The Knesset on Monday moved toward reinstating the Shin Bet’s (Israel Security Agency) surveillance of coronavirus-infected citizens only three weeks after the program ended.
Rounds of procedural votes had already successfully gone through multiple levels of processes at the Knesset and the reinstatement was expected to pass, but it was unclear at press time if the final vote would go through Monday night or even be delayed by a week.
The new authorization for the program was for 21 days, which is supposed to give the Knesset Intelligence Subcommittee time to finish debating and approve a long-term bill to regulate the issue.
Restoring the program is a victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu despite opposition from Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman and most of the members of the opposition, including former IDF deputy chief of staff and current Meretz MK Yair Golan.
Netanyahu and his allies have portrayed the dilemma as choosing between the lesser of two evils: sacrificing some privacy to Shin Bet surveillance or being compelled to lock down the country’s economy again.
The Knesset vote also completes a rapid turnaround in what has proved to be a three-stage corona-era drama dating back to mid-March.
From mid-March to June 9, the Shin Bet tracked citizens infected with the coronavirus over the objections of Argaman and civil-society NGOs.
According to the Health Ministry, around one-third of the then-16,000 infected persons were discovered by the Shin Bet’s cellphone-tracking technology and would not have been discovered by other available means.
Other supporters of the program, such as Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked, have said the program never should have stopped and that privacy pails in importance to saving lives and keeping the economy open by keeping infection rates under control.
Opponents of the program, such as Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, have slammed it as destroying Israeli democracy.
At hearings over the issue on Sunday, Avidar, Golan and former IDF Maj.-Gen. and current Yesh Atid MK Orna Barbivai said the government was using dishonest scare tactics and “defrauding the public” to press forward with the program.
The rate of sick persons and persons on ventilators in Israel was still falling, despite rising infection rates, and the volume of deaths from COVID-19 in Israel is relatively few, they said.
Further, they lambasted the government for undermining alternatives.
Avidar accused the Health Ministry of lying about its commitment to human epidemiological studies since an official told the committee around 400 nurses were tracking infections, when in fact only 23 are currently working on the issue.
In addition, Golan said the Israeli population was mature enough to use the Magen 2 voluntary cellphone tracking application and Bluetooth to combat coronavirus without needing the Shin Bet.
When he was in charge of Home Front Command, the population could be rallied to partner with the government if there were proper top-down messaging, he said.
Committee chairman Zvi Hauser has tried to strike a middle ground over the last several weeks, including allowing the Shin Bet program to expire on June 9 and keeping the current extension to three weeks.
However, Avidar accused Hauser of essentially caving in to Netanyahu when the cards were down and said any of Hauser’s limits on the program did not count for much.
When Hauser said the purpose of the bill and the surveillance was “to protect citizens” from coronavirus and strike a balance with civil liberties, Barbivai interjected: “No! It’s against citizens.”