests have been allowed to continue with few limits, leading some to question the guidelines.

“For a long time I refrained from commenting on the issue, but after I heard the experts say that gatherings are a huge risk to public health, it’s my obligation to address it,” Netanyahu said in comments leaked from the meeting. “The entire public is required to comply with the rules and only a group of protesters is exempt.”

The protests, held several times weekly outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence, have not been curtailed despite the lockdown that began on Friday. The attorney general has laid out rules to spread out protesters during the rallies into “capsules,” but they did not appear to be implemented during Sunday night’s protest, which drew thousands.

“You can go to the Western Wall only if you live within 1,000 meters, but to Balfour [Street, where the PM’s residence is located], you can come from around the country,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying. “This farce must end. This is an emergency and we must have one rule for both prayer and protests and all other gatherings. Otherwise, the public won’t listen to the rules and we will see the infection rate reach terrible levels.”

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, September 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The cabinet gathered to consider further tightening coronavirus closure measures just five days after kicking off a three-week lockdown that shuttered schools and many businesses, along with other restrictions.

Amid fears that the healthcare system will be overwhelmed by new serious COVID-19 cases in the coming days, Hebrew media reported that the new restrictions to be considered include further limiting attendance at workplaces; closing synagogues and placing new limitations on public prayers; and shutting all markets, including those selling “four species” plants for the Sukkot holiday.

The lockdown period covers the High Holidays, including next week’s Yom Kippur fast, a peak day for synagogue attendance.

According to television reports Tuesday evening, Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri sought to limit demonstrations under the emerging new regulations, over the objections of some ministers from the centrist Blue and White party.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Netanyahu and Deri demanded that there be a single standard for all gatherings, including protests and synagogue prayers over Yom Kippur. If there isn’t parity in the guidelines, the two men reportedly warned, religious Israelis will not heed the rules.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Shas party chairman and interior minister Aryeh Deri, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn objected to their proposal, saying each type of gathering should be dealt with separately.

“Demonstrations need to be adjusted based on the lockdown, but these restrictions should be determined by a professional team and not by politicians, against whom these protests are being directed… In a democracy, a government does not ban protests against it,” Nissenkorn said, according to leaks from the meeting.

Deri went on to threaten to quit the government if a decision was made to shutter synagogues on Yom Kippur without reining in protests.

“We are a Jewish and democratic government, but for me the Jewish element comes first,” said Deri in remarks leaked by his office to the press. “A government that will say ‘yes’ to demonstrations and ‘no’ to prayer on Yom Kippur is, as far as I’m concerned, not a Jewish government and I won’t be able to stay in such a government.”

If Deri resigns, he’d follow another Haredi party chairman, United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman, who quit his post as housing minister earlier this month in protest of the government’s move to impose a general lockdown during the fall holiday period.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men shop for ‘four species’ in Modi’in Illit, ahead of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, on September 22, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Under the current restrictions, prayer services can be held indoors but numbers are limited depending on the size of the synagogue and local infections rates. The synagogues must accommodate four square meters per worshiper, with that rule overriding the others.

During Tuesday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, a forum of ministers charged with formulating policy to counter the virus outbreak, national coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu suggested that all indoor prayer services be banned. Deri warned in response that the ultra-Orthodox community is “ready to revolt” over the perceived asymmetry of the lockdown restrictions.

Before the meeting was adjourned, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi suggested creating an inter-ministerial task force composed of legal and health officials to propose limits on demonstrations and prayer services alike, Hebrew reports said.

Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu speaks during a Health Ministry briefing on September 2, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

The proposal was accepted and the task force will present a draft plan to the coronavirus cabinet when it reconvenes on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu ordered Public Security Minister Amir Ohana to refrain from presenting a legal opinion backing limits on protests, after receiving threats from the Blue and White party.

The legal opinion was written under the auspices of Ohana and drafted by Aviad Bakshi, the head of the legal department of the right-wing Kohelet Forum think tank, and contradicts Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who has made it clear that the number of protesters cannot be limited.

Thousands have been attending the protests against Netanyahu near his residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street over the past months, enraged by what they say is a detached and corrupt government and a bungled coronavirus response.

On Friday, the Israel Police announced new regulations governing protests during the three-week lockdown, with demonstrators to be divided into “clusters” of 20, with social-distance within and between the clusters.

Police said they would expand the area in which demonstrators will be allowed to congregate when necessary — a stance of particular relevance for the large demonstrations against Netanyahu.

The nearly-empty beach in Tel Aviv, on September 21, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Regardless, the police plan did not appear to have any legal standing and the protests went forward two days later uninhibited.

In a break with his colleagues in the opposition, Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah said Tuesday that the weekly protests against Netanyahu must be halted throughout the duration of Israel’s three week nationwide lockdown.

“There is nothing more justified than the protests against a corrupt and failed prime minister.” Shelah tweeted. “And there is nothing more justified than stopping the mass demonstrations against him at this critical moment. Whoever holds this goal close to his heart needs to say now: Stop (the protests) until the end of the lockdown, continue in other ways.”

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah attends a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem on August 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Under the current lockdown rules, citizens are only permitted to stray as far as 1,000 meters from the homes, although there is an extensive list of exceptions.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Health Ministry officials recommended tightening the lockdown, though a debate was held over whether to impose additional restrictions immediately, or to wait until next week when it will be clearer whether or not the lockdown that went into place on Friday was working.

The ministers also discussed limiting the private sector workforce to 50 percent capacity while allowing the public sector to run according to emergency protocol.

The number of active coronavirus cases in Israel stood at 51,338 Tuesday morning, according to Health Ministry figures. There were 668 seriously ill patients, a jump of over 130 in a week. Of them, 159 were on ventilators.

The death toll since the start of the pandemic was at 1,285.

As of midnight, the Health Ministry had yet to update the numbers, though it has committed to publishing new figures three times a day. No explanation was given.

Gamzu warned Sunday that virus numbers were reaching “emergency” levels, and ordered hospitals to add new virus wards.

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