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In Israel, Tug of War over Pandemic Regulations Creates New Political Star
‘Not the government’s rubber stamp.’ The Knesset building in Jerusalem. (Beny Shlevich/Wikimedia Commons)

In Israel, Tug of War over Pandemic Regulations Creates New Political Star

Former colleagues of MK Yifat Shasha-Biton weigh in on the battle of wills between government and Knesset, and what has made her the bane of a prime minister

Binyamin Netanyahu’s government faced another political challenge on Sunday as the Israeli parliament’s Special Committee on the Novel Coronavirus convened to discuss the latest emergency regulations enacted by the cabinet.

Overnight last week, committee chairwoman Yifat Shasha-Biton, a member of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, became a household name after striking down several cabinet decisions, most notably an order to close down public pools and gyms. The few statistics gathered in Israel regarding hot locations for infections show pools and gyms to be near the bottom of the list, she noted.

After threatening to immediately remove Shasha-Biton from her position, Netanyahu hinted he would instead wait for the committee to reconvene before deciding her fate.

On Saturday night, the chairwoman reiterated her intent to “reach decisions based on facts and statistics alone” even if the decisions collide with those of the government. The prime minister’s response was swift: He would move to “immediately fire” her.

After hours of deliberations, the committee dispersed on Sunday evening without holding a vote on the latest set of restrictions announced on Friday. And there was no firing.

Yifat Shasha-Biton (Knesset)

The Media Line spoke with former MKs who served with Shasha-Biton, whose Center-Right Kulanu party merged with the Likud in May 2019, about her motivations and intentions.

“Yifat simply realizes that the Knesset is independent,” says former Kulanu MK Meirav Ben-Ari. “She just asked for statistics and information, and she’ll decide according to that. That’s what the parliament is supposed to do; it’s not the government’s rubber stamp.”

That’s what the parliament is supposed to do; it’s not the government’s rubber stamp

A government, Ben-Ari says, has to provide factual numbers.

“You’re really going to shut down businesses and cause the markets severe damage based on zero data? That’s hysteria,” she says.

Asked whether Shasha-Biton might buckle under the relentless pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office, Ben-Ari replies: “She’s been through a few things in her life. Yifat acts only out of professional concerns. She’s always been this way.”

Former MK Roy Folkman, who chaired Kulanu’s parliamentary faction, lost his seat after speaking out against the merger with the Likud. He now advises several initiatives that assist city councils in combatting the pandemic, and agrees with Ben-Ari.

“Yifat rightly told government officials: ‘I’ll accept any recommendations you make; just prove to me that they’re based on some strategy,’” he tells The Media Line.

“You have to base decisions on substantial statistics,” Folkman continues.

“We have here a case of extreme over-centralization,” he states. “Basically, the Health Ministry, which is not equipped to handle this type of problem, runs the show exclusively with the prime minister. No stats or data or facts are given.”

According to a law passed two weeks ago, the government can enact emergency regulations concerning the pandemic without the need for a vote in parliament. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, then has two weeks to discuss and vote on the regulations. If they are voted down or no vote is held, the regulations are invalidated.

But Folkman identifies a more fundamental issue.

“In general, the Israeli parliament has an inherent weakness in its role of supervising the government given the fact that [the government] is itself formed out of members of parliament,” he explains.

This means the ruling coalition must have what Folkman calls “strict discipline.” He explains that “everything falls apart” if people do as they please.

“This leaves the parliament committee chairs – [who are] usually members of the coalition − very little wiggle room, and they must coordinate with the government,” he says. “That’s a systemic, problematic situation in government-parliament work.”

Another former MK who asked to remain unidentified for the purpose of speaking freely says this delicate balance can work when both sides are willing to make it happen.

“Sure, [committees are] meant to oversee and supervise the government’s actions, but there’s a subtle dance that you need to perform,” the source tells the Media Line.

“Usually changes [to bills] are made in a very quiet, subtle way. Yifat did this very bluntly,” the source says.

“I think, politically, she wanted to create this clash,” the source speculates. “Committee members can push their agenda, but the committee chairperson must find a way to [establish a] balance between [this] and the government’s needs. Instead, she led the battle herself.”

Shasha-Biton, the source insists, has no reason now to give in to the prime minister’s demand that the panel approve all government decisions.

“She’s in a win-win situation, politically,” the source says.

She’s in a win-win situation, politically

“If [Netanyahu] removes her, she becomes a hero and gets media attention as the one who didn’t back down and stood up to Bibi,” the source goes on, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “If not, she’s the one who managed to hold her own and survive. That’s why she did this with high publicity.”

The source explains that if she had really wanted to solve the issue of pools and gyms, Shasha-Biton could have approached the Health Ministry directly and negotiated a solution.

“That’s what you usually do as an MK,” the source stated.

Due to a technicality in the merger between Kulanu and the Likud, Shasha-Biton can leave the Likud at will and become a separate political entity or merge with another party’s faction. In light of this, some analysts have speculated that with anti-Netanyahu protests gathering steam and the health and economic crises deteriorating by the day, the committee chairwoman is distancing herself from a sinking ship.

But not everybody thinks her actions are politically motivated.

“Sure, she could have opted for dialogue instead of voting against her own party and coalition, but the [Likud] is the one that turned this into a political event,” Folkman says.

“They could have done things quietly – invited her for a meeting with Health Ministry officials or with the prime minister to straighten things out, to bridge the divide between the government’s need to act quickly and decisively, and the legitimate questions the Knesset has as the representative of the public. Instead, [Netanyahu and his loyalists] shout out, ‘You’re fired!’” he exclaims.

“It’s not like her communications team said, ‘Let’s say no to the prime minister and get some headlines,’” Folkman continues. “Knowing her, it didn’t happen that way. Besides, she couldn’t have anticipated it would turn out this way, in her favor.”

It’s not like her communications team said, ‘Let’s say no to the prime minister and get some headlines.’ Knowing her, it didn’t happen that way. Besides, she couldn’t have anticipated it would turn out this way, in her favor

Indeed, the ex-faction chair for Kulanu sees the importance of her actions.

“The Knesset is not a rubber stamp,” he insists, “and the decisions regarding coronavirus restrictions are being made unprofessionally.”

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