The coronavirus is inflicting physical, mental and economic damage on people throughout the world on a scale unseen since the mid-20th century. In a bid to stem the pandemic, save lives and prevent the collapse of health systems, truly democratic governments are adopting drastic measures reminiscent of wartime states of emergency. In Israel, a caretaker government, whose members no longer have the confidence of a majority of voters, is damaging the most vital organs of democracy and human freedoms under the auspices of public anxiety. And this, even though the pandemic has so far not resulted in a single Israeli fatality. In fact, Nobel Prize Laureate professor Michael Levitt said March 18 that he would be “very surprised” if more than 10 people die in Israel due to the coronavirus infection, adding that he had shared his view with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The coronavirus has spawned an unprecedented pandemic that requires unprecedented measures, Blue and White senior Yair Lapid wrote on his Facebook page March 17, adding, “However, it also raises the question of who we are, what kind of state we have here.” The centrist politician continued, “Israel’s unelected government told us today that it is the sole authority in the country. It told us we are not allowed to leave our house. If you want to challenge the decision or even ask someone to reexamine it, you have nowhere to turn. As of this moment, Benjamin Netanyahu and [Knesset Speaker] Yuli Edelstein have shut down Israeli democracy.”
Indeed, the pillars of Israeli democracy have been resting on shaky ground for the past 15 months. The caretaker government installed after the Knesset was dissolved in December 2018 has been operating without a parliamentary majority, without an annual budget and without the authority to appoint ministers and senior officials, chief among them the commissioner of police and state attorney. Instead, it had appointed a state comptroller whose chief qualification is loyalty to Netanyahu. In the pre-dawn hours of March 17, the ministerial lackeys were asked in a telephone survey to approve emergency regulations authorizing phone tracking of coronavirus patients. None of the ministers bothered asking why such authority cannot be placed in the hands of the country’s top law enforcement body, the police. Why should special authority be given to an organization charged with countering espionage and terrorism?
Netanyahu’s favorite Minister Amir Ohana, who bears the title of justice minister in vain, did not protest the interim prime minister’s failure to obtain court approval for the unusual measure. After all, just days earlier, that same Ohana, acting without due authority, shut down the nation’s courts. Not only were the emergency regulations not brought before a judge, the Knesset subcommittee tasked with oversight of the clandestine services refused to sanction such far-reaching violation of the privacy of hundreds of thousands of people without parliamentary oversight. The subcommittee demanded to know, among other things, the extent of the invasion into the lives of people who were in the company of coronavirus carriers.
Under the guise of the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, Edelstein of Netanyahu’s Likud party is preventing the convening of the plenary to debate the caretaker government’s policy on the coronavirus pandemic — as Lapid wrote, lawmakers can easily be convened via video call and vote using a phone app. Edelstein previously refused a request by 61 Knesset members (of 120) to elect a new speaker to replace him and to appoint Knesset committees to help in the fight against the pandemic. The hand of the man who holds the state’s second-highest post after the president did not shake when he wrote, “Hasty political measures, such as choosing a new permanent speaker and adopting controversial legislation, are designed to quash the option of the unity government that the people want.” In case he has forgotten, most voters supported the parties seeking to install a new Knesset speaker and pass a law that would prevent a politician under criminal indictment from leading the nation.
The citizens of Israel have good reason not to trust a prime minister indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, who has taken advantage of the pandemic to delay his trial, scheduled to open on March 17. Netanyahu talks about implementing “special means,” obviously in the cyber field, to block the virus. Just recently it was reported that “special means” were used to violate civil rights by electronic surveillance in order to perpetuate Netanyahu’s regime when the state’s full voter registry leaked into the Elector voter management data base used by the Likud party ahead of the March 2 elections.
“Special means” were also reportedly used during this year’s election campaign in a bid to trip up Netanyahu’s rival, Blue and White party Chair Benny Gantz. A company that funded surveillance of Gantz was found to be owned by the computer expert in charge of the Likud’s data protection. The man, Raphael Weizman, operated out of the offices of Attorney Amit Hadad, Netanyahu’s lawyer, and took part in meetings with Netanyahu’s media adviser Ofer Golan.
Israel’s media has morphed from being the watchdog of democracy into Netanyahu’s pet poodle. Every evening since the coronavirus outbreak in Israel, the technicians of Israel’s major television and radio stations position their cameras and mikes in the press conference hall of the prime minister’s office. Always during prime time. Netanyahu walks up, delivers his address to the nation and leaves without answering a single question. History teaches us that sowing fear, whether real or fake, nurtures dependence on leaders, especially those who know how to “speak well.”
Here is an instructive (necessarily abbreviated) response to Lapid’s post by a follower named David Roth: “As one of your voters and a supporter of (the party you founded) Yesh Atid, everything you have written might have made my blood boil under other circumstances. But right now, the only thing that concerns me is not to be Italy tomorrow morning and that is the only thing that should also concern ‘Israel before All’ [the previous Blue and White slogan]. There is a democracy that is good or not so good. We will discuss this when the danger is over. And as my representatives in the Knesset I would like to see you joining hands with those already in the arena and stop dealing with minutia. … Oh, no. The courts were shut down at 1 a.m. The trial will be delayed for two months. Tell me, this is what bothers you????”
As aforementioned, as of this writing, not a single coronavirus fatality has been reported in Israel. If Gantz gives in to the populist call to “join hands” with the accused Netanyahu, the man responsible for the collapse of the hospital system under his decadelong rule, Israel’s ailing democracy will be felled by the pandemic.