Knesset virus panel chair told she’s fired, after butting heads with Netanyahu

Knesset virus panel chair told she’s fired, after butting heads with Netanyahu

‘I acted according to my conscience,’ says Yifat Shasha-Biton, whose panel overturned several cabinet restrictions meant to contain virus; ouster has yet to be formally confirmed

Knesset Member Yifat Shasha-Biton attends the Education, Culture, and Sports Committee on July 15, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Knesset Member Yifat Shasha-Biton attends the Education, Culture, and Sports Committee on July 15, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Coalition whip Miki Zohar on Tuesday informed the head of a parliamentary panel that she would be removed from her post after drawing the government’s ire for overturning coronavirus-related restrictions.

The move, which was among disciplinary measures enacted against a number of Likud lawmakers for allegedly breaking coalition discipline, has yet to be approved by the Knesset House Committee, but is expected to win majority support there.

“I wish to inform you that in light of your conduct and absence from obligatory votes in the plenum… it’s been decided to remove you from your post of Coronavirus Committee chairwoman,” Zohar wrote in a letter to MK Yifat Shasha-Biton.

Responding to Zohar, Shasha-Biton said the decision to oust her was actually Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s.

“I acted according to my conscious. The prime minister’s decision to fire me is meant to prevent serious deliberations, discourse, listening to the public, [and] other voices being heard,” she wrote on Twitter. “I’m also happy that I opened the committee to the public with transparency, seriousness and full attentiveness, and I pledge to continue to do so in the future in whatever position I’m in.”

Shasha-Biton, who has led the committee since June, butted heads with Netanyahu for overturning a number of cabinet decisions to restrict businesses during the pandemic, including the closures of restaurants, gyms and pools.

MK Miki Zohar during an arrangements committee meeting at the Knesset on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Removing Shasha-Biton formally requires the approval of the House Committee. Even if Likud’s coalition partners in the Blue and White party, which has previously opposed such a move, abstain from voting on her ouster, there is expected to be majority backing for the move.

Besides Shasha-Biton, Zohar disciplined several other Likud ministers and Knesset members for missing plenum votes, including on a bill last week to bar psychotherapists from performing gay conversion therapy.

That bill, which passed its initial reading, was backed by Blue and White but opposed by Likud and the coalition’s Shas and United Torah Judaism ultra-Orthodox parties. Netanyahu himself was among the 21 Likud lawmakers who weren’t present for the vote.

The sanctions announced by Zohar included barring MKs from submitting bills until the end of the current Knesset session and requiring ministers to do duty as government representative during plenum sessions.

MK Shlomo Karhi, who was among the lawmakers to be disciplined, hit out forcefully at Zohar, who is a close ally of Netanyahu.

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi at a Knesset committee meeting on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Miki is acting in a false and manipulative manner,” Karhi wrote on Twitter. “He’s divisive, harms Likud and the prime minister and needs to go home now.

“He’s failed time after time in managing the coalition, including on the vote in question last week,” Karhi added.

Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen, who was among those punished, also took a shot at Zohar.

“When a small man casts a giant shadow it means the sun is setting. I hope you’ll act to fulfill your mission and unite the faction,” he wrote on Twitter.

Zohar pushed backed on the criticism, saying he was doing his job of keeping the coalition together. He also appeared to acknowledge Netanyahu’s role in the decision to oust Shasha-Biton.

“In a joint consultation with the prime minister it was decided to impose sanctions on whoever violations [coalition] discipline exactly as every Israeli government has done in history. I’m sorry there are those who don’t how to accept criticism and instead engage in infighting,” Zohar wrote on Twitter.

He also received backing from Netanyahu.

“Without discipline Likud can’t govern, especially during the coronavirus crisis,” Netanyahu tweeted. “I ask all Likud members to show responsibility, pay heed to factional disciple and cease the unnecessary attacks within the faction.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with MK Miki Zohar during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, on December 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

One of the ministers Zohar announced sanctions against was Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who on Monday resigned from the Knesset under the so-called Norwegian Law allowing ministers to give up their seats so another member of their party can take their place in parliament. It was not clear whether Zohar could enforce the sanctions against Ohana.

In the wake of the disciplinary measures, the Ynet news site reported that 12 Likud MKs — a third of the party’s lawmakers in the Knesset — signed a request to remove Zohar as coalition chairman. Such a move would require support from 19 Likud MKs.

The sanctions came on the heels of several feuds within Likud, among them a public spat last week between Zohar and Finance Minister Israel Katz.

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