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Deputy health minister: Elections could be delayed if virus cases stay high

Yoav Kisch, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, likens pandemic to war; but top health official says move ‘not on the table’; opposition MKs seethe at suggestion

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) leads a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset alongside MK Yoav Kisch, January 2, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) leads a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset alongside MK Yoav Kisch, January 2, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The upcoming Knesset elections could be postponed if coronavirus infections remain high, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said Wednesday, causing outrage among opposition members who accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of seeking to delay the vote.

The remark came amid record-high infection levels, as two weeks of a tightened lockdown appeared to have little effect in reining in more infectious strains of the virus, with hospitals under immense strain and battered businesses remaining closed.

In an interview with Radio 103FM, Kisch, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, was asked whether he feared a loss in the March 23 polls if the government fails to curb the infections.

“I don’t know how elections can be held” in such a situation, Kisch replied, adding that the situation was “worrying” and akin to war.

He said that had elections been scheduled for this week, “the Health Ministry would recommend that the Central Elections Committee delay the elections by a month, until after the lockdown, after infections go down.”

However, Kisch said that his remark didn’t represent Netanyahu’s opinion or that of the Health Ministry and said Likud was “preparing for elections.”

“I hope we don’t reach that situation and that we manage to lower morbidity with the lockdown,” he said. “We will hold a situational assessment with professionals about two weeks before the election, we will pass a recommendation to the Central Elections Committee and it will make its recommendation.”

A voter at a special polling station for those quarantined due to possible exposure to the coronavirus in Jerusalem, March 2, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The power to postpone an election lies with the Knesset, which can push them off with a special majority of 80 lawmakers in the 120-member parliament, provided there is an emergency situation that hinders the ability to hold the vote. The Central Elections Committee can recommend the move to the parliament, and the committee itself receives the advice of several ministries, including the Health Ministry, which would presumably make the decision whether such an emergency exists.

Health Minister Deputy Director-General Itamar Grotto told the Kan public broadcaster on Wednesday that delaying the elections was “not on the table.”

Israel’s previous election, in March 2020, was held shortly after the coronavirus first reached the country, with several special polling stations serving the relatively few people who had then been suspected to have contracted the virus or come in contact with confirmed carriers. Holding the vote under the current conditions, with over 80,000 active cases and many others in quarantine, would pose a far greater challenge.

Elections were postponed twice in Israel’s history, both due to war and both before a 1992 law amendment was passed, regulating the Knesset’s power to do so.

The country’s first elections were originally planned for no later than October 1, 1948, but were delayed to January 1949 due to the War of Independence, which took precedence over forming the formal state bodies.

The second and last time was in 1973, when the vote was pushed off by two months due to the Yom Kippur War. No law existed at the time for an election to be postponed, and lawmakers passed a temporary law enabling that.

MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Knesset in Jerusalem, August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

Opposition politicians on Wednesday reacted with fury over Kisch’s remark, even though any decision would ultimately require a two-thirds majority in the Knesset.

The Yesh Atid party, headed by Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, commented that “Likud is trying to delay the election because of the failure to deal with the coronavirus. It is an anti-democratic, insane move in a Western, lawful country. The Central Elections Committee said it knows how to hold elections during the pandemic, and they should be held as planned.”

Yesh Atid MK Boaz Toporovsky said: “They’re cowards, they’re panicking. The elections won’t be delayed.”

Meretz party leader Nitzan Horowitz vowed to “wage an all-out battle against the attempt to steal democracy under the guise of the health crisis.” He claimed Netanyahu was pushing for the move “because the infection numbers don’t line up with his campaign.”

“A raging pandemic is like a war,” Kisch tweeted later. “The risk of infections could cause human lives. I am working hard together with the entire health care system and the health minister so that we don’t find ourselves in such a situation.”

Israel heads to its fourth election within two years on March 23.

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