A little-known Likud lawmaker is turning the tables on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coronavirus policies, poking holes in the data underlying the government decisions, reversing COVID-19 restrictions imposed by ministers by virtue of her key role heading the Knesset Coronavirus Committee — and, reportedly, drawing the wrath of the premier.
A week ago, Likud MK Yifat 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.
The data on sources of contagion, she said — sounding genuinely unhappy to find herself at odds with her party leader and his ministerial colleagues again — simply didn’t support the blanket closure order.
“The committee cannot vote on anything that we cannot explain publicly,” she explained after Tuesday’s committee vote, adding that she had “tried to reach a compromise until the early hours of the morning” but that the government had “arbitrarily set a limit” on how many people restaurants could host.
The rejected compromise offer by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein provided for 30 people eating outdoors and no diners inside. The committee’s behavior, he lamented bitterly after the vote, “will ultimately drag us, against our will, to a nationwide lockdown.”
The rise of a ‘pleasant’ politician
Shasha-Biton is an unlikely rebel, her colleagues say.
When she entered the Knesset as a freshman lawmaker for Moshe Kahlon’s self-described “sane right-wing” Kulanu party in 2015, few would have expected that this former educator and mother of three would end up at the center of such controversy.
She is a “pleasant” person, said former Kulanu MK Michael Oren. If you had pressed him to name a Kulanu colleague “who might have gotten ahead,” he acknowledged, “she would not have topped my list.”
Even before her latest fireworks, however, Shasha-Biton indeed had an impact, albeit with fewer headlines, both when serving as chair of the Special Committee for the Rights of the Child from 2016 and then as housing minister from January 2019 until May 2020.
The daughter of a nurse and a transport company manager who was born in the northern city of Kiryat Shmona in 1973, Shasha-Biton attended the University of Haifa, earning a PhD in education by the time she was 29 and going on to become a lecturer at Tel-Hai College and vice president of the Ohalo College of Education in Katzrin.
She entered politics in 2008, running for mayor of her hometown and securing a spot as deputy mayor in charge of educational policy. Five years later, that brought her to the attention of Kahlon, a former Likud minister who was setting up Kulanu.
Kulanu would not be composed of politicians, but of “doers,” he declared — an apparent reference to Israeli professionals and technocrats with extensive experience outside the Knesset.
He hailed Shasha-Biton as a “symbol” of that shift, promising that she would work to improve educational standards in the lower socioeconomic communities.
She won a Knesset seat as No. 7 on the Kulanu list in 2015, and a year later was appointed to head the Special Committee for the Rights of the Child, where she worked on preventing toddler car deaths and held hearings on how Jewish pedophiles from abroad were using Israel as a safe haven from prosecution.
“I worked closely with her in her capacity as chair of the committee,” recalled Manny Waks, the CEO of Kol V’Oz, an Israel-based organization combating child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community. “She was very passionate about addressing that issue. She is one of Knesset members for whom I have the utmost respect. She is a person of action,” he told The Times of Israel.
Shasha-Biton was among the MKs who pushed through a legal amendment allowing victims of sexual abuse to speak out and take part in media interviews without the permission of a court, as well as a measure that allowed adoptees to legally reveal that they had been adopted.
In January 2019, she was promoted to the cabinet as housing minister. The following month, in comments that seem particularly poignant right now, she declared that she and Kulanu were “not in anyone’s pocket” and felt “obligated to the public only.”
As minister, Shasha-Biton was involved, enthusiastically, in Netanyahu’s move to establish a new town in the Golan Heights named after US President Donald Trump.
The project was not only a “tribute to the greatness of our friendship,” she declared, but would “also lead to the development of the Golan Heights and strengthen our hold on it in the face of Iranian attempts to establish itself in Syria.”
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She retained the Housing job until the new government was formed two months ago.
By then Kulanu had merged into Likud, Kahlon had quit politics, and while she kept her Knesset seat and was linked to the Welfare Ministry portfolio, she found herself outside the cabinet.
A thorn in Netanyahu’s side
Instead of a ministerial position, Shasha-Biton was appointed to head the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, replacing Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, under whom the panel had issued a scathing report in April contending that the government’s public health policies could cause “irreversible” economic and social damage “and, in the long term, may even lead to loss of life.”
It is likely that those close to Netanyahu, who saw the committee under opposition MK Shelah as overtly political in nature, believed that it would become more tractable under Shasha-Biton.
Things haven’t played out that way.
She first drew Netanyahu’s ire when her panel reversed a government order to close outdoor swimming pools and gyms last Sunday, leading to threats to remove her from her position.
The committee had reviewed the regulations in accordance with legislation passed a week earlier allowing ministers to impose coronavirus restrictions and only later seek Knesset approval. Under the law, which is valid until August 6, such regulations immediately come into effect but are rescinded if the Knesset fails to approve them within seven days.
Shasha-Biton’s detractors include coalition whip Miki Zohar, who after last week’s facedown accused her of “irresponsible” populism and reportedly warned her that she was “finished in the Likud party.” She reportedly only retained her position after coalition partner Blue and White indicated that it wouldn’t back her removal.
But the committee head asserted that she was doing “what’s right for the public, both health-wise and financially.” And, undeterred by the threats, she warned on Channel 12’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday that she would not rubber-stamp government decisions, prompting an unnamed senior Likud official to assert that Netanyahu intended to give her the ax because it was “impossible to work like this.”
True to her word, on Sunday, her committee urged the cabinet to reconsider, amend and/or reverse several of the measures it had imposed in the early hours of Friday morning. On Monday, as a consequence, orders to close beaches and pools on weekends were reversed. On Tuesday, hours after the ministers’ closure of restaurants nationwide (for everything but deliveries and takeout), her committee voted to overturn the ban, keeping the eateries open subject to COVID-19 restrictions on the number of diners.
(As per the committee vote, restaurants are permitted to serve up to 20 people indoors and up to 30 outside. The decision rejected a compromise offered by Health Minister Edelstein that would have allowed up to 30 people in outdoor seating, but none indoors.)
Zohar fumed Tuesday that she had “fallen into a trap set by the opposition, which is prepared to endanger public health in order to bring down the government.” Edelstein’s compromise was “reasonable” and would have enabled restaurants to continue to function amid the health crisis, Zohar said.
Edelstein himself derided the committee’s “childish” focus on data regarding the sources of contagion, saying this betrayed a lack of understanding.
For her part, Shasha-Biton insisted that she was acting to balance the threats to public health with those to the workforce, acting pragmatically on the basis of the data regarding sources of contagion she and her committee were receiving from the Health Ministry. She urged restaurant owners to maintain the health and safety of their customers.
A spirited defense
A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment for this story. Shasha-Biton’s spokesperson did not reply to requests for an interview.
Shasha-Biton’s associates and colleagues vigorously defended her record, telling The Times of Israel that she was acting in good faith to provide parliamentary oversight, even as critics have accused her of grandstanding at the expense of the public.
“Of course she sees the opportunity to stand up and let people get to know her,” said former Kulanu MK and colleague Merav Ben-Ari, “but I know her, and it’s less about her than about the public. You need a lot of courage to [stand firm against the weight of a ministerial decision]; it’s not easy to go against the government when you are part of it.”
When the two last spoke, recently, Ben-Ari added, Shasha-Biton had not seemed concerned about political backlash, and sounded confident that she was acting responsibly in the public interest.
“One of the duties of our committee is to oversee the government, and of course the government doesn’t like it so they try to weaken the committee and change its head,” committee member and opposition MK Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid) told The Times of Israel.
“She did her duty,” he said of the embattled chairwoman. “All of the meetings and sessions of the committee are very detail-oriented, not populist,” he said, describing a process in which representatives of groups affected by coronavirus policies are invited to have their say and in which dissenting opinions are given an open hearing.
“I’m from the opposition and she’s from the coalition and I trust her. She leads this committee very professionally.”
Even some critics from inside the coalition are opposed to removing her from the job.
Moshe Abutbul (Shas), a member of the committee, told The Times of Israel that Shasha-Biton was “doing excellent work,” and sounded somewhat conflicted: “It’s not the correct thing to remove her but it’s also the wrong thing to oppose government decisions,” he said. “I want her to remain in her position.”
Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, the director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, described several committee sessions in which he took part as “thorough” and focused on a “broader perspective — considering social, ethical and economic aspects” of the public health crisis.
“The discussions were not political and were very balanced,” he said. “I think she was doing a a good job.”
“She is not a showboater and not a Miki Zohar type,” said former Kulanu colleague Oren. “She’s understated and I assure you that she is doing this out of conviction and not because of political expedience.”
Like MK Razvozov, who accused the government of acting “like the mafia” in seeking to undermine parliamentary oversight, Oren asserted that the controversy surrounding Shasha-Biton pointed to a “flaw” in Israeli democracy in that the Knesset “isn’t a coequal branch” of government.
According to Dr. Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute who has been critical of the government’s regulatory approach to the pandemic, attempts to oust Shasha-Biton indicate that the Netanyahu government wanted the committee to be a rubber stamp.
Trying to undermine or bypass the Knesset’s oversight power harms the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public, just when it needs it the most, he said. “Public trust in these kinds of decisions is the most important thing. Even if you add thousands of inspectors, it’s not the same as persuading people you made the right decisions.”
For all the criticism, Shasha-Biton’s Likud opponents, reportedly including Netanyahu, have not yet moved to oust her. This may relate to Blue and White’s defense of her. Or it may be because they are betting on pending legislation, currently under consideration in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which would sideline her without the need for direct action. This committee is headed by Yaakov Asher, of the United Torah Judaism coalition party.
The proposed law would grant 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.
Shasha-Biton’s Knesset Coronavirus Committee — unlike the Education Committee, the Economics Committee and several others — is not listed as one of the parliamentary panels that would be empowered to approve or reject measures under the new legislation.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.