Top Shas rabbi: Close synagogues immediately

Talks on new curbs devolve into finger-pointing on protests by Netanyahu, Gantz

As outbreak surges, Blue and White chief derides ‘obsession’ with halting rallies, while PM claims party playing politics; Poll: Majority back halting protests, shutting synagogues

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum on August 24, 2020. (Knesset Spokesperson's Office)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum on August 24, 2020. (Knesset Spokesperson's Office)

A government meeting meant to decide on new measures to curb a massive surge in virus infections devolved into coalition infighting between the Likud and Blue and White parties on Wednesday, mostly over the issue of what, if any, limitations should be placed on protests.

Leading Blue and White ministers traded blows with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the Likud party, accusing the premier of targeting demonstrations against him with proposed new lockdown measures.

According to Hebrew media reports, the prime minister was seeking to limit all prayers and protests to within a kilometer of one’s home, while also setting 20-person caps on any such events.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, accused his coalition rivals of politicking during a time of crisis. Blue and White officials were reported to have told the premier they would agree to such limitations on rallies only if a full-on lockdown is imposed — a move opposed by both parties.

The position was said to have been backed up at the meeting by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who also said halting protests could only be justified under a full lockdown.

In a statement sent to the press, Blue and White said its leader Benny Gantz, who is in Washington, told party members taking part in the discussions to “insist on what is good for citizens’ health and stopping virus infections, while balancing Judaism, Democracy, the economy and society. Do not focus only on the issue of demonstrations.”

Gantz said the “obsessive discussion on the protest issue” must stop, calling it “disproportionate,” and said that his party will accept the recommendations of health officials in the matter.

Netanyahu, in his own statement, accused Blue and White of playing politics.

“Today 31 people died of the coronavirus. I am fighting for the lives of the people of Israel. I am fighting for public health. At the same time, there are those engaging in petty politics. We are at war. Wake up!” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.

“I fully support the right to protest, but every week Israelis see how they’re required to celebrate the holidays alone, how they’re required to follow health regulations, and at the same time how protesters mass against all health rules.”

Finance Minister Israel Katz of Likud said in a statement that he “views with severity the fact that Blue and White conditions the cancellation of protests on a total closure of the private sector.”

“Millions of wage-earners and the Israeli economy cannot be held hostage to the political agenda of the day,” Katz said, adding that the Finance Ministry had formulated a plan, based on data, to allow some private sector businesses to operate in a safe manner.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, both of Blue and White, reportedly accused the prime minister of seeking to stifle protests.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, September 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Likud and Blue and White have been at odds almost constantly since the formation of the government in March.

Channel 12 news reported that there were also internal disagreements in Blue and White, with Culture Minister Chili Tropper writing in a party Whatsapp group that he felt the party’s stance in support of the right to protest is untenable in the face of strict limits on all other gatherings. Other officials, including Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir and Nissenkorn, disagreed with him, saying decisions should be based on what career officials say is necessary.

It is still unclear what exactly is on the table during the discussions, but ministers are reportedly weighing shuttering synagogues, limiting demonstrations, closing Ben Gurion Airport and only allowing essential businesses to carry on working.

Ministers were also said to be considering declaring a state of national emergency, a move that would allow them to bypass the Knesset’s approval of the new health regulations. It was not immediately clear if the step would receive legal backing from the attorney general.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, wearing face masks during morning prayer in a synagogue separated by plastic partitions, follow new government measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, Sept 18, 2020 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

A Channel 12 poll Wednesday showed most of the public backs halting protests (70 percent) as well as shutting synagogues on Yom Kippur (60%).

The poll also found more people blame the public for the state of the pandemic (48%) than blame the government (42%).

Protests and prayers have been a bone of contention during the political wrangling over the new lockdown measures. Religious leaders have bristled at calls to limit prayers in synagogues while mass protests are allowed to go on.

The attorney general previously laid out rules to spread out protesters during the rallies into “capsules,” but they did not appear to have been implemented during Sunday night’s latest Jerusalem demonstration, which drew thousands.

Netanyahu has criticized weekly demonstrations against him as a health hazard. There has been no data on infections contracted at the protests. The virus is believed to spread far more easily indoors.

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

Ynet reported Wednesday that Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said he’ll back the closure of synagogues on Yom Kippur if that’s what the government orders.

Rabbi David Yosef, a member of the Shas party’s rabbinical council, instructed his followers: “Please immediately close synagogues and study halls. Pray and study only outdoors,” according to the Kikar HaShabat website.

It was unclear if they support the blanket ban on outdoor prayer that the government is reported to be considering.

Bezalel Smotrich of the national religious Yamina party urged religious communities to preempt the government decision and resolve to only hold outdoor prayer services on Yom Kippur.

“The religious public must lead and not be dragged. With all the difficulty, we must close the synagogues and pray in the open air. Even on Yom Kippur,” he tweeted.

Smotrich also lashed out at Mandelblit in a Wednesday social media post. “The veto that he put in place from the start against limiting demonstrations is one of the central causes, if not the most central, for the public loss of trust in the government decisions on the topic of the coronavirus,” he argued, because it gave de facto legitimization to gatherings.

Under the current restrictions, prayer services can be held indoors, but numbers are limited depending on the size of the synagogue, the number of entrances and local infection rates. Synagogues must also accommodate four square meters per worshiper, with that rule overriding any others.

The cabinet debate came as the Health Ministry said on Wednesday morning that 6,923 new virus cases had been diagnosed in Israel the previous day, a massive surge to a record-high number of infections. A further 31 fatalities took the death toll to 1,316.

The latest figures pushed the number of Israel’s confirmed cases since the start of the outbreak past the 200,000 mark — 200,041 — only a month after the country hit 100,000 cases.

There were 634 patients in serious condition as of Wednesday morning, including 171 on ventilators, and 266 people classified in moderate condition. The remainder suffered mild or no symptoms.

The ministry announced a record 61,165 tests were carried out on Tuesday, with a high rate of positive results — about 11 percent.

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