The Knesset’s coronavirus committee voted Monday to immediately reopen outdoor swimming pools and gyms, exempting them from a cabinet decision last week that shuttered parts of the economy in an effort to curb the spread of the pandemic, in a decision that inflamed tensions within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and sparked efforts to oust one of its lawmakers as head of the committee. The party said later it would only take disciplinary measures against her after the Blue and White party said it wouldn’t back her ouster.
The committee, headed by Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, made the decision against Netanyahu’s wishes after the premier waged a pressure campaign for her to keep gyms closed, including meeting with her minutes before Monday’s committee meeting. The decision had originally been expected Sunday but was pushed off by a day amid the disagreements.
Shasha-Biton nevertheless voted to reopen pools and gyms, as did committee members from the opposition, after the Health Ministry failed to show infection data that convinced them that their closure was justified.
The vote came minutes after Netanyahu’s office, apparently convinced that Shasha-Biton had been persuaded, announced that the premier and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein had decided to keep gyms closed but had established criteria that would allow for the reopening of public pools.
Just before Shasha-Biton voted to reverse the government’s decision, Likud’s coalition whip Miki Zohar angrily approached her, according to Channel 12, and whispered in her ear: “You are finished in the Likud party. You [will be] ousted as committee chairwoman. Have a nice life.”
Immediately after the vote, Zohar updated the House Committee head of his party’s intention to oust and replace Shasha-Biton as chairwoman of the coronavirus committee.
Zohar wrote that a new Likud MK would be proposed at the next House Committee session on Tuesday.
“It is unfortunate that a Knesset member from the coalition chose a populist and irresponsible path at the expense of authorities fighting to curb the coronavirus outbreak and decided to act against the coalition’s opinion,” Zohar said.
“She chose to hinder the work of the coalition. We won’t tolerate such behavior,” he added.
Shasha-Biton earlier in the day said she “is here to serve the public and do what’s right for the public, both health-wise and financially.
“We have to maintain balance and we will make the right decisions professionally. I am willing to pay the price for doing the right thing. We make decisions based on data,” she said.
House Committee chairman MK Eitan Ginzburg of the coalition Blue and White party initially rejected Zohar’s request, but the party later notified Likud that it would not seek to block her ouster. However, hours later, the party said it wouldn’t support the move after all and would leave the room if such a vote was brought ahead.
The ruling party, in a statement released in the name of a “senior Likud source,” clarified that Shasha-Biton wouldn’t be ousted and instead would be “suspended from her position for some time.” The statement accused her of “capitulating to pressure from lobbyists representing the gyms.”
Several hours later, Zohar said he had spoken to Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin and they agreed that Shasha-Biton wouldn’t even be suspended, with disciplinary action taken against her. He added that Knesset bills wouldn’t be handed to her committee until further notice.
Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, an internal rival of Netanyahu who ran against him in party leadership primaries before the last election, backed Shasha-Biton in a statement released when Likud was talking about ousting her.
“The Knesset is not a rubber stamp for the government,” Sa’ar said in a statement. “It would have been better to convince the Knesset committees through data rather than through threats and pressure. Ousting the committee chairwoman is not the right thing to do.”
Avigdor Liberman, who heads the opposition Yisrael Beytenu party, praised Shasha-Biton for her “brave decision to protect the right of Knesset members to vote in accordance with logic and common sense rather than the coalition’s narrow political interests.”
The committee had reviewed the regulations under controversial legislation passed last week that allows ministers to impose coronavirus restrictions immediately and only later seek Knesset approval.
Critics cautioned that the law removed a key check on the government’s power; previous rules stated that decisions had to be approved by the Knesset’s coronavirus committee or another relevant panel, which delayed implementation by a day or more.
Health Ministry representatives have argued that pools and fitness centers are ripe for mass infections, but some MKs said the figures the ministry presented did not justify the sweeping closures.
According to data presented to the committee on Sunday, 35 infections were confirmed in gyms between June 4 and July 10, 170 at weddings, 21 in restaurants, and six in bars. No data was provided on pools.
The health officials said the origin of a significant portion of infections was not known.
In addition, there has been disquiet over the fact that hotel swimming pools have been allowed to operate while public facilities have been shuttered.
The Health Ministry on Monday afternoon confirmed the coronavirus death toll had risen to 364. According to the figures released by the ministry, Israel’s total number of infections since the start of the pandemic stood at 39,871, including 20,251 active cases. Of those diagnosed with the virus, 160 were in serious condition, with 51 of them on ventilators. Another 114 were in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms.
Experts have warned of the need for further lockdowns after the government reimposed many restrictions on gatherings and economic activity, and on Friday a number of closures came into effect in neighborhoods in five towns and cities hit hard by the outbreak.
Amid the rising number of cases, a team of experts from the Hebrew University on Sunday morning presented the government with a prediction that a hundred more Israelis will die of the coronavirus by the end of July. They therefore recommended the reimposition of strict restrictions starting next week, including a nationwide lockdown, if the rate of new infections does not slow down by then.