Democracy
in the Shadow
of Coronavirus

“Edelstein’s behavior is undermining and maybe even destroying democracy.”

Professor Daniel Friedmann, who served as justice ministerin Ehud Olmert’s government and accused the judicial system of damaging governance, hopes that the Supreme Court will intervene in the Knesset Speaker’s decisions.

Roni Singer

March 27, 2020

"What is happening now is undermining the very foundations of democracy.  What do I mean by the destruction of democracy?  When the majority is not allowed to rule, and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s behavior is undermining and maybe even destroying democracy.”  This is the severe judgment of Professor Daniel Friedmann, who served as justice minister in Ehud Olmert’s government and whose pronouncements and policies as minister brought him into conflict with the justice system.  His strong reaction to the recent decisions in the Knesset attests to the fact that, having previously accused the Supreme Court of damaging governance, he now hopes for its speedy intervention.

Professor Friedmann spoke to us a few hours after Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein used his authority to shut down the Knesset plenum for the second time within 24 hours, thus preventing discussions about establishing the various Knesset committees. The new Knesset was sworn in at the beginning of last week. Blue and White leader, Benny Gantz, was given the mandate to form a new government, thus giving his party leadership of the Arrangements Committee and the ability to advance legislation that would prevent Benjamin Netanyahu from running again as prime minister.  Edelstein disbanded the plenum before it had even met, thus preventing not only the formation of the committees but also the appointment of his successor .  He used the excuse of the Health Ministry’s ban on more than ten people meeting together in one place.

“Rulers who do not want to transfer power will always find excuses.  They will never say, ‘this is how I want to hand over power’ but will invoke a state of emergency.”

Friedmann continued: “Over the years, all sides have made claims of democracy being harmed.  I too shared the view that the courts were damaging governance.  But what we are seeing now is something different.  We are now dealing with the very foundations, with a threat to democracy from those who do not accept the basic rule that plainly states that the majority decides. The basis of democracy is a change of power without any violence.  The side that loses its majority transfers power to the side that holds the current majority.  In the past, the Labor party lost its majority and transferred power to [Menachem] Begin without trying to hold on to its temporary control. Edelstein’s use of the authority he still has to prevent the transfer of power is undermining and maybe even destroying democracy.”

Professor Daniel Friedmann. Photo: Amos Ben Gershom

These are not normal times. We are now living in the shadow of the coronavirus plague, so maybe we should be assuming a slightly different perspective on the situation?

“Rulers who do not want to transfer power will always find excuses. They will never say, ‘this is how I want to hand over power’ but will invoke an emergency. There is no real reason for not holding discussions or voting in the plenum.  What has this got to do with coronavirus?  Edelstein proposed waiting for a week.  What will happen next week?  Coronavirus is not going to disappear.  There is no real reason not to immediately form a committee.”

Even before the present Knesset was sworn in and just before it was disbanded, the Subcommittee for Secret Services appointed by the previous Knesset held a discussion about approving digital tracking measures for coronavirus patients using General Security Service (Shin Bet) systems.  Ignoring the fact that this was a very short discussion and that there is, at present, no committee overseeing the situation, do you think this is, fundamentally, a legitimate decision?

“I believe that the digital tracking of cell phones is unjustified and that we have reached a dire and dangerous situation.  Although it is true that under the Basic Law Emergency Regulations the government has the right to pass legislation, in such situations there needs to be a functioning Knesset to oversee, approve, limit, or possibly even cancel the legislation.  It is inconceivable that the Knesset be stripped of its authority to do this.  And let’s not forget that the government approving this decision is a caretaker government.”

Friedmann also noted other aspects lacking the supervision and oversight of the Knesset committees.  “The information we are being given about the number of sick people, about our readiness, and about the expected number of fatalities is terrifying.  This information and the extent of the danger is provided by the government.  We have no means of knowing whether these figures are exaggerated or whether we are being told the truth.  I therefore hope that a petition will be filed to the Supreme Court and that the court will insist that the Speaker stick to the most basic rule of a democracy – enabling the majority to take power.  If it is not accepted, it will certainly be the destruction of our democracy.”