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Fuming Netanyahu urges probe after leak from coronavirus cabinet meeting

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fumed Monday over leaks to the media from a meeting a day earlier that showed the premier was pushing for reinstating controversial digital tracking of coronavirus patients in order to curb infections while the Shin Bet security agency was imploring ministers not to approve the move.

Meetings of the coronavirus cabinet, a ministerial forum overseeing Israel’s handling of the pandemic, are closed to the public and their content is not generally published.

Critics have argued that matters discussed by decision-makers in cabinet meetings are of critical public importance and should not be concealed.

But, delivering brief comments to the media at the opening of Monday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting, Netanyahu railed against the leak and vowed it wouldn’t happen again.

“I want to begin first of all with the serious incident of the recording from the coronavirus cabinet that was broadcast in the media,” he said.

“I don’t remember such a thing being done in all my years as prime minister,” he added. “Not from a cabinet meeting and not from a coronavirus cabinet like this; a discussion with the Shin Bet chief, it is very serious.”

“This cannot pass. I ask all the relevant officials, including the attorney general, to enable a thorough investigation,” Netanyahu said. “We cannot allow this [occurrence] to put down roots. This must not repeat itself.”

During Monday’s meeting, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat was expected to update ministers on civilian alternatives to track virus carriers, the Walla news site reported Sunday.

While leaks from cabinet meetings are common, recordings of such meetings are not. In the past Netanyahu and other ministers have pushed for polygraph tests to be forced on meeting participants in order to expose leakers, in an act critics say would significantly chill free speech rights.

The recordings aired Sunday evening by Channel 12 showed that Nadav Argaman, the Shin Bet head, opposed renewing and anchoring in law the program that would allow the intelligence service to use sensitive personal data to track coronavirus carriers.

They showed that as virus cases swell, Netanyahu is pushing for the reactivation of the shadowy program — employing procedures that are usually reserved for counterterrorism operations — over Argaman’s objections.

Earlier this month, the Shin Bet program, which used vast amounts of cellular phone and credit card data to track the movement of coronavirus patients and those in close contact with them, ended nearly three months after it began.

The program had been subject to Knesset oversight, but the High Court of Justice ordered the government to craft a law — instead of a temporary emergency regulation — to give the Shin Bet permission to use these tools.

Ministers decided to call off the program after having failed to write a bill legislating how it would operate. That decision came after Argaman reportedly expressed discomfort at continuing the effort, and as virus cases had dropped considerably.

The government has since been looking for an alternative method that would be as capable at identifying potential carriers as the Shin Bet’s powerful digital tracking tools — but under the management of a civilian office, rather than a secret service.

“What I am asking is that the Shin Bet not be included in legislation,” Argaman could be heard saying during a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet.

“What is needed is training that the Shin Bet is willing to provide as a solution, in the event there is an outbreak… and to work tightly, and I mean tightly, with the project that can manage it, so there can be a civilian response for the State of Israel in the coming years.”

He said the civilian alternative could easily retrace the steps of several hundred patients a day to inform those around them of possible exposure to the virus.

“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 [Shin Bet] service. I am asking very, very, very strongly not to start legislating the Shin Bet at this stage,” Argaman implored the ministers.

The television report said Argaman described the program’s functions when applied to counter-terrorism operations in his arguments against the legislation of the tool, details of which remain barred from publication under military censorship rules.

“This is primarily a moral issue. The Shin Bet should deal with counter-terrorism, and not pick up the pieces when the Health Ministry fails in its mission,” one official said.

Netanyahu earlier on Sunday warned that Israel could be thrust into a new coronavirus lockdown, citing “grave predictions,” a day after a leaked report from a military task force predicted thousands of new cases and hundreds of deaths if authorities did not take immediate steps to slow the spread of the virus.

Source: TOI