Netanyahu’s Assault on Virus Brings Claims of ‘Dictatorship’

(Bloomberg) -- The coronavirus has raised concerns about the state of Israel’s democracy as well as its public health, even as caretaker leader Benjamin Netanyahu wins plaudits for his assertive handling of the crisis.

Things came to a head this week with back-to-back developments that set off alarm bells in a country that’s been without a fully functioning government for more than a year. Three inconclusive elections have abridged legislative oversight, and critics say Netanyahu and his allies are using the virus as cover to skirt parliament and weaken the courts.

Netanyahu’s Assault on Virus Brings Claims of ‘Dictatorship’

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Netanyahu ally, shut down the newly sworn-in parliament this week before lawmakers could vote on proposals to replace him and put in motion parliamentary oversight of virus-related measures and other issues. While Edelstein planned to reopen the legislature on Monday, his move left the parliament’s legal adviser aghast.

“The Knesset has been dealt the kiss of death,” Eyal Yinon wrote in a memo that was broadcast on Channel 12. “This situation is uncharacteristic of any democratic country in the Western world that is suffering from corona no less than we.”

Just a day earlier, detractors were in an uproar over the cabinet’s decision to mobilize the Shin Bet domestic surveillance agency -- which reports directly to the prime minister -- to track possible coronavirus carriers, despite the infringement on people’s privacy. And on Sunday, Netanyahu’s handpicked justice minister put courts on emergency footing in the middle of the night, citing the coronavirus, leading to a two-month postponement of the start of the premier’s graft trial.

“Netanyahu doesn’t have a majority in the Knesset, so he closed it down. He was supposed to go on trial, so he closed the courts,” Yair Lapid, a leader of the Blue and White bloc that’s been assigned the uphill battle of forming a government after the March 2 election, wrote on his Facebook page.

Netanyahu’s Assault on Virus Brings Claims of ‘Dictatorship’

“Are we a democracy only when it is comfortable, or are we determined to maintain our character and laws when things get difficult?” Lapid asked.

The prime minister’s office declined to comment on criticism of his conduct.

The grassroots Movement for Quality Government petitioned the High Court to order Edelstein to convene the Knesset urgently to allow the seating of committees necessary to put parliamentary oversight in place. In a ruling late on Thursday, the court said the Shin Bet would no longer be able to use tracking technology developed to combat terrorism to monitor potential virus cases unless legislative supervision was in place by Tuesday.

The criticism of Netanyahu is far from sweeping. He’s been widely lauded for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, which he addressed early with travel restrictions that have been copied by other governments, and limitations on people’s movements that carry potential penalties if violated by virus carriers. Still hoping to get a chance at forming a government if Blue and White fails, he’s been a frequent presence on Israeli televisions screens in recent weeks, fashioning himself as a general facing down a deadly enemy and reminding his audience that foreign leaders have praised him.

For his critics, though, Netanyahu is using the health crisis for cynical political purposes, including his call for the establishment of an emergency government under his leadership to shepherd the country through these difficult times.

Historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari accused Netanyahu of putting in place “the first coronavirus dictatorship.”

“Netanyahu lost the elections,” Harari wrote on Twitter. “So under pretext of fighting corona, he has closed the Israeli parliament, ordered people to stay in their homes, and is issuing whatever emergency decrees he wishes.”

In Italy, Spain and France, emergency decrees are issued by a government that the people elected, Harari added. “This is legitimate,” he said. “In Israel emergency decrees are issued by someone who has no mandate from the people. This is a dictatorship.”

A motorcade of about 200 people waving Israeli flags dyed black pulled up to the parliament building Thursday protesting the “assault on democracy,” only to be dispersed by police for violating Health Ministry rules that ban gatherings of more than 10. At least three people were arrested.

Edelstein, on Army Radio, tried to restore calm, saying he would allow the vote on the committee’s composition on Monday. “Next week I will bring it to the plenum,” he promised.

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