Emergency Law Grants Israeli Gov’t Temporary Unchecked Powers to Deal with Pandemic

Emergency Law Grants Israeli Gov’t Temporary Unchecked Powers to Deal with Pandemic

Experts and citizens react to the controversial overnight amendment

In an accelerated and unprecedented move, the Israeli parliament passed a bill into law Monday night, empowering the government to enact emergency regulations without the oversight or approval of parliament.

The fast-tracked law, pushed through at 4 am Tuesday by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was condemned by opposition lawmakers as a dangerous step which might lead Israel to become only semi-democratic, with some comparing Israel’s state to that of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey.

Netanyahu and his allies in the coalition, meanwhile, along with some Justice Ministry officials, say the urgent legislation is merely temporary, and will afford the government the necessary tools – such as stricter restrictions on public gatherings − to combat the recent surge in the number of coronavirus cases, without the need to wait for the sluggish legislative process.

Dr. Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, called the “fast-tracked legislation … yet another example of chaos and an inability of the government to manage the coronavirus crisis.” Fuchs claimed the law “would provide the government with far too much leeway and would exempt it from the necessary parliamentary oversight.”

The amendment passed Tuesday morning enables the government to enact ordinances that will immediately attain a legal status without being voted on by the legislature. Parliament will then have one week to debate and vote on the ordinance. If it is voted down, or if a vote is not held for any reason, the ordinance will be nullified and invalidated, effective immediately.

“Overcoming COVID-19 is indeed a significant challenge that demands flexibility from the government,” Fuchs said, “yet democratic process and genuine debate in the Knesset are not ‘burdens’ on the cabinet. Knesset debates are not only an important tool in safeguarding civil rights but also in obtaining the public’s trust. Passing this law in such a hasty manner will have the opposite effect. Such dramatic decisions must be approved by the Knesset and made with full parliamentary oversight.”

Knesset debates are not only an important tool in safeguarding civil rights but also in obtaining the public’s trust. Passing this law in such a hasty manner will have the opposite effect.

Officials in the Justice Ministry, on the other hand, who assisted in drafting the bill, point to its expiry date, August 6, as proof that the measure is merely temporary, a place holder until a comprehensive “corona law” is passed.

Last Thursday, Netanyahu complained that the prolonged voting process in parliament was impeding his handling of the crisis. “Legal rules force us – it’s just unbelievable – to pass everything through parliament,” he exclaimed.

A poll released Monday evening showed a new low in public trust and support for the prime minister’s handling of the crisis, with negative numbers topping positive ones for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic.

“They tell me Israel is the only democratic country in the Middle East, but it sure doesn’t feel like that,” says Tsvi, a 24-year-old waiter in Jerusalem’s Mike’s Place pub who immigrated to Israel from the US as a teenager. “Are we a dictatorship or what?”

For him, the rushed legislative procedure of Monday night can’t be separated from Netanyahu’s personal legal predicament. “We have a prime minister who’s been indicted for how many crimes now?” he asks, referring to Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which officially opened last month. “That alone − the fact that a man has been indicted, and still sits as prime minister − shows you where we’re headed.”

Asked if he believes Netanyahu will use his government’s newfound authorities to escape justice, Tsvi replies: “I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily connected, more of a ‘Carpe diem’ sort of thing. He sees an opportunity – and takes it. It’s just a grab for power. You know Putin? That’s where Israel is headed.”

It’s just a grab for power. You know Putin? That’s where Israel is headed

Yet others around the capital see extenuating circumstances in the current situation and believe the new law is necessary to save Israel’s economy and public health.

“Bibi is right,” explains Avraham, a Jerusalem shop owner, referring to Netanyahu by his popular nickname. “If it helps [fight] the corona[virus] and the diseases – I guess it’s important.”

Pressed on the question of checks and balances and the eroding of parliament’s independence, Avraham admits, “It does hurt [it] a little. Everything has two sides. But we’re in an emergency.”

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