Under Cover of Virus, Netanyahu Downgrades Israeli Democracy
Protesters wearing protective face masks hold banners during an anti-corruption demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photographer: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg)

Under Cover of Virus, Netanyahu Downgrades Israeli Democracy

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is increasingly consolidating powers as he tries to rein in a second coronavirus outbreak, fueling new concerns about his respect for democratic processes.

Last month, his government pushed through legislation empowering the domestic security agency to resume coronavirus contact tracking, a controversial practice that even the agency’s chief reportedly opposed. This week, parliament approved an emergency law that curtailed its own powers by allowing the cabinet to take any decision deemed necessary to curb the disease.

Netanyahu said the mounting health crisis required extraordinary steps.

“We are in an emergency situation,” he told his cabinet on Sunday. “We cannot approach Knesset legislation, with the steps that we are taking, as if everything were normal.”

Only two months ago, Israel was boasting that it set a global example on how to contain the virus. Today, daily new cases have surged above 1,000 from low double-digits in May after a flawed lifting of the country’s lockdown. Israel’s top public health official resigned on Tuesday, saying her professional advice was being ignored, and 21% of the workforce is unemployed.

The emergency legislation approved on Tuesday entails some measure of Knesset involvement because parliament must retroactively ratify any decree within 10 days or else it is nullified. But that isn’t likely to happen, said Israel Democracy Institute researcher Amir Fuchs.

“In this situation, there will be more pressure on the Knesset to approve in order to send a clear message to the public,” said Fuchs. The emergency legislation is meant to be temporary, until the Knesset approves a broader coronavirus law that wouldn’t eliminate its oversight role.

The Kohelet Policy Forum, a Jerusalem-based research center, defended the interim legislation as necessary because Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that emergency steps like phone tracking need to be anchored in law.

Concerns that Netanyahu is weakening Israel’s democracy have dogged his time in office, and have grown as he pushes back against corruption allegations that ripened into an indictment last year. The prime minister, whose trial opened in May, has assaulted the integrity of law enforcement and the justice system, and discredited journalists. He’s said one prominent journalistic critic who aired tapes from one of Netanyahu’s three cases should be jailed.

A majority of respondents polled by the IDI said the government’s handling of the pandemic is barely adequate. More than 60% voiced increasing pessimism regarding Israel’s future democratic governance.

“Democracy has come under attack under cover of the coronavirus,” the Movement for Quality Government in Israel said after the emergency law was passed. “The Netanyahu government is exploiting the public panic to conduct a targeted assassination of the legislative branch.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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