World Middle East 19 Mar 2020 Israel's Netany ...

Israel's Netanyahu accused of exploiting virus crisis

Published Mar 19, 2020, 1:39 pm IST
Updated Mar 19, 2020, 1:39 pm IST
Netanyahu has served as a caretaker prime minister since December 2018
Benjamin Netanyahu (AP)
 Benjamin Netanyahu (AP)

Jerusalem: With the Israeli government enacting a series of emergency measures to stem the spread of the new coronavirus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing growing accusations that he is exploiting the crisis to entrench himself in power and undermining the country's democratic foundations.

Amid a wave of sweeping restrictions that have put Israel in near shutdown mode, Netanyahu has managed to postpone his own pending criminal trial, authorize unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens and block parliament from pressing ahead with legislation aimed at pushing him from office.


The moves, on the heels of the country's third inconclusive election in less than a year and under the shadow of Netanyahu's corruption indictment, sparked leading opposition figure Yair Lapid to tell Israeli citizens that they “no longer live in a democracy

The new coronavirus has spread to more than 100 countries, infected more than 217,000 people worldwide and killed more than 8,700. For most people, it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.

For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

Israeli health officials have diagnosed over 400 coronavirus cases, roughly a quarter of them detected in the last 24 hours.

With the numbers quickly rising, authorities have issued a series of tough guidelines that have brought the country to a standstill. People have been instructed to stay home, tens of thousands are in home quarantine and foreigners have been banned from entering the country.

Most controversially, the Israeli government instructed the shadowy Shin Bet internal security service to start deploying the agency's phone surveillance technology to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus in Israel by tracking the moves of the infected.

Israel uses phone surveillance in the occupied Palestinian territories, saying it's an important tool to prevent attacks on Israelis, but critics say it's also aimed at maintaining tight control.

The step has sparked widespread criticism from lawmakers and civil rights groups. Opponents planned to file a Supreme Court challenge on Thursday.

Many of the measures are not unique to Israel. In neighboring Jordan, King Abdullah II has shut the country's court system and parliament to control the spread of the virus. Abdullah, who is not elected, appears to have won wide public support for his handling of the crisis.

In a televised interview Wednesday, Netanyahu said that during his 11 years as prime minister, he had previously always refused to use surveillance — normally used to hunt down wanted Palestinian militant — on Israeli citizens.

He said there would be “maximum oversight” to protect privacy concerns.
“The last thing I will do is harm democracy,” he said.

The liberal Haaretz daily responded Wednesday with a lead editorial titled “An Epidemic of Surveillance.”

“Under the cover of the battle against the spread of the coronavirus, Interim Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concentrating more and more power in his hands, with neither balances nor supervision,” it wrote.