Coalition whip: I regret not firing renegade virus panel head, hope PM ousts her

Miki Zohar says Netanyahu not to blame for surging virus, fault instead lies with Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton who overturned some cabinet decisions

MK Miki Zohar during an arrangements committee meeting at the Knesset on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
MK Miki Zohar during an arrangements committee meeting at the Knesset on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A key ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that he regretted not having moved forward with plans to fire a Likud official who has been a vocal critic of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and who reversed some decisions made by the cabinet. He would again recommend her ousting to the premier, he added.

Coalition whip Miki Zohar’s comments came after a public spat between the premier and Knesset Coronavirus Committee head Yifat Shasha-Biton the previous day.

“When Yifat Shasha-Bitton explained to all of us that businesses and gyms should not be closed, she became a goddess,” Zohar said of Shasha-Biton’s actions to overturn some ministerial decisions, including the closures of restaurants, gyms and pools.

“It later became clear to us that this populist decision may have brought disaster to the country in the form of 4,000 infected a day,” he told the 103FM radio station.

It was not clear what data Zohar’s claim was based on. There has been no published data on mass infections at pools, gyms and restaurants.

When challenged during the interview over the fact that Netanyahu, as prime minister, was ultimately in control, Zohar pushed back.

“You are wrong. She changed the prime minister’s decisions together with the Coronavirus Committee,” Zohar said.

Prior to the pandemic’s widespread dispersal throughout Israeli cities in the past few weeks, most cases were centered in Arab and ultra-Orthodox towns. However, pressure from the premier’s Haredi allies led him to refrain from applying severe restrictions on those locales alone.

Knesset Member Yifat Shasha-Biton attends the Education, Culture, and Sports Committee on July 15, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Zohar also said that he took personal responsibility for preventing Shasha-Biton from being fired previously, and that he would weight the matter again now.

“We refrained, believing that it was not the right thing to do, and I take responsibility here for preventing her dismissal. I myself prevented her dismissal by not wanting to oust her, and I’m sorry I did not oust her,” Zohar said. “Today I will discuss it with the prime minister and from there we will make the decisions.”

“I think unequivocally that [firing Shasha-Biton] is the right thing to do and I very much hope that the prime minister will accept my position,” Zohar said.

In August, Zohar initially informed Shasha-Biton that she was to be removed from her position after she upended a number of government decisions, but ultimately the firing was scrapped with Zohar citing party unity as the reason. The spat came at a time in which the country looked likely to be heading to new elections, which have since been temporarily averted.

Zohar’s statements came after Netanyahu implied on Monday that Shasha-Biton was at least partly to blame for the surge in virus cases due to her second-guessing cabinet decisions in recent months, a claim she dismissed in a rare and harsh public criticism of the prime minister from a Likud MK.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: “All those who disregarded the instructions or, worse, watered them down in the Knesset, should not ask how infections have risen.”

Shasha-Biton responded on Facebook that the premier should “get it together and stop looking for blame.”

However, on Tuesday morning she struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that “it is important for me to say also to the government — we are all on the same side and want to fight this threat that is happening.”

The number of seriously ill was at 668 on Tuesday morning, according to Health Ministry figures, a jump of over 130 in a week. Of them, 159 are on ventilators.

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

Monday saw 3,858 cases added to the national case count (193,374), but with lower test numbers of around 34,000. The percentage of positive tests remained very high, at 11.6%.

With hospitals overflowing across the country, Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday ordered the military to prepare to establish a field hospital for coronavirus patients.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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