The corona virus has claimed a first victim in Israel: parliamentary democracy. On Wednesday, Yuli Edelstein, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leader and party friend, prevented MPs elected in early March from doing their jobs.
He quickly sealed off the Knesset, thereby not only preventing the election of his own successor, but also preventing parliamentary committees from being constituted – for example, a committee that could monitor the government’s handling of the corona crisis. Edelstein postponed the next parliamentary session to Monday. It is not out of the question that this date will also be canceled due to the ongoing corona pandemic.
This means that more and more power is concentrated in the hands of the man who has not had a parliamentary majority for more than a year and now only serves as the Prime Minister: Benjamin Netanyahu. Since April of last year, the Likud boss has put in a total of three new elections. After none, he has succeeded in forming a coalition that has a majority in parliament.
Even more: after the recent Knesset election, 61 out of 120 deputies proposed opposition leader Benny Gantz as future prime minister. As a result, President Reuven Rivlin commissioned the chairman of the blue-and-white party alliance to form a government.
Criticism from the President
So Netanyahu has only a minority of people’s elected MPs behind him, but his parliamentary spokesman and party friend Edelstein blocks the rights of the majority. That is why Netanyahu’s political opponents have long ceased to speak of a coup or the impending end to Israeli democracy. Israeli historian Yuval Harari sees “the first coronavirus dictatorship” emerging in Israel.
Yaakov Katz, editor-in-chief of the conservative, Netanyahu benevolent “Jerusalem Post”, described the acting head of government as “serious violation of the Israeli rule of law and democracy”. The Likud must stop using its power. President Reuven Rivlin, who has been deeply averse to his Likud party friend Netanyahu for years, warns: “The corona crisis must not allow us to damage our democratic infrastructure so badly.”
Netanyahu’s critics point out that Israel has had to fight for its bare existence several times in wars against its Arab neighbors, but the government never questioned Israel’s democratic character in times of war. But that’s exactly what Netanyahu is doing in the corona crisis.
Domestic intelligence is said to help fight the virus
Netanyahu ignores these warnings. He just continues to rule, as if the elections hadn’t even taken place. The corona virus plays into his hands. Because of the epidemic, the reading of charges against him for defrauding, bribery and infidelity, which should have taken place on Tuesday, has been postponed. Because of the corona crisis, no one can currently predict when the trial against the prime minister will begin. As of Thursday evening, 677 people in Israel had contracted Covid-19, one patient is in critical condition. So far there have been no casualties.
Netanyahu meanwhile presents himself as the politician who is the only one who can save Israel from the catastrophic consequences of the epidemic. “While I am waging the war against the corona virus and the struggle for the lives of Israeli citizens, they are planning to depose the Prime Minister,” Netanyahu said in a television interview with his critics on Wednesday.
In the fight against the virus, Netanyahu uses drastic means: Israel has not only sealed off its state borders, imposed a far-reaching curfew and quarantined thousands of citizens. This week, Netanyahu’s cabinet authorized the domestic intelligence agency Schin Bet to take action. The secret service has been collecting the metadata of all mobile phone users in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories since at least 2002. So far, the Schin Bet uses the technology, according to official information, only in the fight against terrorism, for example to locate militant Palestinians.
Rallies are prohibited because of the corona crisis
Now the secret service is supposed to use the cell phone data to find out who Corona people have had close contact with in the past few weeks. These people should then be automatically informed by text message and asked to isolate themselves.
Civil rights groups criticize the practice as a massive encroachment on the personal rights of Israelis. Mainly because Netanyahu authorized the secret service without a parliamentary debate and because there is currently no parliamentary control of the government or the secret service because of the Knesset closure. Prosecutor General Avichai Mandelbilt, who leads the investigation into Netanyahu in the corruption affair, approved the use of the Shin Bet.
On Thursday, Israel’s Supreme Court put the government in its place: if the Knesset had not elected a committee to oversee the surveillance program by Tuesday, the Shin Bet operation would have to be ended. The judges also ruled that the metadata should not be used to monitor quarantined Israelis.
Knesset chief Edelstein asserts that MPs could vote on parliamentary committees to oversee government work next week. But not everyone believes it. On Thursday, opponents of Netanyahu drove from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a convoy, a few of whom later demonstrated in front of the empty Knesset. Eight demonstrators were temporarily arrested. Netanyahu has banned meetings of more than ten people because of the corona virus and instructed the police to resolve rallies – also by decree, without a parliamentary resolution.