Israel may resume COVID-19 counter-intel despite Shin Bet dissent

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chaired a marathon meeting of the Corona Cabinet on Monday, 22 June 2020 to discuss necessary steps to combat the disease in the immediate future – involving digital means; and to set an outbreak scenario.

The Israeli leader began his remarks by chastising the leaking of a recording from the Corona Cabinet session to the media.

According to a communication sent to TV7 by his Media Adviser, Netanyahu said that, “In all my years as Prime Minister, I do not remember such a thing, neither from a Cabinet meeting nor from the Corona Cabinet, a discussion with the head of the ISA” (the Israeli Security Agency, also known as the Shin Bet, or by its Hebrew acronym Shabak).

“This is very grave. This cannot be ignored. I ask all the relevant authorities, including the Attorney General, to enable a thorough investigation. We cannot allow such a thing to take root. We cannot allow this to recur,” he said.

Netanyahu was referring to a broadcast by the domestic Channel 12 network of a recording purportedly made of a coronavirus cabinet meeting on Sunday, during which ISA Director Nadav Argaman strenuously objected to the renewal or legalization of counter-intelligence measures to track suspected COVID-19 carriers.

Argaman was heard appealing to the ministers that “the Shin Bet not be included in legislation.” He instead argued that “what is needed is training that the Shin Bet is willing to provide as a solution” by working “tightly” with a “civilian response for the State of Israel in the coming years.”

The Intel Chief underscored that “In the event there are very widespread infections and there will be no other solution, it would be the right move to send it to the service,” but that “I am asking very, very, very strongly not to start legislating the Shin Bet at this stage.”

Controversial use of counterintelligence by the Shin Bet involving assessment of the Israeli public’s credit card and cell phone records was halted earlier this month after having been used to track the movements of virus patients since March. At that time, Netanyahu enacted use of highly sophisticated surveillance to compel compliance by those refusing to adhere to government mandates regarding self-quarantine to halt spread of the highly-contagious virus. After stating there is no other option than employment of “digital means” among the “civilian public” following “years” of ‘avoidance,’ the Premier said that the same methods used to track terrorists will be used to locate infected individuals. “We are now fighting a war that requires us to take special measures,” said the Israeli leader, explaining that “to that end, I asked the approval of the Justice ministry for these steps,” which he described as “a very, very effective tool for detecting the enemy, the virus, and trying to isolate it instead of isolating the entire country.” He also claimed the measure was being taken in response to a request from the Ministry of Health.

The High Court of Justice disagreed that spyware to track the nation’s citizens could be authorized in the form of ‘an emergency temporary measure,’ and ruled in a late April that it could only be implemented by Knesset-approved legislation. The entire initiative was ultimately abandoned after the government failed to submit such legislation – reportedly largely in response to Shin Bet Director Argaman’s objections amid then-waning infection rates.

The recent surge of the coronavirus, however, has led to a reconsideration of the option.

According to the Channel 12, Prime Minister Netanyahu banged his fists on the table on Sunday while insisting surveillance be reinstated. “The ships are coming at us, one at a time, and we are refusing to believe it. And they say nothing will happen. Our responsibility is to stop this pandemic. The pandemic is coming back! Back! Now the question is, how much are we willing to do because of this thing which is very quickly coming at us,” Netanyahu reportedly said.

The Israeli leader was also cited as saying, “There is no such thing as having infections that do not affect (the economy). Urban legend. There are very serious people at this table, professionals who believe this. They are misleading the public. If we allow this to spread, you do the math. It won’t take very long. Within 30 days, 40 days, 60 days, 80 days. It doesn’t matter. The moment it starts racing, it races.”

Earlier at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting also on Sunday, Netanyahu warned that “grave predictions” over the COVID-19 resurgence could further warrant the reimposition of a nationwide lockdown; while demanding “we must flatten the curve now.”

Minister of Health Minister Yuli Edelstein has vocally supported the passage of Knesset legislation for the resumption of counter-intelligence methodology on the Israeli population – that had been designed to monitor the nation’s enemies.  “We are experiencing critical days. The tracking legislation is very important,” he insisted, stressing that “it is preferable that the information remain in the hands of the Shin Bet rather than a private company – who only the devil knows what its interests are.” Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch is also calling for lawmakers to take quick action to approve the digital tracking means.

Acknowledging that “we know that this is a problematic issue,” Netanyahu stressed during yesterday’s Corona Cabinet session that, “on the other hand, we know that it has contributed greatly to reining in the pandemic. We will see how we can overcome the problems in order to achieve a lowering of morbidity.”

The participants discussed proposals formulated by the National Security Council (NSC) pursuant to the forum of director generals that convened on Sunday, with the stated policy goal of significantly slowing virus-related deaths and mortality risks with minimal impact on the economy and daily public routine.

According to the communique sent to TV7 from the Premier’s Media Adviser, the Cabinet decided upon the following immediate steps:

  1. A national enforcement authority will be established, under the aegis of the Public Security Ministry, to direct, guide and coordinate all of the enforcement agencies.
  2. Fines will be increased. The fine for not wearing a mask will be raised to ₪ 500 (about $146).
  3. Enforcement by municipal inspectors shall be increased. A meeting will be held with the Federation of Local Authorities, with the participation of the Public Security Minister, the Finance Minister, the Interior Minister and the head of the NSC.
  4. The list of communities to be declared restricted zones upon the identification of an increase in morbidity (according to the set parameters) will be evaluated forthwith.
  5. Protecting at-risk populations – the continuation of checks and protective measures at centers for the elderly.
  6. An evaluation, in conjunction with the Civil Service Commissioner, of a return to work in “capsules.”
  7. School activity during the summer vacation, along with private camps, has been approved.

The Corona Cabinet also unanimously approved the proposal of the Health, Finance and Defense ministries to set an outbreak scenario.

This definition will guide the government vis-à-vis preparations and procurement by the health establishment. This scenario will express the system capacity of the health establishment and is not a forecast of cases.

It was decided to prepare for an additional 2,000 corona patients on ventilators, as well as 2,000 other patients on ventilators.

Prime Minister Netanyahu said that all preventive measures must be taken to avoid reaching the outbreak scenario. This is the general position of the Corona Cabinet ministers.

Pursuant to the foregoing, Corona Cabinet ministers are discussing the practical steps that are necessary in the immediate term in order to slow morbidity and prevent a deterioration to undesirable scenarios.

— By Erin Viner