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Israeli Parliament Grants Cabinet Emergency Pandemic Powers
The Knesset building in Jerusalem. (Chris Yunker/Creative Commons)

Israeli Parliament Grants Cabinet Emergency Pandemic Powers

Legislation strips Knesset of most authority pertaining to oversight on coronavirus crisis

In a lightning vote and with thousands of angry people protesting outside, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a bill in the early hours of Thursday awarding the cabinet of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu unprecedented authority over coronavirus policy.

While the measure is said to be a necessary tool in the country’s battle against the pandemic, some critics are calling it a dangerous step.

The bill was introduced barely two weeks after a similar, less restrictive version was passed by the Knesset. While the earlier version gave the legislative branch at least a week to inspect and approve emergency decrees, the latest allows only 24 hours before government ordinances attain legal status.

The main motivation seems to be Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s desire to neutralize parliament’s “Corona Committee,” which has struck down several of his emergency decrees. The new law gives the panel only symbolic powers, distributing authority for oversight among four separate subcommittees.

An apparent second wave of the coronavirus has in recent weeks wreaked additional havoc on Israel’s public-health sector and its economy. The current infection rate stands at 7.7%, and more than 31,000 people are ill. The death toll as of Wednesday night was 430.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid blasted the new legislation.

“The Israeli government tonight just gave up on its most important partner in dealing with the coronavirus – the Israeli Knesset,” he said following the vote. “That’s what happens when the fear of justice haunts the prime minister.”

Lapid was referring to Netanyahu’s ongoing trial for alleged corruption and his efforts to remain in power, where he feels he stands a better chance of fighting charges of bribery, fraud and breach of public trust, or at least avoiding jail time. A guilty verdict and loss of any appeal would effectively end his political career.

Prof. Gad Barzilai, a former dean of the law faculty at Haifa University, rejects Netanyahu’s claim that emergency regulations are essential if he and his cabinet are to act swiftly and decisively against the virus.

“The Israeli government has all the necessary legal tools to handle this crisis. The needed solutions have nothing to do with this bill,” he told The Media Line.

The Israeli government has all the necessary legal tools to handle this crisis. The needed solutions have nothing to do with this bill

“Everyone agrees that in an emergency, the government needs to be efficient,” he added. “But existing laws award it all the powers it needs to be efficient. There is simply no need to enhance the government’s constitutional powers.”

Barzilai insists that it is more a problem of cabinet functioning.

“Netanyahu’s talk about his hands being tied by bureaucracy is unsubstantiated,” he said. “In fact, it’s a dangerous claim. It may be interpreted as him simply saying that opposition is a bad thing.”

Israel’s situation does not surprise Barzilai.

“History has shown us that at times of crisis, governments and states tend to expand their control and claim more authority, whether it is in fact needed or not,” he said.

Ittai Bar-Siman-Tov, a senior lecturer on Bar Ilan University’s law faculty, agrees.

“The effect of coronavirus on parliament isn’t exclusive to Israel. Parliaments across the globe have been weakened; some have even been totally shut down,” he told The Media Line.

Still, he says, Israel’s situation is unique.

“The virus hit [Israel’s] parliament at an already fragile moment,” he stated, “[coming] immediately after it was sworn in for the third time in about a year, with a transition government that was in place for over 500 days [and] whose leader saw parliament as a threat because of its promises to limit his ability to stay in power.”

Before managing to form a coalition with the Blue and White party, there were enough votes in Knesset to pass threatened legislation that would bar anyone who has been indicted for a serious crime from heading a government. This would have forced Netanyahu, who was under indictment at the time but not yet on trial, to step down immediately.

“The virus is a real danger, and steps, sometimes drastic ones, need to be taken to handle it… but claiming parliament is a nuisance or an obstacle is just plain wrong,” Bar-Siman-Tov said.

“Studies,” he continued, “show that democracies deal better with pandemics. They’re more transparent, and procedures are clearer and more accessible to the public. Parliamentary committees can hear experts and second opinions that the government may ignore or overlook. Parliament isn’t a weight on the government – it’s essential for dealing with the virus.”

Bar-Siman-Tov points to his recently published research on 159 countries and claims that Israeli citizens “must be vigilant and alert” as they are “witnessing very distressing signals” taking place in their system of governance.

“In our study, we liken democracies to coronavirus patients,” he explained. “Those with existing conditions and background illnesses, meaning fragile democratic institutions and weakened parliaments, are most likely to be badly damaged or even die. Those [that] are healthy, meaning countries that possess robust democratic norms, will probably survive.”

As for Israel, Bar-Siman-Tov says it is too early to tell.

“Fledgling democracies don’t die overnight. The slide downward is incremental and gradual. Every little change in itself may appear undramatic, but at the end, it all reaches a tipping point and it’s too late,” he said.

Fledgling democracies don’t die overnight. The slide downward is incremental and gradual. Every little change in itself may appear undramatic, but at the end, it all reaches a tipping point and it’s too late

“Still, we must be careful not to cry wolf, not to bemoan the ‘death of our democracy’ over and over,” he pointed out. “Recent history, from the past few months alone, have taught us that Israeli democracy is stronger than it might first appear.”

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