Knesset virus committee chief: PM should ‘get it together,’ stop casting blame

After Netanyahu intimates her actions contributed to case surge, Likud MK urges him to focus on solutions, ‘not shirking responsibility and slinging mud and filth’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

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

In an extraordinarily strongly worded admonishment by a Likud official, Knesset Coronavirus Committee chief Yifat Shasha-Biton struck out at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, after he earlier indicated she was at least partly to blame for the surge in virus cases, due to second-guessing cabinet decisions in recent months.

“I remind the prime minister that he was the one to water down [coronavirus czar] Prof. Gamzu’s traffic light program until it became useless,” Shasha-Biton said on Facebook, in reference to largely aborted plans by Israel’s coronavirus czar to set restrictions locally according to infection levels.

“I am proud of managing to help many businesses weather the crisis… I suggest that the prime minister get it together and stop looking for blame. It’s time to bolster hospital capacity, create an efficient mechanism to cut the infection chain, enlist the public to the battle,” the Likud lawmaker said, hitting back at Netanyahu’s criticism of her.

“The prime minister would do well to focus on these, and not in shirking responsibility and slinging mud and filth,” she added.

Israel hit a record high on Monday evening, registering a total of 52,263 active infections. While a three-week nationwide lockdown was instituted on Friday to contain the outbreak, numerous violations were reported across the country. Many health experts have said that they do not expect that the lockdown will effectively flatten the curve of the virus.

A police officer stops cars at a checkpoint in Jerusalem on September 20, 2020, amid a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Telling ministers that the so-called coronavirus cabinet will meet on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of tightening an ongoing nationwide lockdown, due to a steep rise in serious cases, Netanyahu reportedly took a jibe at Shasha-Biton, saying: “All those who disregarded the instructions or, worse, watered them down in the Knesset, should not ask how infections have risen.”

The Coronavirus Committee has in the past repeatedly clashed with the government over its virus campaign, overturning restrictions ordered by the cabinet.

In July, 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.

A week later, she steered her committee to vote down a ministerial decision to shut beaches and swimming pools nationwide on weekends, and thwarted 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.

Unable to intimidate Shasha-Biton to change her mind, government officials instead passed a law granting the cabinet the power “to declare a state of emergency and close down a wide range of economic sectors and public activities” for extended periods, with the Knesset only becoming involved after the fact.

Specifically, in the new law, the Coronavirus Committee — unlike the Education Committee, the Economics Committee and several others — was not listed as one of the parliamentary panels that would be empowered to approve or reject measures.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a briefing on coronavirus developments in Israel at his office in Jerusalem, on September 13, 2020. (Yoav Dudkevitch / POOL / AFP)

In a likely reference to both Netanyahu’s flouting of the March-April lockdown, when he hosted his son at a Passover Seder in contravention of the restrictions at the time, and Monday’s reports of two of his senior aides breaching their quarantine orders, Shasha-Biton on Monday also recommended that Netanyahu “set a personal example.”

Faced with rare public criticism of the prime minister from within the Likud, Shasha-Biton’s fellow party lawmakers were swift and unforgiving in their criticism of her.

Coalition chairman MK Miki Zohar said the Coronavirus Committee chief had “for some time now not acted as part of the Likud faction or served its purposes.”

He added that “ingratitude is not accepted here, and so I believe her future in the faction should be considered.”

MK Osnat Mark said Shasha-Biton should “take responsibility for [her] reckless decisions.

“Your horrendous conduct will be studied at Populism 101 in the Faculty of Self Importance… Go look for a party that will applaud you,” Mark said on Twitter.

Health Ministry figures on Monday showed that there were 2,567 new virus cases diagnosed on Sunday, with the number of cases since the start of the pandemic rising to 190,037. The new cases figure was lower than recent days, and may have been the result of fewer tests run over the holiday weekend. Figures showed close to 11 percent of tests were confirmed positive.

Of the 52,876 active cases, 1,361 people are hospitalized with the virus, including 653 patients in serious condition of whom 169 were on ventilators. The death toll stood at 1,273, with 36 deaths recorded in the previous 24 hours.

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