Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering using national emergency regulations to prevent a demonstration against him from going ahead if lawmakers fail to pass the necessary legislation required to limit protests, Hebrew-language media reported on Friday.
The Haaretz daily reported that the Prime Minister’s Office was working on regulations that would bypass the Knesset and almost entirely prevent the demonstration on Saturday night from taking place.
According to reports, the proposed emergency regulations would remain in effect until Tuesday, after the Jewish Sabbath and Yom Kippur, when it is expected the Knesset could pass the legislation to limit protests and prayers.
However, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that his Blue and White party would not support the possible resort to emergency regulations, saying the stricter lockdown, which came into effect at 2 p.m. on Friday, was to stop the spread of the pandemic, rather than to prevent protests or large prayer gatherings.
“We will not allow the activation of emergency regulations in a move against demonstrations,” Gantz said in a statement. “The decision on the stricter lockdown was intended to curb the epidemic, and not to block the demonstrations or prayers.”
According to the Haaretz daily, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has also voiced his opposition to the enactment of the emergency protocols for the purpose of limiting protests.
The report said that Mandelblit spoke to Netanyahu on Friday morning and told him his objections, adding that he expected such a move would be struck down by the courts.
Critics say the expansive national lockdown, set to last at least two weeks, is unnecessarily draconian because Netanyahu is using the shutdown of the economy to justify limiting protests against him.
However, coalition whip Miki Zohar claimed that if the demonstrations were allowed to go ahead, people would then flout the restrictions on public prayer for Yom Kippur.
“Because of the opposition, we cannot pass the law that will prevent the demonstrations on Saturday. People will see the thousands gathering [near the Prime Minister’s Residence], and on Yom Kippur there will be mass prayers,” Zohar said.
Lawmakers on Friday continued to haggle over the controversial legal amendment that would allow limits on protests and prayers, casting doubt over whether it would pass in time to limit the demonstrations against Netanyahu set to take place on Saturday night, as well as Sabbath prayers.
Ministers on Thursday decided to drastically tighten the national lockdown already in place, shutting down nearly all non-essential businesses and clamping down on protests and prayer gatherings.
Government officials say a tightened lockdown is necessary after a closure imposed a week ago failed to keep people at home.
The new guidelines place controversial limits on protests, which are only allowed in socially distanced capsules of 20 people each, up to a maximum of 2,000 people. In addition, traveling more than a kilometer to reach a protest will be prohibited.
Those limitations go beyond what the cabinet is authorized to impose by legislation passed earlier this year, and thus must be accompanied by Knesset approval of an amendment to the existing law governing coronavirus restrictions.
Lawmakers rushed the measure through its first reading late Thursday and sent the measure to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, where it was still languishing as of 11:00 a.m. as members haggled over various clauses.
Even without a Knesset okay, most other measures will be covered.
Opposition MK Ofer Cassif submitted 3,900 reservations over the amendment on Friday morning, which would all need to be debated by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee before the law can be approved by the Knesset.
If it doesn’t pass, the weekly Saturday night protest could go ahead under current regulations.
According to the Kan broadcaster, lawmakers may also discard plans for an amendment that would allow for the closure of synagogues, which had been slated to be shut over the lockdown. This excludes Yom Kippur, when groups of 10 will be allowed inside. Outdoor prayers will be limited to 20 people each for the duration of the lockdown.
The lockdown is slated to last two weeks, including the holiday of Sukkot. It may be extended if infection rates do not slow considerably.
Ministers have run up against vociferous ultra-Orthodox opposition to a crackdown on mass prayer gatherings. Experts say indoor prayers are a major incubator for the virus, with ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods experiencing some of the highest infection rates in the country.
However, community leaders have warned that worshipers will rebel if synagogues are closed while protests or trips to the beach are allowed, even though outdoor activities are considered less risky.
The decision to clamp down on both protests and prayers was reportedly the result of a compromise between Netanyahu and Gantz, whose party has opposed limits on protests.
Netanyahu on Thursday rejected the notion that he had sought the full lockdown to halt politically damaging protests, arguing that “these anarchist and ludicrous protests” actually help him politically, but “the public is sick of them.”
According to Haaretz, one of the ministers who attended the cabinet meeting early Thursday morning that decided on further restrictions said: “It was clear that [Netanyahu’s] personal desire to cancel the demonstrations was in the background [of his decision-making process]. Every time someone said the word ‘demonstration,’ he jumped.”
The Health Ministry said Friday morning that a record high 7,527 new virus cases were diagnosed a day earlier.
The high number of diagnoses came after two consecutive days where the number of new infections neared 7,000. The ministry said that a notably high 12.8 percent of the tests that came back Thursday were positive. There were 60,524 tests carried out.
The total number of cases since the start of the pandemic stood at 214,458 with 1,378 deaths.
Of the 60,786 active cases, 669 are in serious condition, 167 of them on ventilators, the ministry said. Another 246 are in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms.