Israelis are not only facing the threat of coronavirus. This week many in the country contend that its very democracy is at peril.
“It’s a double crisis in Israel,” warned Nachman Shai, Israel Institute visiting professor at Emory University. “The coronavirus doubled by the political one. This has never happened in our history.”
Shai was referring to several measures taken this week by the caretaker government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including abruptly shutting down Israel’s Knesset and closing the court system.
“Every effort should be taken in order to safeguard the ongoing operation of both” the legislative and judicial branches, he said.
He was not alone. The day after Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein dispersed the parliament rather than allow the body to conduct its business, the management of the Israel Democracy Institute wrote a pleading, unprecedented letter to Edelstein.
“We are following with grave concern your decision … not to allow the Knesset
Arrangement Committee to be formed. The outcome of this decision is that at this critical period – during which Israel is in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis that has dramatically affected all areas of life including the public health and safety, personal freedom and the economy – the most important democratic institution in our country, the Knesset, is effectively incapacitated.”
Signed by IDI president Yohanan Plesner and vice presidents Yuval Shany and Karnit Flug, the letter stated that the actions of the Knesset speaker were “contrary to both law and tradition.” The letter further stated, “We view your decisions not to enable a vote to appoint a new Speaker of the House or to form the Knesset Arrangements Committee, in direct opposition of the explicit wishes of the Knesset majority, as a move that blatantly exceeds the bounds of your office. It constitutes an unacceptable disregard for basic rules of democracy.”
The letter echoed the earlier statement by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin who warned that paralyzing the Knesset impairs the country’s ability to function during the coronavirus crisis. He said it must not be allowed to “critically damage our democratic infrastructure.”
Both the IDI’s leadership and Rivlin were specifically referring to the need for the Knesset to conduct its duty of oversight of the executive branch. At the beginning of the week, the Netanyahu government skirted both the legislative and judicial branches to introduce what many considered extreme emergency measures in light of the coronavirus epidemic.
These measures included surveillance of citizens’ cellphones to determine where and who they were in contact with, as well as where they were using their credit
cards. The purpose, Netanyahu said, while acknowledging that the move violated Israelis’ right to privacy, is to determine the movement of those who have tested positive for the virus or were suspected of being coronavirus patients. The surveillance methods had previously only been used against terrorists.
By the end of the week, Israel’s high court ruled that it would stop the cyber-surveillance if the Knesset failed to establish oversight of the program within five days.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Israelis, who had been told to stay home last week took to their cars to protest what they consider the anti-democratic measures of cyber-tracking to fight the virus outbreak. Raising black flags from their cars, they drove in a caravan toward Jerusalem before being stopped by police outside the city, with several put under arrest.
Hundreds of Israelis, who have been told to stay home, took to their cars to protest what they consider the anti-democratic measures of cyber-tracking to fight the virus outbreak. Raising black flags from their cars, they drove in a caravan toward Jerusalem before being stopped by police outside the city, with several put under arrest.
According to Israeli press, the organizers announced that the protests will continue over the following weeks. “Shutting courts, the Knesset speaker barricading himself in his job, the paralysis of Knesset committees and the measures of espionage against civilians without any oversight are warning signs. … The attempts to ruin Israeli democracy will not succeed, the state of Israel belongs to its citizens …”
The protestors were referring to the fact that the country hasn’t been able to elect a new government in more than a year. Netanyahu was last elected as the country’s prime minister in 2015. Several subsequent elections have ended inconclusively. The last, March 2, resulted in his opponent, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, being asked by Rivlin March 16 to create a new government.
Plesner pointed out to the AJT that “Israeli democracy is already very fragile, with minimal oversight and balance between the three branches of government. This is why it is essential in the short term – especially during these times – for the Knesset to return to its full operational capabilities as soon as possible. Once a functioning government is finally in place, long-term reforms are needed to introduce better oversight and clearer rules to govern these complex realities going forward.”