Coronavirus committee chair won’t be removed despite defying Netanyahu

Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton led the Knesset Coronavirus Committee in voting to reopen gyms and swimming pools despite PM’s opposition.

Knesset Coronavirus Committee Chair MK Yifat Shasha-Biton (Likud) (photo credit: ADINA WALLMAN/KNESSET SPOKESWOMAN)
Knesset Coronavirus Committee Chair MK Yifat Shasha-Biton (Likud)
After a day of high drama in the Knesset, Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton will not be removed from her position as chair of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee despite earlier threats by fellow Likud MK and coalition chair Miki Zohar, following the vote in her committee to reopen gyms and public pools despite the prime minister’s opposition. 

"You are done, I'm ousting you. Have a nice life,” Zohar, a devoted Netanyahu loyalist, told Biton following the vote, and subsequently suspended her from her position. 

He later clarified however that Shasha-Biton would not be removed as chair of the committee, but that legislation would not be directed to the Knesset Coronavirus Committee for deliberation and approval until further notice, and that party disciplinary measures would be taken against her.

The Likud earlier accused Shasha-Biton of having “surrendered to pressure from lobbyists representing the gyms, which is why she did not even agree to shut them down for 24 hours,” while Zohar said that her decision was opposed by the Health Ministry and health professionals. 

"All of the Health Ministry's experts warned that gyms pose a substantial danger of contracting the virus, as it spreads through sweat as well, making masks ineffective."

Sheba Medical Center's Oncogenetics Department Head Professor Ethan Friedman argued however that there was no specific danger of increased COVID-19 exposure in gyms, stating "The virus is not present on the skin and passes only through droplets. The whole sweat thing is bulls**t,” Ynet reported. 

Following her suspension, Biton argued that her committee had held “lengthy, in-depth discussions [on the matter], during which various experts came to voice their professional opinion.”

She said that following these hearings "I made a balanced decision for the sake of the public… that both protects public health on one hand and realizes the necessity of a continuous economic activity.”

Both the economic crisis and the second wave of coronavirus "are managed simultaneously, which is why it was important to learn, listen and ask questions in order to reach the best decision that gives the optimal solution for both issues.”

She said the committee was "presented conclusive data showing no infections in public pools. There also is no evidence of gyms being hotspot for outbreaks," she continued, adding that the "clear and strict Purple Ribbon [regulations] will prevent infections."

Biton also said she "would like to add that swimming and exercise are crucial for people's mental and physical health. That, and the economic importance of their activity as presented to the committee consolidated my opinion that shutting down both gyms and pools at once would be a mistake.”

Before the decision was made not to remove Shasha-Biton from her committee chairmanship, Likud Comptroller Attorney Shai Galili said late Monday afternoon that any such decision “does not go in hand with the Appropriate Administration Rules and the Internal Rules of Democracy in the Likud Party.” 

He said that “the suspension of MK Shasha-Biton does not meet the principles of Democracy in the Likud Party,” and that “the entire rationale behind the mechanism outlined in the Emergency Regulation Amendment and Implementation (Coronavirus Restrictions) Law...was completely uprooted and lost all meaning.”

The threats to oust Biton, "whether successful or not, show the cabinet continues disregarding the Knesset's authority to continue doing its job," Dr. Amir Fuchs from the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) said, responding to the controversy.

"The attempt to intimidate a Knesset committee chair for doing her job is a step completing the 'Knesset-Bypassing Law' approved last week, allowing the government to sign new restrictions as part of the fight against the virus," Fuchs added.

"The cabinet is the executive branch and not the legislative one, despite the attempts to turn the tables.”

The Blue and White Party said before the threat of removal was lifted that it would not support the ouster of Biton if Likud were to advance such a motion, but equally said it would merely absent itself from any such vote. 

"Due to the importance of the Knesset's activity as a supervising body, it would not be appropriate to impeach Knesset Coronavirus Committee Chair Yifat Shasha-Biton," the party said in a statement.