Knesset to vote on sweeping coronavirus law limiting parliamentary oversight
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Bill sidelines MK Shasha-Biton, renders her panel toothless

Knesset to vote on sweeping coronavirus law limiting parliamentary oversight

Protesters try to block entrance to parliament as compromise sees legislation give Knesset 24 hours to approve or reject virus measures before they take effect automatically

Anti-government protesters attempt to block the entrance to the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Anti-government protesters attempt to block the entrance to the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset is set to vote Wednesday on a controversial law granting the government powers to impose wide-ranging restrictions to curb the coronavirus pandemic through June 2021. The law limits parliamentary oversight over the coalition’s decisions, and strips a key committee that has rolled back the government orders on several occasions of its powers.

Marathon discussions Tuesday night at the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee ended with a compromise, with the legislation revised so that instead of the Knesset okaying or rescinding the measures retroactively, it will have 24 hours to approve or reject the virus regulations before they take effect automatically.

Opposition lawmakers reportedly demanded that the period be extended to 72 hours, to enable “meaningful discussion,” but the coalition objected to that demand.

After government-imposed coronavirus measures take effect, four Knesset committees will be able to approve or reject the measure for a week or two, depending on the nature of the restrictions.

Despite the last-minute changes to the law, anti-government protesters arrived outside the Knesset and attempted to block its entrances, claiming the new law would turn the parliament into a “rubber stamp.” Four demonstrators were arrested.

After a long night of protests in Jerusalem in which 34 were arrested, demonstrators ties themselves to poles with metal chains, with some claiming the government was “changing the system of governance in Israel.”

Israeli protesters take part in a march against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 21, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Lawmakers passed the original law on July 7, allowing the government to impose coronavirus restrictions immediately and only later seek Knesset approval. That  stopgap measure, effective for just one month, has caused chaotic power struggles that have seen the government announce closures of parts of the economy only for the Knesset to reopen them days later.

Under the July 7 law, the government can put a rule into effect and it is only rescinded if the Knesset fails to approve the measure or does not vote on it within seven days. Under the previous rules, government decisions had to be approved before implementation by the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee or another relevant panel.

The Constitution, Law and Justice Committee was due Wednesday morning to discuss the various objections raised about the new version of the law.

The committee’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 the measures.

After the committee discussion, the legislation is expected to go up for a second and third vote in the Knesset plenum, which would be the final hurdles before the law passes.

If passed, the law will take effect on August 10, when the 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.

Under the law, the government will not have the power to prevent protests, prayers or other religious ceremonies, but will be able to set conditions for those events. An institution ordered to close will have to do so within 72 hours, or in special cases within 120 hours.

Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Housing Ministry ceremony in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A key part of the new legislation sidelines Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton and the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee which has on several occasions overturned government decisions, arguing that it couldn’t provide 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.

A week ago, Shasha-Biton sparked a political furor when her Knesset panel reversed a government 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 ministerial colleagues again, with her committee reversing their decision to close restaurants, and instead keeping them open subject to COVID-19-related limitations.

Rather than ousting her, the new law simply strips the Coronavirus Committee of the authority to approve or reject government measures, rendering it a body that can merely discuss the measures but make no binding decisions.

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

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