Coronavirus committee must oversee gov't decisions after consideration

The Knesset must be able to represent the ordinary people – the citizens of Israel – and their interests, health and wellbeing.

Yifat Shasha Biton (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Yifat Shasha Biton
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
It is unfortunate that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again announced his intention to remove MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, a member of his Likud party, from her position as chair of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee after she stated on Saturday night she would continue to oppose the closure of gyms unless infection data was presented to the committee.
According to a statement put out by the prime minister’s spokesperson, a “senior source in the Likud” said “the prime minister will fire Yifat Shasha-Biton from her position. It is impossible to continue working like this.”
Shasha-Biton first clashed with Netanyahu and the government last Tuesday when she and the Knesset Coronavirus Committee voted to overturn a decision by the cabinet and reopen gyms and public pools. She was swiftly threatened with dismissal, but Netanyahu backed down following a public outcry.
However, during an interview on Channel 12’s Meet the Press show on Saturday night, Shasha-Biton insisted she would require statistics on the number of infections in gyms and pools, as well as for the other businesses and institutions the government wants to close down again as part of its efforts to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus in the wake of a spike in cases.
“We will demand statistics… we need to understand what the economic damage is compared with the health advantage of each step,” she said. “They have to explain to us why, despite the lack of new statistics, they are again demanding to close gyms and pools. We will listen to all the professionals and make a decision.”
In other words, Shasha-Biton wants to do her job and provide legislative oversight of decisions made by the executive branch, in this case the cabinet. She has taken a bold stand against the policy of the prime minister and her party leader, especially in light of fears that her committee would simply serve as a rubber stamp for the decisions of corona cabinet.
Earlier this month, in a late-night vote, the Knesset passed legislation that would permit Netanyahu’s cabinet to impose strict restrictions without receiving prior approval from the Knesset Coronavirus Committee. The committee would have seven days to discuss the decisions and decide to change or cancel them. The step, at the time, was highly criticized for fear it would turn the committee into an automatic device to retroactively sanction moves that could have a widespread impact on people’s daily lives, and the economy. At the time, Netanyahu claimed the legislation was necessary to enable the cabinet to enforce measures without them being held up at the Knesset committee stage.
In effect, what happened last week was a test of the nature of that legislation. And also a sign of the way cabinet decisions are being made. Shasha-Biton determined there was insufficient data to retroactively ratify the decision regarding the closure of gyms and swimming pools. This highlights the problematic way in which the initial cabinet regulation was passed – also without the necessary data to make a fully informed decision.
The role of the Knesset committee, of course, should be to oversee government decisions after careful consideration – the opposite of the anti-democratic reliance on the Knesset committee to rubber-stamp decisions.
The threat by the prime minister and Coalition Chairman Miki Zohar to remove Shasha-Biton from her post is a serious one with implications that reach beyond this specific case. There needs to be more transparency and coherence regarding the government decisions, even emergency ones. And the government must allow the Knesset to do its job, without fear, of providing oversight.
We do not belittle the seriousness of the situation in view of the sharp increase of seriously ill. But this cannot be used as a pretext for turning members of Knesset into yes-men and women.
The Knesset must be able to represent the ordinary people – the citizens of Israel – and their interests, health and wellbeing. It cannot be turned into a rubber stamp. The country needs to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, but it is no less essential it remain a healthy democracy.