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Gamliel: 'It is possible I erred in my judgment'

AG to rule if police will probe minister for allegedly lying to contact tracers

Criminal investigation requires Mandelblit’s nod; dozens protest near home of Gila Gamliel, who broke lockdown, then contracted coronavirus

Gila Gamliel speaks at a conference in Kedem, in the West Bank, on September 5, 2019 (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)
Gila Gamliel speaks at a conference in Kedem, in the West Bank, on September 5, 2019 (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

The Israel Police on Tuesday conveyed to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit the results of an initial probe of Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, who allegedly violated the national lockdown and withheld information on her whereabouts from the Health Ministry for over 24 hours.

It is now up to the attorney general to rule whether police will open a criminal investigation into Gamliel.

The head of the police investigations division, Roy Waldman, told Army Radio Tuesday that “we’ll publish the findings of the probe today. We are checking the materials on Gila Gamliel’s behavior and if needed we’ll conduct an interrogation.”

At the same time, Channel 12 reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no intention of firing Gamliel over her alleged conduct, and the Likud minister is not planning to resign. The premier, however, was considering taking “serious steps” against her, the network said, without elaborating on what those penalties would entail.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a briefing on coronavirus developments in Israel at his office in Jerusalem, on September 13, 2020. (Yoav Dudkevitch / POOL / AFP)

Gamliel, who announced over the weekend that she had been infected with the coronavirus, faced calls for her dismissal or resignation after she admitted that last week she broke a lockdown limit by traveling from her Tel Aviv home to the northern city of Tiberias.

She also reportedly tried to hide the trip from a Health Ministry epidemiological investigation into her infection. Gamliel spent the Yom Kippur fast, last Sunday evening and Monday, at a synagogue in Tiberias, where her father-in-law is the rabbi, Kan reported.

She disclosed that she had been infected with COVID-19 in a social media post overnight Saturday. The Haaretz daily reported late Monday that Gamliel could not be reached for hours by the Health Ministry epidemiological investigators on Sunday morning. When she was reached, at 3:30 p.m., she initially told the Health Ministry she believed she was infected by her driver and he was marked down as the source of the virus.

But investigators could not reconcile that with the fact that Gamliel’s husband and another relative were diagnosed with COVID-19, although they weren’t in contact with the driver. Hours later, at 7:22 p.m., the Health Ministry contact tracers followed up with Gamliel on the discrepancy.

At that point, she disclosed that she had taken part in prayers at a “family synagogue” over Yom Kippur — but did not mention that it was in Tiberias, not Tel Aviv, the report said. Gamliel told the authorities she had been in her office in Jerusalem and at a meeting in Petah Tikva but omitted mention of her travels to the northern city.

According to Haaretz, the Health Ministry only learned on Monday morning that she had been in Tiberias. It again called Gamliel, who named eight people with whom she had been in contact at the synagogue.

Health Ministry officials are trying to determine how many other people were in the synagogue at the time and if the number was more than the permitted ten people allowed at indoor prayer services on Yom Kippur under the lockdown.

The Walla news site quoted participants in the Yom Kippur service as saying there had been 35 people in the building.

Associates of the minister have said the congregants all wore masks and that Gamliel slept in a local family apartment in the city, parts of which have been declared virus hotspots. They also asserted on Monday that her husband owns the apartment where they stayed and that they were thus allowed to be there under the lockdown regulations.

Police set up a temporary roadblock on Menachem Begin Street in Tel Aviv to enforce a coronavirus lockdown, on September 23, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Gamliel on Monday did not admit to doing anything wrong, but allowed later on that she may not have handled the situation correctly.

“I acted in line with guidelines, though it is possible I erred in my judgment. I am sorry, I will pay the fine,” she said in a statement.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein called on all elected officials to adhere to the virus regulations.

“These are guidelines written in blood and no one has the privilege of not sticking to them,” Edelstein said.

Dozens of protestors demonstrated near Gamliel’s Tel Aviv home on Monday evening, calling on her to resign.

“It is unacceptable for there to be one law for MKs and elected officials, and another law for citizens. During lockdown they go out but imprison us. It’s a government of the corrupt,” one demonstrator named Noya told the Ynet news site.

Protestors demonstrate near the Tel Aviv home of Gila Gamliel, October 6, 2020 (Screen grab/Ynet)

Several demonstrators said police asked them to prove they had not strayed beyond one kilometer from their homes, in keeping with the lockdown rules.

Critics have said Gamliel’s conduct as a cabinet member is incompatible with expectations that the public adhere to lockdown restrictions.

Netanyahu said he was waiting for investigators to uncover the “full picture” before drawing conclusions on the conduct of Gamliel, a senior member of his Likud party.

“We are all obligated to follow the rules, both with regard to gatherings and other rules related to the coronavirus. This includes ministers and Knesset members and all public servants,” he said at the start of a meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet, according to his office.

“On the matter of Minister Gamliel, I recommend waiting on the conclusions until the Health Ministry investigation is complete. I think this is the right thing to do. We should operate based on facts and investigations and not preliminary reports and I recommend waiting. We will soon receive the full picture.”

But the Health Ministry appeared to rebuff those comments, saying its epidemiological investigation into Gamliel had been completed but that it was not its job to do more than contact trace.

“Any information that is not related to contact tracing is irrelevant and was not documented in the investigation,” the ministry said.

Israelis ride their bicycles along empty roads in Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur, September 19, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

Israel has instated an ongoing national lockdown that, among other restrictions, limits Israelis to remaining within one kilometer of their homes except for work or essential needs. Visiting others’ homes is also banned.

Gamliel is not the first minister whose infection with COVID-19 uncovered apparent violations of government-ordered restrictions.

In April, then-health minister Yaakov Litzman was diagnosed with COVID-19, reportedly after having attended prayer services that at the time were banned under his own ministry’s orders during a previous lockdown.

Litzman, of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, later left his post in favor of the Housing Ministry, but last month resigned in protest of the current lockdown measures and the restrictions they place on synagogue services during the High Holiday season.

Litzman was reportedly among the thousands who attended the mass funeral of a Hasidic rabbi in Ashdod on Monday.

Newly appointed housing minister and former health minister Yaakov Litzman, at his installation ceremony at the Housing Ministry in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Olivier FitoussiFlash90)

Multiple Knesset members have also caught the virus, the most recent of whom was Ayman Odeh, who leads the majority-Arab Joint List party.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid announced on Monday that MK Mickey Levy will resign from the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee “by joint agreement” after violating the lockdown rules.

During the first lockdown earlier this year, there were multiple reports of lockdown violations by politicians and their families, including Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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