Netanyahu’s Bold Moves: Fighting a Virus or Risking Democracy?

Jerusalem |

Published: March 19, 2020 8:48:56 am


Deadlocked in three elections, Israel seeks ways to avert a fourth Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his wife Sara celebrate early election results in Tel Avivi on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. ( Photo: The New York Times)

Written by David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was supposed to be facing trial this week on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges. Instead, he was shutting down the courts and ordering Israel’s internal security service to identify people who should be quarantined using data harvested from their phones.

Both of those extraordinary moves, announced in the dead of night Sunday and Tuesday, were made in the name of combating the coronavirus. The court shutdown also had the effect of delaying Netanyahu’s corruption trial by two months.

Many Israelis have expressed admiration for the celerity and aggressiveness of Netanyahu’s response to the pandemic: Israel was ahead of the curve in shutting down travel to hot spots, ordering new arrivals into quarantine and closing down the public schools.

But others are asking whether Netanyahu, who is battling to keep his job after three inconclusive elections, is exploiting the health crisis for self-serving ends. And whether, as he moves to protect the nation’s health, he may also be endangering its democracy.

Netanyahu insisted he was protecting the nation while adhering to democratic values, noting that the court shutdown was temporary and that he had received the permission of the attorney general for the cellphone data usage, which was valid for 14 days.

“Israel is a democracy,” he said Monday. “We have to maintain the balance between the rights of the individual and needs of general society, and we are doing that.”

But critics questioned whether closing the courts was a necessary response to the coronavirus and if the infringements on privacy by monitoring cellphones could have long-term consequences.

“Democracies don’t die in one day,” said Susie Navot, a professor of parliamentary and constitutional law at the Striks School of Law, in Rishon Letzion, Israel. “As you see in Europe, they can decline or erode, bit by bit, and you don’t really feel it.”

“It’s like a smoke bomb,” she said. “You don’t see very clearly, and then things change quickly, without you taking notice.”

All over, democratic nations are struggling to act quickly enough to contend with the fast-moving biological threat. Israel is blessed with some important advantages over places that have responded more haltingly.

Its people have a history of improvising, rallying and uniting in times of crisis, and are used to defending against threats that hit close to home. The government enjoys expansive emergency powers, dating to the British Mandate, that allow it to do pretty much anything it deems necessary.

Its Internal Security Agency possesses a huge database, The New York Times reported Monday, of records from cellphone companies, dating to 2002, allowing almost any individual’s footsteps to be retraced. And the agency, known by its Hebrew acronym as the Shin Bet, enjoys the confidence of the public that it will act in the best interests of the people and of democracy.

That sets Israel apart from countries whose secret police have dark histories as agents of repression, and even from the United States, where Edward Snowden’s revelations that the government was collecting Americans’ bulk cellphone data led to the practice being outlawed.

Israelis trust the Shin Bet to protect them and not to abuse that trust, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “If the Shin Bet is to infringe on our basic privacy, they could have done it many years ago,” he said.

Medical professionals were generally supportive of the use of the technology.

Ran Sa’ar, chief executive of Maccabi Health, Israel’s second-largest health fund, praised it, citing the Talmudic teaching that saving a life overrides the laws of the Sabbath. In extreme circumstances, he said, that principle “trumps all things sacred, including people’s privacy.”

The United States was reported to be considering a similar plan on Tuesday. Government officials were talking with Facebook, Google and other tech companies, The Washington Post reported, about using cellphone data to track whether people are keeping at safe distances from one another.

But Professor Nadav Davidovich, head of the public health school at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said that the government was making a risky bet on a fix that might not live up to its billing, when it should focus on testing for the virus.

“It’s very tempting to go to some quick technological solution that looks very high-techy, instead of investing in other areas that are more important, considering the price of losing the trust of the people,” he said.

Netanyahu’s main political rival, Benny Gantz, a former army chief heading the centrist Blue and White party, did not object to using the database but to Netanyahu’s reliance on emergency regulations to order it instead of waiting for parliamentary approval.

“These are exceptional times that, unfortunately, call for exceptional measures in order to save lives,” Gantz said Tuesday. “That said, we cannot surrender transparency and oversight.”

Civil rights groups and the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, the third-largest slate in Parliament, said they would petition the Supreme Court to overturn the government decision on privacy grounds.

Netanyahu responded to his critics by warning that “a delay of even one hour in employing these digital tools could lead to the death of very many Israelis, just as is happening in Italy and other places in the world where thousands are dying.”

Practical questions remain about the workability of using the Shin Bet’s data to track down and quarantine people whose cellphone records indicate they were near someone carrying the virus.

The agency has said nothing that would give away its secrets, but experts warn that data taken from cellular towers lacks precision and could force many people into quarantine who did not actually come close enough to people carrying the virus for them to be infected.

Officials insist that the agency’s help will, at any rate, retrace virus carriers’ footsteps more comprehensively than is possible through interviews that rely on memory and candor.

The Shin Bet chief, Nadav Argaman, said in a rare statement on Tuesday that it was responding to a request from professionals at the Ministry of Health and would use its capabilities solely to save lives. The attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, also pledged that the powers would be used sparingly.