Go fine or go home: 6 things to know for March 20
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Go fine or go home: 6 things to know for March 20

As government starts to give enforcement of coronavirus restrictions some teeth, Gantz and Netanyahu take one step toward unity before taking two steps back

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

An Israeli child watch as Health Minister Yaakov Litzman holds a live press conference on the new government restrictions for the public regarding the coronavirus on March 19, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)
An Israeli child watch as Health Minister Yaakov Litzman holds a live press conference on the new government restrictions for the public regarding the coronavirus on March 19, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

1. Home is where no fines are: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Thursday night that authorities could begin taking legal action against those who leave their homes in violation of strict Health Ministry directives aimed at containing the coronavirus.

  • He appears to have enlisted major daily Yedioth Ahronoth, which runs its front page with the headline “Don’t leave your homes.” The Netanyahu-mouthpiece Yisrael Hayom goes with a more subtle, but informative “movement restrictions” head.
  • While the measures are meant to prevent Israel from becoming Italy, a senior Health Ministry official tells Channel 12 that that is exactly what will happen if ultra-Orthodox Israelis continue to congregate in large groups as some of them have been filmed doing this week.
  • “If we end up like Italy, it will be because of the conduct of part of the Haredi public that has not internalized the gravity of the situation,” the official says in a biting criticism of the ultra-Orthodox public, or more relevantly its rabbinical leadership, although it has widely fallen in line with the guidelines after some initial trepidation.
  • Channel 13’s Barak Ravid reports that during the overnight cabinet meeting when the guidelines were approved, a heated exchange broke out between ministers over whether to include staging protests among the exceptions allowing people to leave their homes. In the end, demonstrations are being permitted, subject to protesters being at least two meters from each other.
  • Culture Minister Miri Regev wanted to have protests barred completely, saying — according to Ravid’s sources — that if sports must be banned, then so should demonstrations. Mind you, this is against the backdrop of widely covered protests against Likud-led steps to shutter the Knesset that took place hours earlier. However, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit advised against Regev’s approach and the fiery minister was ultimately outvoted by others, including Diaspora Affairs Minister Tzipi Hotovely.
  • Haaretz’s Yossi Verter reveals that Likud ministers Yariv Levin, David Amsalem and Ze’ev Elkin wanted the Knesset to be sealed indefinitely, with Amsalem arguing that he has a family to worry about at home. Verter’s colleague Chaim Levinson blasts the communications minister in a tweet, saying that while doctors, nurses, police officers and firefighters are outside of their homes putting their lives on the line, Israel’s lawmakers are doing everything they can not to serve the public.

2. Virus outbreak meets military rule: Some 75,000 Palestinian workers have been allowed to keep working in Israel in fields deemed by the Defense Ministry as absolutely necessary. The guidelines require employers to find a place for their workers to sleep for the next one to two months, but as one might expect from those using cheap labor, they are only willing to pay for cheap solutions for their employees.

  • The Kan public broadcaster has been reporting extensively on the issue. Correspondent Gal Berger interviews a group of workers who say they have been sleeping on mattresses at the construction sites where they’re employed. In Illit, a group had just fallen asleep when a local called the police, who arrived and ordered that they leave the town. The workers waited on the side of a main highway for several hours before being allowed back in.
  • “My boss promised me an apartment to sleep in while I’m here for two months,” says one worker to Kan, while standing next to his mattress inside of a half constructed home. “Does this look like an apartment? He lied.”
  • Another Palestinian employee tells Berger’s colleague Nurit Yohanan that after one night without anywhere to sleep, he decided to cross back into the West Bank. The Kav LaOved disadvantaged workers rights group says it has received dozens of calls from Palestinians stuck in Israel without a place to stay.
  • However, not all employers have neglected to care for their workers. Berger shares a video from one Palestinian who happily shows off the apartment he and his friends have been given to crash in for the near future.
  • Also on Kan, correspondent Suleiman Maswadeh reports on a shouting match between Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion and members of the National Security Council after the latter wanted to place under total lockdown the two Palestinian villages of East Jerusalem that are stuck on the other side of the West Bank barrier, Kafr Aqab and the Shuafat refugee camp.
  • The NSC members argued that the government has no way to enforce coronavirus guidelines on the other side of the wall and that the easiest thing to do would be to place the two villages under lockdown. The idea was fiercely opposed by Lion, according to Kan, who noted that the affected residents could petition the High Court of Justice. The mayor also warned that the move would damage Jerusalem’s declared status as Israel’s undivided capital.

3. Court’s still in session: The High Court of Justice, in a rather dramatic ruling, says it will shut down the government’s new mass surveillance program if the Knesset fails to re-open and establish parliamentary oversight by Tuesday.

  • The decision allows the Shin Bet to continue tracking the movements of Israelis over the next four days and to identify those who came in contact with known virus carriers — but forbids the Israel Police from using the same data to track those who are supposed to be under quarantine and punishing violators.
  • Haaretz’s Netaeel Bandel wonders aloud what will happen if the Knesset fails to reach agreements regarding the formation of the relevant committees on Tuesday. “Will the High Court completely stop the Shin Bet and take the risk of doubling the number of cases as a result of its decision?”
  • Bandel’s colleague Noa Landau laments that the ruling was in “classic” High Court style in that it dealt mainly with the procedural issue of government oversight instead of the more essential question of whether such surveillance should be allowed. “However, a message has been sent here to both Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and the entire  government that the justice system is watching them.”
  • Channel 13’s Aviad Glickman says privacy advocates owe a great deal to Shahar Ben Meir, the lawyer who led the petition against the wide-scale government surveillance effort that took a hit from the High Court ruling.
  • Kan’s Tamar Almog reports that even if the Knesset is not able to establish oversight committees by Tuesday, the Shin Bet will still be able to send messages to those who unknowingly came in contact with someone who is sick, as opposed to someone who is suspected of being sick. Moreover, she points out that if the government moves toward ordering a total lockdown, many of these issues will become moot.

4. Long live democracy? A growing number of Netanyahu opponents have begun hysterically warning that Israel’s democracy is taking its final breaths, against the backdrop of Edelstein’s orders to shutter the Knesset on Wednesday and the police’s arrest of nine Israelis who took part in a protest-convoy to the Knesset against the move on Thursday.

  • Edelstein’s move — which prevented a majority of lawmakers from voting to replace him as speaker, and prevented Knesset committee oversight mechanisms on the tracking of virus patients and everyone else — constitutes a deeply problematic abuse of power, Israeli expert on democratic institutions and parliamentary oversight Chen Friedberg tells ToI’s Raphael Ahren.
  • “This is still no reason to silence parliament,” says the Ariel University Department of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science senior lecturer. “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.”
  • While ToI’s Haviv Rettig Gur takes similar issue with Edelstein’s move, he argues that the country’s democracy is far from its deathbed. Moreover, he points out that Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz has also had a role to play in the ongoing deadlock.
  • The main issue at hand is the establishment and staffing of the crucial Arrangements Committee, which decides how the new parliament will function. Blue and White’s bloc has a slight majority in the Knesset, and it has demanded for that to be reflected in the makeup of various committees, Rettig Gur explains. But with the coronavirus guidelines barring more than 10 people from convening at a time, there is no easy way to reflect the 61-59 breakdown in a ten-lawmaker committee, with Likud refusing to agree a 6-4 breakdown that is much more tilted in Gantz’s favor.
  • “No one in the Knesset’s half-empty halls doubts that the impasse, however complex it may seem, is over something straightforward and central: It is nothing less than a continuation of the March 2 vote by other means, on the part of two political parties that seem unfazed by the damage they are causing to the vital interests of the public they claim to serve,” he concludes.

5. One step forward two steps back: Despite all the animosity between Likud and Blue and White, Channel 12 reports that the sides were making progress toward a unity government led by Netanyahu. But then outcry over the arrests at the protest convoy appeared to take a toll and Gantz announced that he had ordered the freezing of all negotiations with Likud.

  • Nonetheless, Channel 12’s Amit Segal observes that during Gantz’s interview on the network, broadcast Thursday evening though recorded earlier, the Blue and White leader made a point of saying, “there are principles, but there are also the circumstances of the financial crisis,” apparently hinting at willingness to break his pre-election promise to never sit under Netanyahu.
  • Haaretz reports that Gantz is willing to join Netanyahu, even if that means breaking up his Blue and White alliance, where No. 2 Yair Lapid and No. 3 Moshe Ya’alon refuse to sit under the Likud leader in any circumstance.
  • In a separate Channel 12 interview, former prime minister Ehud Barak warns Gantz not to trust Netanyahu because the Likud leader will walk back any agreement by simply dissolving parliament when it’s time for the Blue and White chairman to replace him under any rotation deal. Instead, Barak urges Gantz to form a Joint List-backed minority government and allow Likud to join only after Netanyahu is out of the picture.
  • Dismayed by Gantz’s possible willingness to capitulate, Haaretz’s Aluf Benn writes, “It was a swift victory, even for the political wizard Netanyahu. Only 17 days after the election, in which most of the public voted in favor of ending his rule, Netanyahu is now standing alone at the top of the hill, dancing on the dead political body of Blue and White. The party of the alternative broke up at its first test.”
  • Verter writes that not everyone in Likud views Gantz pulling off the impossible as the end of the world. “We’d be better off with Gantz forming a minority government, and with us going into the opposition for half a year, than having Moshe Ya’alon, who’s completely lost it, and Yair Lapid entering a government with us,” a senior Likud figure said this week. With them there will just be trouble.”

6. Pick me up: Keeping with the effort of bringing not just depressing news in these trying times, here are some positive developments that could make the prospect of indefinite isolation a bit more palatable.

  • Israeli Wonder Woman has gotten Will Ferell, Maya Rudolph, Jimmy Fallon and a bunch of other famous people together for a cute little edition of “Imagine”.

  • This Haredi couple has the whole marriage thing in the days of coronavirus all figured out.
  • A Bnei Brak yeshiva chairman figured out how he could dance with one of his students at his wedding.
  • Defense Minister Naftali Bennett goes the extra mile, issuing a video for the Arab public on the importance of following the coronavirus guidelines
  • And finally, Israel has just added another 24 citizens for you to fight with over the last roll of toilet paper at Shufersal. ToI’s Lisa Klug covers the story of two dozen American immigrants who did not let the virus stop them from landing at Ben Gurion Airport yesterday, only to be promptly escorted into two-week quarantine. Welcome home!

 

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