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Knesset panel okays doubling lockdown fines, but coalition infighting continues

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers boycott committee vote on legislation to increase enforcement; Gantz demands parliament approve it before cabinet vote on extension of lockdown

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators protest against the police enforcement of lockdown orders due to the coronavirus outbreak, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators protest against the police enforcement of lockdown orders due to the coronavirus outbreak, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A Knesset committee approved a bill Thursday that doubles fines for those who flout regulations, clearing it for its final plenum votes, although the timing of its second and third readings was still the subject of coalition wrangling ahead of a planned cabinet meeting to extend the current tightened lockdown, set to expire on Sunday.

The move to raise the fines is opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies. Many institutions in Haredi society have continued to operate throughout the lockdown, angering critics who say that the current level of enforcement isn’t enough. There have been violent protests by ultra-Orthodox demonstrators opposing police enforcement of the lockdown.

Despite that, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee Thursday afternoon approved legislation for stricter enforcement that will include doubling fines for institutions found to be violating the virus regulations.

The head of the panel, United Torah Judaism MK Ya’akov Asher, did not attend the meeting and it was boycotted by all ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, according to Hebrew media reports.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks at a press conference, December 29, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

The plenum vote on approving the bill into law was expected to be held on Monday.

However, Defense Minister Benny Gantz demanded that the Knesset immediately convene to pass the legislation rather than wait for its scheduled reading on Monday, and ahead of the cabinet meeting to extend the nationwide lockdown.

“If the law is not approved, the continued closure will have very limited effectiveness in reducing the extent of morbidity in Israel that will not justify its continued existence,” Gantz wrote, adding that the legislative process should be completed Thursday.

“Any delay in the legislation costs lives,” wrote Gantz.

Appearing to accept that demand, Netanyahu said during a visit to a vaccine center in the Bedouin town of Arara that he supports passing the legislation “as written” as soon as possible and that the Knesset should convene Thursday to vote on it.

United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher at the opening event of their election campaign, ahead of the Israeli elections, in Jerusalem, on February 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Before the committee meeting, an unnamed source from one of the ultra-Orthodox parties told Channel 12 news that Haredi MKs “decided not to allow the public discourse to claim that they [ultra-Orthodox parties] thwarted the fight against the coronavirus [regulation] violators” by attending the meeting and voting against the bill.

The Blue and White party had warned that unless a proposal for far stricter enforcement passes, it would not allow the cabinet to meet Thursday to extend the lockdown beyond Sunday.

Coalition whip Miki Zohar of Likud, considered a close ally of  Netanyahu, said Thursday morning that the legislation hiking fines for institutions that violate the rules would “pass today in its original form.”

Likud MK Miki Zohar seen at the Knesset, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We will work to have it voted on today so that we can immediately begin enforcement [against] all those who do not follow the guidelines,” Zohar told Army Radio.

If the cabinet meeting goes ahead, the Health Ministry was expected to ask for the lockdown to be extended by a week, with Channel 12 reporting that ministers would only agree to an additional four days.

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