The chairwoman of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee put her position on the line for the second time in less than a week Saturday, when she told television news her panel would review whether to approve the latest cabinet decisions on coronavirus restrictions.
Following Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton’s interview to Channel 12’s “Meet the Press,” a senior Likud official told the network that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intended to fire and replace her.
“It’s impossible to work like this,” the official said.
According to recent legislation, the cabinet can swiftly pass emergency coronavirus regulations without the need for Knesset approval, but the legislature must sign off on the decisions within a week or they are automatically annulled.
However, Shasha-Biton’s apparently dogged commitment to fulfill that mandate has been met with scorn by the prime minister and his allies in Likud.
Removing Shasha-Biton will require the agreement of Likud’s coalition partners in the Blue and White party. But Blue and White chief Benny Gantz on Saturday night indicated he would not necessarily support such a move.
“I think it is appropriate for the Coronavirus Committee to accept the cabinet decisions… but we must respect the Knesset’s role,” Gantz said during a faction meeting. “I am working to prevent the firing of Shasha-Biton and I hope we’ll avoid that move.”
Likud had threatened to remove Shasha-Biton from her position earlier in the week — after she and her fellow committee members voted to reverse a cabinet decision last week to shutter gyms and pools, citing a lack of supporting data — but opposition from Blue and White led the party to back down.
In her Saturday interview with Channel 12, Shasha-Biton spoke out against the government’s decision to close beaches on weekends from next weekend and to shutter restaurants starting Tuesday, saying the committee would demand data justifying the closures in order to sign off on them.
She added that the Health Ministry has provided no statistics to justify the sweeping measures.
She said her panel would discuss the latest restrictions on Sunday, despite claims by coalition chairman MK Miki Zohar that the committee would no longer be tasked with reviewing the government’s coronavirus measures
Shasha-Biton said keeping beaches open was critical for public morale.
“Regarding restaurants, we said that they needed to abide by the purple badge regulations. There is no reason for them to be closed entirely,” she added, asserting that customers could be seated outside in the open air, limiting the risk of the virus spreading.
In response to the latest threat to fire her, Shasha-Biton said in a later statement that she respects the decisions of the government, but that it was the Knesset’s job “to review the work of the government.”
She added: “I entered politics for one purpose: to serve the people of Israel. If I have to pay a personal price for it, I will accept it.”
Amid an ongoing rise in national infection rates, the latest regulations severely limited public gatherings until further notice, ordered the closure of restaurants for in-house seating for the foreseeable future (though that move has been delayed to Tuesday after massive backlash by restaurateurs) and ordered multiple closures on weekends going forward, including of beaches, parks and other recreational activities.
Monday’s vote to immediately reopen outdoor swimming pools and gyms, exempting them from a cabinet decision last week that shuttered parts of the economy in an effort to curb the spread of the pandemic, inflamed tensions within Netanyahu’s Likud party and sparked efforts to oust Shasha-Biton. The party said later it would only take disciplinary measures against Shasha-Biton, after the Blue and White party said it wouldn’t back her ouster.
The committee made the decision against Netanyahu’s wishes, after the premier waged a pressure campaign for Shasha-Biton to keep gyms closed, including meeting with her minutes before Monday’s committee meeting. She nevertheless voted to reopen pools and gyms, as did committee members from the opposition, after the Health Ministry failed to present infection data that showed their closure was justified.
Just before Shasha-Biton on Monday voted to reverse the government’s decision, Likud’s coalition whip Miki Zohar angrily approached her, according to Channel 12, and whispered in her ear: “You are finished in the Likud party. You [will be] ousted as committee chairwoman. Have a nice life.”
Immediately after the vote, Zohar updated the House Committee head of his party’s intention to oust and replace Shasha-Biton as chairwoman of the coronavirus committee. Zohar wrote that a new Likud MK would be proposed at the next House Committee session on Tuesday.
But several hours later, Zohar said he had spoken to Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin and that they had agreed that Shasha-Biton would only face disciplinary action. He added that Knesset bills wouldn’t be handed to her committee until further notice.
Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein have repeatedly warned in recent days that the latest restrictions were necessary in order to avoid a full lockdown down the road.
Meanwhile, a freshman lawmaker from Netanyahu’s party hit out at the premier on Thursday, criticizing him for intimidating political allies who question government decisions and accusing him of refusing to take responsibility for Israel’s problems.
MK Michal Shir wrote on Facebook that Netanyahu must be willing to accept criticism “without his people accusing anyone who doubts or expresses concern of being a radical or a leftist.”
Shir also said that she could not agree with the “silencing of the legislature” or “threats against committee heads and MKs who will vote and act like robots,” according to the party line, in order to keep their political futures out of danger.
Shir is a close ally of Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, an internal rival of Netanyahu’s who last year unsuccessfully challenged the premier in the party’s leadership primaries.