Knesset members on Monday assailed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as Israel began exiting a weeks-long national lockdown that was imposed to contain one of the highest infection rates in the world.
Netanyahu was required to attend the Knesset plenum session on “the shameful failure of the prime minister in managing the economic and health crisis,” after 40 MKs signed a letter forcing him to appear.
Speaking from the rostrum, Netanyahu accused opposition lawmakers of hampering the government’s efforts to combat the virus.
“In most countries of the world, the opposition helps the government fight the coronavirus. Unfortunately not in Israel,” Netanyahu said, rejecting MKs’ criticism. “[You’re] wasting time in the Knesset instead of working.”
He added: “I call on opposition members to not use the coronavirus to divide the nation and pick up a few votes in the polls. It’s only possible to defeat the coronavirus if we go together.”
The prime minister defended his decision making during the pandemic and the imposition of a second national lockdown, noting the marked drop in new infections.
“Just as we preceded the world in the first wave, so we’re preceding it in the second wave,” he said.
Lapid: Hurting the Haredim
Speaking after Netanyahu was Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.
“You’re stuck with the same speech from four years ago that has no connection to the present reality. This is no longer the same country. You’re not the same person. Only the same speech is stuck on a loop,” he said.
Lapid, who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party, charged that politics was driving Netanyahu’s decisions on the pandemic. “Because of politics you’re not enforcing [the virus regulations] as needed in ultra-Orthodox cities,” he said, after hundreds of Haredi schools opened in defiance of restrictions.
Lapid castigated Netanyahu for surrendering to the ultra-Orthodox parties. “What’s happened in the last few days isn’t the fault of the ultra-Orthodox. It’s what they’ve been told. For years Netanyahu told them that the rules don’t apply to them. It’s a deal they have – they let Netanyahu stay on as prime minister and in exchange he will make sure they receive budgets and that the rules won’t apply to them. But this time it’s harming the ultra-Orthodox public, not helping them.
Lapid said that “because of his trial, Netanyahu is running away from a clash with the ultra-Orthodox parties. He needs them so he surrenders to them. That surrender harms everyone but first and foremost it harms the ultra-Orthodox public.”
“If I was prime minister today, an educational institution that doesn’t abide by the rules wouldn’t get a 5,000 shekel fine, they would get a 100,000 shekel fine. The next step would be to remove their funding – not partial funding, all of it. An educational institution that doesn’t abide by the law wouldn’t get a shekel from the state,” Lapid said.
He also criticized Netanyahu for having violated the initial lockdown in April and asserted the prime minister was focused on “everything not relevant to the lives of Israelis,” such as his criminal trial on corruption charges.
Along with opposition lawmakers, coalition Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir spoke against Netanyahu after resigning earlier this month as tourism minister.
“When you called for unity, I believed you. It’s the last time I believed you because there is no chance you believed it yourself,” said Zamir, referring to the unity government of Netanyahu’s Likud and Blue and White.
He pleaded with Netanyahu to pass a budget for 2021, noting that doing so would deny the premier the option of going to new elections without having to hand over the premiership to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, as part of their power-sharing deal.
“Israel needs a budget and we could’ve passed one, if you weren’t busy with your political survival and political alliances,” Zamir said.
The plenum session came a day after a television poll indicated a majority of Israelis disapprove of Netanyahu’s performance during the pandemic and believe that decision making is being primarily driven by political factors.
The Channel 12 poll, as well as a separate survey published by Channel 13, also had Netanyahu’s party dropping from 36 to 27 seats if new elections were held.
Israel on Sunday began easing the monthlong closure that has managed to curb runaway infection rates, but shuttered much of the economy and paralyzed many aspects of life for many people. Officials have expressed fear that pressure to swiftly reopen schools and businesses will lead to a repeat of the chaotic emergence from Israel’s first lockdown in May, widely blamed for paving the way for the spike in new COVID-19 cases in August and September.