Shin Bet coronavirus surveillance déjà vu? - analysis

With the number of infections now back up from under 2,000 to nearly 5,000 and the infection trend spiking, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly slamming his fist on the table.

Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On June 9, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) ended its surveillance of coronavirus-infected citizens after running nearly three months with partial oversight, but no real Knesset legislation covering the issue.
That same day, some made dark predictions that by the second wave this winter, the intelligence agency would be back to surveilling sick law-abiding citizens instead of just terrorists.
Those dark predictions may have been overly optimistic.
With the number of infections now back up to nearly 5,000 from under 2,000 and the infection trend spiking, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly slamming his fist on the table at cabinet meetings to immediately reinstate the program.
The program ended on June 9 after the volume of infections nationally had dropped from a high of around 16,000 down to around 2,000 and as the list of objectors to the program swelled into a critical mass.
In mid-March, only civil society NGOs were sounding the alarm of using an anti-terrorist tracking tool for tracking law-abiding civilians.
By late April, the High Court of Justice was applying some pressure.
The Knesset Intelligence Subcommittee had started some light oversight in late March, but by May, it was giving the government a finite period of weeks to present a new law to regulate any continued coronavirus-related Shin Bet surveillance.
Ironically, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the objection of Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman, who had never been comfortable with his agency being involved in a program unrelated to combating terror.
However, with COVID-19 infection rates spiking, it seems Argaman’s reported continued objection (according to a recording obtained by Channel 12) will not stop Netanyahu this time from extending or reinitiating Shin Bet surveillance.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz a Likud MK, and former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter and others have been boosting the idea in the media.
As part of a video conference hosted by the Institute for National Security Studies and the Israel Democracy Institute, Yamina MK and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked showed that Netanyahu has backing also from within at least part of the opposition.
Shaked said that when it comes to the virus, “there is no opposition” as the country must unite to do whatever it takes to save lives and the economy, even if it means temporarily sacrificing some privacy rights.
Regarding Argaman’s opposition, the former justice minister said, “The head of the Shin Bet does not want this job which is not at the heart of what his organization does. In addition, he is concerned that if the law on the Shin Bet is opened up, some MKs will add new limits on the organization” even in other areas.
Despite Argaman’s concerns, she said “the prime minister and the ministers need to make the decision to use this tool because there is no equal alternative.”
She painted a picture in which the choice could be using Shin Bet surveillance to get a hold on the infection rate or returning to a national lockdown.
IDI president Yohanan Plesner echoed part of Shaked’s position that Shin Bet surveillance may be needed, though he noted the majority position at IDI is there are less invasive alternatives available.
Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri said to the conference that his team of lawyers already had a comprehensive bill ready for regulating Shin Bet surveillance weeks ago and that all that was needed was a government green light to move it forward before the Knesset.
The Knesset Intelligence Subcommittee and the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee are both expected to hold related hearings on the issue on Tuesday.
INSS senior associate and IDF Col. (ret.) Pnina Sharvit-Baruch said what was most critical in any discussion or regulation of the issue was specific oversight and a broad effort to protect the resilience of Israeli democracy.
She noted several benchmarks that she said should be followed to ensure that COVID-19-related changes to the law or general atmosphere were kept in check.
The benchmarks that she said must be protected included: checks and balances on the executive branch, free speech and the freedom to criticize the ruling coalition, the scope and manner of defending human rights, the way emergency laws are used, transparency, the pillars of democracy during the decision-making process and the culture of democracy in managing the crisis.
Some concrete examples she gave that should be monitored were ensuring that the judiciary remained fully functioning and with “teeth” to enforce its rulings, oversight from the Knesset, an active opposition in the Knesset and a vibrant media.
Tuesday’s hearings in the Knesset will be the first hint of whether Sharvit-Baruch’s concerns (which represent the concerns of a range of institutions and actors in the branches of government) will be taken seriously.