Expert decries Knesset lockout as troubling abuse of power

Especially in times of crisis and emergency, a functioning parliament is vital to the proper functioning of a democracy, Ariel University’s Chen Friedberg says

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)
A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s decision on Wednesday to effectively close the parliament, thus blocking efforts by a majority of lawmakers to replace him and impose oversight mechanisms, constitutes a deeply problematic abuse of power, according to an Israeli expert on democratic institutions and parliamentary oversight.

“He’s acting contrary to all legislation and regulations in this respect,” said Chen Friedberg, a senior lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science at Ariel University.

“He’s abusing procedural elements — the procedural control he has over the Knesset’s agenda — to force the will of the minority on the majority,” Chen added, speaking to The Times of Israel.

In the March 2 elections, the right-wing bloc headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party garnered 58 Knesset seats, three shy of a majority. The rival Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz — who was recommended as prime minister by 61 MKs, and was tasked on Monday by President Reuven Rivlin with trying to build a coalition — has in the meantime garnered enough support to at least pass a vote on setting up Knesset committees and appointing a new speaker.

However, Edelstein has blocked the vote, citing Health Ministry regulations against gatherings in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, and saying time should be given for negotiations for an emergency unity government which he says could influence the make up of the committees.

Edelstein, a senior Likud member, has remained as speaker in the absence of a Knesset majority after the previous two elections, but will likely be replaced by a Blue and White-backed candidate once the plenary vote is held.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (R) and President Reuven Rivlin at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. (Mark Heyman and and Haim Zach/GPO)

Analysts have accused Edelstein of acting undemocratically and using the health crisis as an excuse to keep the Blue and White party from gaining a majority at the Arrangements Committee, a temporary but important body that sets the agenda for the legislature until a government is formed.

The Blue and White-led bloc is hoping to use the Knesset committees to impose some sort of oversight on emergency regulations being put in place by Netanyahu’s caretaker government in order to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, including phone tracking used to locate possible carriers and which could also be deployed to enforce quarantine or social distancing regulations.

“This is a unique emergency situation, the likes of which Israel and indeed the world has never seen,” said Friedberg, who is also a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute’s political reform program.

Dr. Chen Friedberg (courtesy IDI)

“This is still no reason to silence parliament,” she added.

A majority of 61 lawmakers this week requested Edelstein convene the Knesset, and Friedberg said the Knesset regulations clearly state that he is not allowed to prevent votes on replacing him or setting up the Arrangements Committee.

“In fact, quite the opposite: during this crisis the Knesset has to be active, with all the health-related limitations of course [such as avoiding meetings of more than 10 people]. But especially in such critical times, someone needs to provide oversight over the government, which is taking draconian steps that may or may not be justifiable,” she said.

Earlier this week, the cabinet temporarily authorized the Shin Bet to use intrusive technological means to snoop after Israelis who contracted the coronavirus in a bid to warn people who came in contact with them to quarantine themselves.

One has to find the balance between granting the government extraordinary measures to cope with an emergency, and the need to maintain the rule of law

The move was highly controversial, with opposition lawmakers and civil rights groups demanding that the policy be discussed by the relevant Knesset committees.

The Blue and White party has petitioned the High Court of Justice against Edelstein’s refusal to convene the Knesset. The court is scheduled to take up the matter early next week. On Thursday evening, the court said it would prohibit the use of cell phone data to track coronavirus patients if no Knesset committee is established to provide oversight by Tuesday.

“The government uses emergency measures against civilians, and even if that’s justified — say to track people who have contracted the coronavirus — there still is not a single body that oversees it,” Friedberg lamented. “That’s not a normal situation.”

On Thursday, more than 100 protesters gathered outside the Knesset, some waving black flags, to demonstrate against what they decried as the demise of Israel’s democracy.

Netanyahu and his political allies reject the criticism against their allegedly anti-democratic steps, arguing that any delay to the policy’s implementation could cost lives. After much public pressure, including by President Rivlin, Edelstein on Thursday announced that he would allow the Arrangements Committee to convene early next week.

Protesters wave a black flag, an Israeli flag and an Israeli flag with the colors inverted, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 19, 2020. The protest was against the recent decision by the Knesset speaker to shut it down for several days, and against what they described as “damage to Israel’s democracy”. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Friedberg did not dispute the necessity of drastic measures to fight the deadly disease, but stressed that a functioning parliament is vital to the proper functioning of a democracy — especially in times of turbulence.

“One has to find the balance between granting the government extraordinary measures to cope with an emergency, and the need to maintain the rule of law,” she said. “Yes, in times of crisis authorities take [additional] powers for themselves. But the powers this government took for itself are very draconian. I am not saying it should not do that, but someone needs to oversee this on behalf of the public.”

The need for accountability is particularly pressing since allowing a domestic intelligence service to use cell phone data to determine people’s whereabouts is a “very serious violation of civil rights,” she said. “It starts with a crisis, but these additional powers then stay. They won’t disappear so quickly. It’s hard to go back once this has been activated.”

If there are no checks and balances on the extra rights a government takes for itself, it could theoretically pass legislation indefinitely delaying the next session of parliament, thus effectively freezing the most democratic processes, she posited.

Health concerns were also used to delay the start of Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which some have seen as an abuse of power, though Friedberg expressed some understanding noting that it was the Jerusalem District Court judges themselves who made the decision.

“But does it put my mind at ease? Not really,” she added.

In this photo released by the Lebanese Parliament media office, workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant as a precaution against the new coronavirus outbreak, at the main hall of the Lebanese Parliament, in Beirut, Lebanon, March 10, 2020 (AP Photo/ Ali Fawaz, Lebanese Parliament Media Office)

In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, parliaments in some parts of the world have been fully or partially shut, she allowed. But the legislatures in coronavirus-afflicted areas such as the UK, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Lithuania and even Spain and Italy continue to function, she added.

And the fact that Netanyahu heads a caretaker government that has not received a mandate from the public in more than a year makes the current situation even more egregious, Friedberg went on.

“We have a transitional government that does not enjoy the confidence of the public, and the same is true for the speaker of the Knesset, who hasn’t been elected by the current Knesset,” she said. “Edelstein was last elected by the 21st Knesset, and we’re now in the 23rd Knesset. It’s a great problem for the legitimacy of this government.”

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