Knesset committee approves sweeping coronavirus bill for final readings

Knesset committee approves sweeping coronavirus bill for final readings

Law giving cabinet wide-ranging powers to set restrictions, with limited Knesset oversight, expected to pass within hours, sidelining combative coronavirus committee in process

Members of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee vote on the Coronavirus Bill on July 22, 2020. (Knesset)
Members of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee vote on the Coronavirus Bill on July 22, 2020. (Knesset)

The Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee voted to advance a controversial bill that would grant the cabinet powers to impose wide-ranging restrictions in order to curb the coronavirus pandemic, through June 2021.

The bill was slated to be presented for second and third readings at the plenum, where it is expected to pass later Wednesday.

The legislation would allow the cabinet to set restrictions on the public, with the Knesset given 24 hours to approve or reject the regulations before they take effect automatically. In addition, it includes a clause that would allow the cabinet to bypass the Knesset and immediately implement measures deemed “urgent,” without specifying the criteria for making that determination.

Knesset committees in those instances will still be able to reverse the emergency regulations, but only a week, and less than two weeks, after they are approved by the cabinet.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2020. (Ahmad GHARABLI/ AFP)

The extra clause was lambasted by lawmakers in both the coalition and opposition. Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar said it “eliminates everything we worked for and demanded in order to preserve democracy” in earlier hearings regarding the legislation. Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar demanded that the Knesset committees be given more authority.

The bill allows the government to extend a state of emergency by 60 days at a time, instead of the 45 days specified in the legislation’s original version. The emergency protocols described in the legislation can be extended as many times as the cabinet chooses, until June 2021, when the law expires.

Thanks to pressure from Blue and White, the bill will allow Israelis to continue protesting with limited restrictions. However, it authorizes police to prevent Israelis who live in locales deemed as virus hotspots from leaving those areas to attend demonstrations.

The legislation also lists the Knesset panels that will have the authority to adjudicate restrictions imposed by the cabinet, with Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton’s Coronavirus Committee most notably left off the list.

On several occasions in recent weeks, her panel overturned cabinet decisions, arguing that ministers had not provided sufficient infection data to back the measures. Shasha-Biton has resisted pressure by her party head, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has reportedly been seeking to oust her over her actions.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Knesset coronavirus committee meeting on July 19, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset livestream)

A week ago, Shasha-Biton sparked a political furor when her panel reversed a cabinet order to close outdoor swimming pools and gyms, leading to ominous warnings of retaliation from Likud bigwigs and sparking a national debate about Knesset oversight and government accountability.

She did much the same thing on Monday — steering her committee to vote down a ministerial decision to shut beaches and swimming pools nationwide on weekends. And on Tuesday, she stymied Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues again, with her committee reversing their decision to close restaurants, and instead keeping them open, subject to COVID-19-related limitations.

The authority to approve or reject the measures will be transferred to four other committees — the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee; the Education Committee; the Labor and Welfare Committee; and the Economy Committee.

During a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee session earlier Wednesday, the panel’s legal adviser, Gur Bligh, said the legislation was problematic and unprecedented, and that although it was better than the previous draft, “it could have been improved further” by setting a longer period for the Knesset to discuss measures.

If passed, the law will take effect on August 10, when a placeholder law approved earlier this month expires. It will be in effect until June 30, 2021, and will allow the government to announce emergency measures for up to 28 days at a time.

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