A key ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed on Thursday that the protesters against him were paradoxically happy about the virus surge that has resulted in almost 7,000 cases per day amid an increasingly stringent national lockdown that critics claim is aimed at preventing the demonstrations.
“The demonstrators are counting on this chaos, on this anarchy…. They are quietly happy about the 7,000 patients [diagnosed per day],” Likud MK Miki Zohar told Army Radio, arguing that the protesters — many of whom ostensibly oppose the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak — believe a severe health care crisis would bring about Netanyahu’s downfall.
“This is a serious accusation and it is authentic,” insisted Zohar, the coalition chief. “They think that if they stand up and demonstrate, they will cause everyone to break the guidelines and the disease will spread.”
“Of course the [government’s] idea is to get to a situation where people are praying in the open air in numbers that do not exceed 20 people,” Zohar continued. If the protests also ceased, “the worshipers would understand the situation” and accept the limitation on synagogue prayer, he claimed.
The interview came ahead of the implementations of tightened restrictions and after a day of acrimonious debates in the cabinet over whether to allow anti-Netanyahu protests during the lockdown, with the Blue and White party insisting a government could not order protests against it to disband. Ministers also argued over how much to restrict prayer gatherings, with Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism pushing to leave synagogues open, even if new limits on numbers of worshipers are imposed.
Under a final compromise reached late Wednesday, synagogues will close beginning Friday, reopen in a limited capacity and with worshipers divided into small groups for the 25 hours of the Yom Kippur fast, then close again on Monday night. A similar compromise was reached on protests, under which demonstrators may gather within a kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes. In both cases, gatherings may include no more than 20 people at a time who must stay two meters apart.
A special compromise was reached allowing for continued protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, where demonstrators have gathered regularly for months to call for Netanyahu’s resignation.
Analysts in the United States have cast doubt on the idea that demonstrations cause coronavirus surges, after analyzing protest rates and virus rates there. Research does appear to suggest that indoor worship has led to a number of so-called “super-spreader” events globally.
One of the organizing groups behind the anti-Netanyahu protests said Thursday that it would begin to demonstrate against the Blue and White party for the role it played in limiting the protests and in helping turn Israel “into a dictatorship.”
“We will go back to demonstrating on your head,” the organization said in a statement. “We hereby inform Benny Gantz, and the justice and foreign ministers [Avi Nissenkorn and Gabi Ashkenazi]: If you aid the destruction of democracy, we will persecute you, demonstrate against you, you will remember for a lifetime those who turned Israel into a dictatorship.”
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit confirmed on Thursday morning that just 2,000 demonstrators will be permitted to protest at any one time at the location near the Prime Minister’s Residence.
The number was based on a calculation made by police taking into account the size of the area used for the protests.
Mandelblit also clarified that at no stage was the full closure of the economy a prerequisite for restricting demonstrations, adding that “the existing law authorizes the government to determine the manner in which demonstrations take place, but not to prevent them.”
The Knesset is set to convene on Thursday afternoon to amend the law and allow limitations on the demonstrations.