Netanyahu: There may be fines for violating Health Ministry orders

In TV interview, PM indicates that full lockdown of the country not yet in the offing; calls on ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis to abide by safety directives

Workers wearing protective gear against the coronavirus disinfect a synagogue in Israel, March 18, 2020. (Flash90)
Workers wearing protective gear against the coronavirus disinfect a synagogue in Israel, March 18, 2020. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday said the government may begin fining people for violating Health Ministry directives for containing the coronavirus outbreak, while saying he does not want to introduce a full lockdown of the country.

“I prefer to remain with the current instructions over a lockdown,” he said in an interview with Channel 12 news.

Netanyahu said Israelis needed “to internalize” the non-binding instructions issued by the Health Ministry Tuesday for people to remain in their homes except for essential needs. If they do not do so, the premier said it was “very possible” he would make the orders legally binding.

“Some in the ultra-Orthodox community and some in the ‘minority’ community are not listening to the directives,” he said, using a euphemism for Arabs.

More than 150 ultra-Orthodox Jews defy Health Ministry coronavirus warnings and take part in a wedding in the city of Beit Shemesh on March 17, 2020 (Screen capture: Channel 12)

The prime minister denied the Health Ministry was recommending a complete lockdown, citing the economic fallout of such a move. He said the Health Ministry was in favor of turning the new restrictions into legal orders and that these orders had been prepared.

Asked about efforts to increase the number of tests for coronavirus amid criticism not enough are being performed, Netanyahu indicated that a lack of supplies was limiting the ability to ramp up testing.

“Everyone is working to bring the materials and we’ll have them,” he said, adding he has been in touch with world leaders.

He vowed that by the start of next week, 3,000 tests would be performed a day. The week after that there will be 5,000 tests a day and the week after that 10,000, he vowed.

Netanyahu cautioned, however, that “there is no possibility to do this for the entire population” and testing would be for those suspected of being exposed to the virus.

“The thing we believe in is isolation. Finding the sick and isolating them,” he said.

A Magen David Adom paramedic in protective gear arrives to test a patient with symptoms of the new coronavirus in the northern city of Safed, March 17, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Netanyahu was also asked if he was using the virus outbreak to undermine Israel’s democratic institutions, as his political rivals have accused him of doing.

“The last thing I would do is harm democracy,” he said.

He defended Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s decision to shutter the plenary, saying he hopes the parliament reopens soon.

Earlier Wednesday, Edelstein ordered the Knesset shut after the Blue and White party refused his proposal of having equal representation in the parliamentary so-called Arrangements Committee, which is tasked with presiding over the creation of all other Knesset committees, as the Likud-led bloc garnered 58 seats in the last election to the Blue and White’s coalition’s 61.

“Committees were always formed with agreement between the coalition and opposition,” Netanyahu said.

The closure of the Knesset has led to a total lack of parliamentary oversight in the transitional government’s recent, occasionally draconian measures that it says are necessary to combat the coronavirus, which has included the closure of many of the nation’s courts — another major check on executive overreach.

The prime minister said he hopes the Knesset reopens soon.

A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. At left is Benny Gantz. Center, with back to camera, is Benjamin Netanyahu (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

Asked specifically about a recent mass surveillance program approved by the government without any parliamentary oversight, he denied acting improperly, arguing that he had wanted the approval of a Knesset’s committee, but was forced to act quickly.

“I demanded the maximum oversight on this. The concerns of misuse of this data are not on only one side of the political map,” he said.

Netanyahu added that he has refrained from using mass surveillance against Israeli citizens in the past “in order to defend the individual. I protected them.”

The prime minister also falsely claimed that Blue and White party’s efforts to form a minority government were unprecedented in the democratic world. There have been minority governments — in which the ruling coalition requires support from outside factions — in Ireland, Canada, the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and others.

In a shot at his political rivals, Netanyahu said while he’s “leading the fight against the coronavirus,” they’re seeking “to remove a prime minister.”

He appeared to be referring to a series of laws submitted by Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu that would block Netanyahu from forming the next government due to the criminal charges against him.

In the interview, Netanyahu also praised Israel’s response to the virus, saying it is “leading the world.”

There have so far been 433 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Israel. There have been no deaths from the virus, but at least six people were in serious condition.

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