Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed for new restrictions on Israelis’ movements and attendance at work to apply to the Knesset, according to Hebrew media reports Friday, as political rivals accuse his Likud party of using the coronavirus outbreak to weaken Israel’s democracy.
During a cabinet meeting overnight to approve the emergency measures, Netanyahu, 70, reportedly argued that many lawmakers are at risk from the coronavirus, and that not extending to the Knesset workplace restrictions that are designed to contain the virus could place them in greater danger. “The average age [among MKs] isn’t 14,” he reportedly said, alluding to the fact that the virus can be devastating among older people but is generally not dangerous to youngsters.
Also taking this position were Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and Communications Minister David Amsalem, both Likud members, the reports said.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit told Netanyahu and the Likud ministers that the government has no authority over the Knesset, citing the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, according to the reports.
For his part, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz said Friday there would not be a government without a functioning Knesset, and warned that steps to stifle parliament were bringing Israel closer to a “dictatorship.”
“In a democratic regime, the legislature is not shut down and prevented from expressing the will of the citizens and their choice,” Gantz wrote on Facebook. “Whoever is thinking of taking us into the dangerous area on the margins of dictatorship is making a mistake.”
He said the Knesset would need to find a way to continue to function while complying with Health Ministry guidelines, and likened lawmakers’ work amid the virus outbreak to that of emergency personnel.
“Like the emergency and medical teams that are risking their lives, we, the public representatives, also must represent the citizens who chose us and particularly need us at this time,” Gantz said.
Earlier, the Haaretz daily reported that another Likud minister, Ze’ev Elkin, also called for the emergency ordinances to be applied to the Knesset and among other reasons, cited the need for lawmakers to set an example for the public.
The newspaper said several ministers also sought to ban public demonstrations in the country as part of the new limitations, citing public health reasons, but were overruled.
The transitional government is already accused by its political rivals of undermining democracy, after Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) on Wednesday shut down the Knesset plenum, blocking votes on issues where there was a 61-strong majority against Netanyahu’s transitional government.
Edelstein’s move prevented Knesset votes that would have enabled parliamentary oversight of the government’s far-reaching measures to tackle the virus. He cited the need for unity talks with Blue and White and regulations restricting lawmakers from convening, but has been accused of using the crisis as cover for undemocratic action. President Reuven Rivlin later Wednesday telephoned Edelstein and urged him to reopen parliament, citing harm to Israeli democracy. Edelstein later said he would reopen the plenum this coming Monday.
Blue and White filed a petition Thursday against Edelstein’s decision to prevent the Knesset from convening, which the High Court of Justice will hear Sunday.
“I promise there won’t be a government in Israel that harms democratic institutions,” Gantz said Friday.
Gantz, who was tasked Monday by Rivlin with forming the next government after 61 MKs recommended him as prime minister, also said he remained committed to establishing a “broad, stable and statesmanlike government.”
Likud won 36 seats in the March 2 election, but the parties supporting Netanyahu failed to clear the 61-seat threshold for a parliamentary majority. Blue and White won 32 seats, but 61 newly elected MKs, including the 15 representatives of the Arab-majority Joint List, backed him for prime minister.
Neither side seems able to form a stable ruling coalition without the other.
Blue and White said Thursday it was breaking off unity talks with Likud after sources from the ruling party claimed Gantz had already agreed to let Netanyahu go first as prime minister. Blue and White denied the claim, calling it “cynical spin.”
On Friday morning a statement from the Blue and White party said its leaders had met to discuss several options to move forward and that in the coming week “every effort will be made to open the Knesset and committees and start working to help Israelis in the face of the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.”