Three ministers said to have urged for new virus limitations to apply to Knesset

Three ministers said to have urged for new virus limitations to apply to Knesset

Report says heated cabinet call saw some Likud members seek in vain to curb parliament’s work; rivals claim government is preventing plenum from convening to block votes against PM

Yariv Levin, right, and Ze'ev Elkin of the Likud party attend a Knesset plenum session on March 12, 2014. (Flash90)
Yariv Levin, right, and Ze'ev Elkin of the Likud party attend a Knesset plenum session on March 12, 2014. (Flash90)

As the cabinet voted on national emergency measures late Thursday night, three ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party called for some of the new regulations restricting Israelis’ movements and regulating attendance at workplaces be extended to include the Knesset, the Haaretz daily reported Friday.

The Israeli parliament was excluded from the new limitations, but citing various considerations — including setting an example to others — ministers Yariv Levin, Ze’ev Elkin and David Amsalem urged in vain for the legislature be included in them, the report said, citing two ministers involved in the conference call.

Their appeal during the call was eventually rejected.

The report said Amsalem sought the closure of the legislature citing his own health and that of his family. But he was informed by other ministers that closing the government’s legislative branch would be illegal.

Communications Minister David Amsalem, speaks during a ceremony at the Communications Ministry in Jerusalem, July 10, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Levin and Elkin, meanwhile, did not go so far, citing the Knesset’s sovereignty to make its own decisions, but said the Health Ministry should advise parliament to follow the same guidelines issued to other workplaces — which severely limit attendance and would make parliamentary work extraordinarily difficult. The Knesset would then need to decide whether it would accept the recommendations.

Elkin warned of potential mass infection in the Knesset that could spread through all of Israeli’s leadership including its top military brass.

The report said several ministers also sought to ban public demonstrations in the country as part of the new limitations, for public health reasons, but were overruled.

The arguments over the issues reportedly grew heated at certain points, with voices being raised on the line.

The transitional government is already accused by its political rivals of undermining democracy, after the speaker refused this week to open the Knesset plenum to allow votes in which there is a 61-strong majority against the government.

Likud Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein has refused to allow the Knesset to vote on setting up parliamentary oversight of the government’s far-reaching measures to tackle the virus, citing the need for unity talks with Blue and White and regulations restricting lawmakers from convening, but has been accused of using the crisis as cover to cling to power illegally.

President Reuven Rivlin phoned Edelstein on Wednesday and urged him to reopen the Knesset, citing the imperative to avoid harming Israeli democracy.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (R) and President Reuven Rivlin at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. (Mark Heyman and Haim Zach/GPO)

Edelstein insisted on Thursday the parliament was “not closed, and our democracy isn’t in danger.” He promised to allow a plenum vote to establish the Arrangements Committee — effectively opening the 23rd Knesset for business — on Monday. The Knesset does not hold votes on the sabbaths of the major monotheistic religions, i.e., on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Edelstein has urged a unity government, but also backs Likud’s demand that Netanyahu go first in rotation as premier.

Edelstein, Netanyahu and Likud were accused in recent days of dictatorial conduct under the cover of the coronavirus health emergency.

Blue and White and Likud have been fighting over control and staffing of committees in the new parliament. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was tasked by the president this week with forming a government after receiving the support of 61 MKs, despite Netanyahu’s party receiving more seats than his own.

On Wednesday evening the Knesset’s legal adviser Eyal Yinon instructed Edelstein to allow the formation of the Arrangements Committee — which oversees the creation of the other committees — as soon as possible and said if no agreement was reached by the beginning of the week the matter would need to be put to a plenary vote without delay. Likud is likely to lose such a vote as it does not command a parliamentary majority.

On Thursday the Israel Democracy Institute warned Edelstein that failure to allow the Arrangements Committee to be formed “blatantly exceeds” the bounds of his office and “constitutes an unacceptable disregard for basic rules of democracy.”

A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

And the High Court of Justice said it would shutter the government’s new mass surveillance program, intended to track the movements of infected Israelis, if the Knesset fails to establish parliamentary oversight over it within five days. The new measures use cyber tracking technology previously only permitted for use in surveilling terror suspects.

Likud won 36 seats in the March 2 election, but the parties supporting Netanyahu failed to clear the 61-seat threshold for a parliamentary majority. Blue and White won 32 seats, but 61 newly elected MKs, including the 15 representatives of the Arab-majority Joint List, backed him for prime minister.

Neither side is believed able to form a stable ruling coalition without the other.

Edelstein on Thursday blamed the Knesset’s troubles on the last three consecutive elections. “It’s strange to talk about a Knesset that doesn’t function. It’s because of the repeat elections. That’s exactly why I’m working to finally establish a unity government” to avoid further elections, he said.

Blue and White alone, he added, did not have the numbers to form a government on its own.

“If Blue and White was a [viable] alternative [to Likud], they would already have established a government.”

Meanwhile, Blue and White said it was breaking off unity talks with Likud after sources from the ruling party claimed Gantz had already agreed to let Netanyahu go first as prime minister. Blue and White denied the claim, calling it “cynical spin.”

Illustrative: Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz holds a press conference at Kfar Maccabia on March 7 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Negotiations with the Likud team were stopped tonight,” the party said in a statement.

“No meeting took place today and contrary to the reports, there are no agreements,” it added. “What we have seen throughout the day is cynical spin during a great and difficult crisis for Israeli citizens. Next week, Likud will have to deal with a functioning Knesset [working] for the benefit of Israel’s citizens.”

On Friday morning a statement from the Blue and White party said its leaders had met to discuss several options to move forward and that in the coming week “every effort will be made to open the Knesset and committees and start working to help Israelis in the face of the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.”

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