The Knesset in the early hours of Thursday morning passed a controversial law that grants the cabinet expanded powers to impose wide-ranging restrictions to curb the coronavirus pandemic, while reducing parliamentary oversight.
The so-called “Great Coronavirus Law,” which comes into force on August 10, reduces the Knesset’s oversight power and neuters its Coronavirus Committee, which in recent days reversed a series of cabinet-ordered lockdown restrictions on public areas including restaurants and beaches, infuriating ministers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reportedly weighed firing the committee chair, Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton. Instead, the new law deprives her committee of its authority to reverse such orders, and grants more limited oversight powers to four other Knesset panels.
The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee voted to advance the bill on Wednesday before it was passed in its second and third readings at the plenum. Forty-eight MKs voted in favor of the legislation, and 35 against.
The legislation allows the cabinet to set restrictions on the public, with the Knesset given just 24 hours to approve or reject the regulations before they take effect automatically. In addition, it includes a clause that allows 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.
This 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 law 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 law allows 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 divides among four Knesset committees the authority to adjudicate restrictions imposed by the cabinet. Shasha-Biton’s Coronavirus Committee, which hitherto held that authority, is not one of them.
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, Netanyahu, who has reportedly been seeking to oust her over her actions.
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.
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.