Ministers furious as lockdown exit policies announced before cabinet vote

The government has been leaking decisions before they are final for weeks, sowing confusion with contradictory instructions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting, held over video conference due to the novel coronavirus, March 15, 2020. (photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting, held over video conference due to the novel coronavirus, March 15, 2020.
(photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
Ministers took umbrage with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Health Ministry announcing a more relaxed lockdown policy to the public before the required cabinet vote on the matter on Saturday night.
“Why do we need cabinet meetings if everything is already decided and publicized?” Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich asked in the cabinet’s Whatsapp group.
The protests – both on social media and in the cabinet’s group text – drew attention to the way the government has operated in the weeks since it began taking steps to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Legally, emergency regulations, whether they are being tightened or loosened, must be approved by a majority of ministers.
However, the procedure for the COVID-19 precautions has generally involved hours of leaks to the press from the relevant government ministries and politicians, which has tended to report them with headlines announcing new rules and a caveat about the need for a cabinet vote deep into the story.
Sometimes, like on Saturday night, there is a press conference in which Netanyahu, Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman Tov and others announce the policy they intend to implement, before anything is officially debated or put to a vote.
On Saturday night, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry even released infographics explaining the new rules, which had not yet been approved. The ministry removed the information from its website after ministers protested and put it back later when it was finalized.
This pattern has repeatedly sown confusion, in that the public received instructions that ended up being wrong hours later. The new regulations often went into effect immediately or within a short amount of time of their becoming official, while many may not have been updated on changes made since the leaks were reported in the news.
The approved regulations tend to be very similar to what was announced earlier, but some of the details of how people may behave or how the rules will be enforced were often changed.
For example, Netanyahu said that a minyan of 10 people can pray together outdoors starting on Sunday, but the government extended it to 19 – and the fine for someone caught twice for not wearing a mask in public was reduced from NIS 500 to NIS 200.
The ministers’ outrage began on Saturday when, shortly after Netanyahu began his statement to the public at 9:15 p.m., Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman told the cabinet WhatsApp group that there is no scheduled time for a meeting and vote on the matter, and that he does not have a draft of the decision to send them.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan led the charge against decisions being announced to the public before they are made.
“I respect the Health Ministry director-general and staff and the stances he presents to the public… but the responsibility for passing regulations is ours,” Erdan wrote to his fellow ministers, “and so is the need to provide answers to the public.”
Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin lamented: “Why are we having a discussion if everything was already made public? How does the Health Ministry publicize things without a discussion in the cabinet… It’s shameful.”
“Everything is ready with graphics and in color, so what are you waiting for, Tzachi [Braverman]?” Welfare and Social Services Minister Ofir Akunis asked sarcastically.
Erdan called for the ministers to vote for each article of the decision on which there are disagreements: “We are at a point in which we can free the public from some of the limitations, and this is not a precise science. There are unreasonable prohibitions that remain in the regulations, and there are changes that I understand can be made.”
The minister chose to directly inform the public of his opinions on the announced changes.
"I am updating the public about my stances… and I will try to convince the government to accept them," Erdan explained, and later updated which had been accepted or not.
During the meeting, Erdan complained that the situation of legal protests is out of control, and that anyone can gather a group of people and say it’s a protest without police permission.
Netanyahu responded: “I oppose [demonstrations at this time] but I’m not coming out against them. I can’t come out against them, because they’re usually demonstrations against me.”
Erdan also opposed limiting prayer to 500 meters from home or work: “Do you see police officers going to every worshiper to check their distances? How much can you make the public hate the police?”
All limits of distance will become irrelevant and unenforceable once people can go to stores and
to work, he added.
Elkin expressed concern that “an early exit can hurt us much more. It’s very likely that because we’re starting our exit early, we’ll have to go back.”
He also pointed out that people are freer to go to work, but schools are still closed, saying “we have to protect workers.”
The meeting took over five hours, but in the end, despite the ministers’ many protestations, few details were changed from what Netanyahu and the Health Ministry announced earlier.
MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid-Telem), chairman of the Knesset committee overseeing the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, said that Saturday night’s events exemplified the problem with the way the crisis has been managed.
“At 9 p.m. a number of steps were announced…and only after that, the government met to discuss then, when the ministers said during the debate ‘what are we doing here?’ They sat all night and one minister said ‘we can’t change anything because it was already announced to the public,’” he said.
Shelah said this highlights the importance of making sure the public understands the decisions being made.
“The public is left confused while the media tries to bring experts to explain the decisions,” Shelah said. “If the ministers can’t understand the logic, what do we expect from the public?”