The Knesset has been sidelined out of the decision to allow the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to surveil citizens infected by the coronavirus.
How did this happen?
On Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared ready to activate the Shin Bet without the Knesset and to close down most of the court system.
The public outcry over these measures, and accusations of an effective coup by the government over the other branches, led Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri to assure a group of journalists on Sunday night that the Shin Bet would not start its surveillance without Knesset approval.
On Monday afternoon, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s Intelligence Subcommittee, headed by Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi, a former IDF chief of staff, debated the issue and refused to green-light Shin Bet surveillance without further clarifications.
In the middle of the night between Monday and Tuesday, the government green-lighted the Shin Bet to perform the surveillance for 30 days even without Knesset approval.
Speaking to a group of journalists on Tuesday, Nizri apologized for the sudden shift.
He essentially explained that the expectation had been that Ashkenazi’s subcommittee would approve the Shin Bet surveillance by the end of the Monday hearing.
Evidently, the Attorney-General’s Office, the Health Ministry and Netanyahu did not expect Ashkenazi to perform a more serious review and believed they would immediately approve the Shin Bet’s involvement.
Once Ashkenazi’s subcommittee did not “play ball,” Nizri checked with other Knesset officials about how soon it might meet again.
After it was made clear to Nizri that because the new Knesset had just been sworn in, it would be nearly impossible to reconvene Ashkenazi’s subcommittee on Monday night or Tuesday morning, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit approved letting the government green-light the Shin Bet’s surveillance without Knesset involvement.
Officials from his office said the apolitical Health Ministry officials were insisting that there was no time to wait.
Nizri emphasized to the journalists that the moment the Ashkenazi subcommittee reconvenes, it would be ready to reinitiate the discussions.
However, there is a large missing piece to this explanation.
To explain that the decision was not made in panic, Nizri reiterated on Tuesday that quiet preliminary planning meetings were held among the Attorney-General’s Office, the Shin Bet, the Israel Police and the Health Ministry as early as the middle of last week.
Pressed why no member of the Ashkenazi subcommittee was included or updated about these meetings so as to avoid the current situation where events would move faster than the new Knesset could organize itself, the answer was strikingly technical.
The defense of keeping the Ashkenazi subcommittee out of the picture until Monday, when there was almost no time for them to discuss it before the emergent nature of the coronavirus overtook the Knesset in terms of time, was that they could not bring theoretical ideas before the Knesset.
The gaping hole in this logic is that if one fundamental purpose of the Knesset is to provide oversight, then the executive branch, which includes the Attorney-General’s Office, must have included either an Ashkenazi subcommittee member in preliminary discussions or must have waited on making the final decision until the committee gave a green light.
Arguing both, that it is too early and too late to talk to the Knesset, is shockingly circular logic.
At a time when politics is unavoidably in the air, coronavirus or not, one might expect the Attorney-General’s Office to show even greater sensitivity to the idea of Knesset oversight.
Maybe Shin Bet surveillance is necessary and could not wait until even Tuesday afternoon (though sources have implied that Netanyahu’s not-waiting-one-hour statement was an exaggeration).
But even the apolitical officials seem to not understand that in the current atmosphere, using Shin Bet surveillance on Israeli citizens (with the coronavirus) without Knesset approval is a deeply political action, whether it is intended to be or not.