A Clash With Netanyahu and 4 Other Things About Israel's New Coronavirus Czar

Experience, authority, opportunism and a checkered past with Netanyahu: Gamzu is a strong understudy set to play an important role in a difficult situation

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Roni Gamzu, January 8, 2014.
Roni Gamzu, January 8, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

The farce that unfolded in the night between Wednesday and Thursday over naming a national coronavirus czar took an odd, and perhaps final twist with the announcement that Prof. Ronni Gamzu had accepted the job.

The former health ministry director-general and ex-chief of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital wrote to hospital staff that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein had asked him Wednesday night if he wanted the job after negotiations faltered with Prof. Gaby Barbash.

He accepted with no further questions, and so, within a few minutes, the embarrassing campaign that had gone on for more than two weeks since Edelstein promised to name a “coronavirus chief” finally came to an end.

A lot of hope rests on the shoulders of this single individual, alongside much cynicism: There is a sense that he might have been given the job mainly so there is someone to blame when something goes wrong.

Here are a few more facts worth knowing about Gamzu.

Ronni Gamzu introducing a coronavirus response program for nursing homes, Tel Aviv, April 20, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

1- Gamzu’s personality and experience make him an excellent choice

Not only did he have a great record as health ministry director; he is also responsible for establishing a program to protect residential facilities for the elderly after the first wave of the virus hit. The project is viewed as a great success since it prevented the spread of the virus in nursing homes during the second wave. Gamzu is a known quantity, he’s decisive and held in high regard in the health system, which enhances the chances of him being listened to when he makes decisions. This is a critical point because the current situation is one of bitter conflict, with no single authoritative character able to take charge.

2- Gamzu does not think there should be a lockdown

The professor has spoken on this several times. He views a general lockdown as a bad option that we should not have to resort to. It will be interesting to see how he views matters as czar rather than from the chief’s seat at Ichilov, as the number of serious cases continue to climb.

3 - Gamzu is unlikely to participate in leadership fights

He apparently accepted the job without any agreement reached as to the actual range of his authority. He even hints at this in his letter to the hospital staff. The situation is “a medical, economic and social crisis,” he says. “I don’t ask any questions in such a situation, I simply show up.” It’s not that Gamzu is indifferent to the issue of authority; but we can assume that he simply assesses it is less significant than what can be done via the force of his personality.

One of the things that led to negotiations with Barbash failing was Edelstein’s fears that he would be overshadowed by the expert’s authoritative figure. The health minister did not get his wish: He wound up with the same character on steroids. The chances of Gamzu seeing himself as subordinate to the health ministry director-general, Hezy Levy, are low to non-existent. It’s more like that he will work closely with Netanyahu and take charge of the entire event.

From left, Ronni Gamzu, Benjamin Netanyahu, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, and Osnat Luxenburg, presenting the drug basket for 2017 at a press conference, Jerusalem, December 29, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

4 - Gamzu knows what it’s like to confront Netanyahu

Everything is personal and in this appointment, matters are very personal. Gamzu has a conflictual history with the Netanyahu family. During the 2011 doctors’ strike, he was recorded telling medical residents that Netanyahu wants to bring doctors from India to take their place, a statement that stirred a big storm. The prime minister demanded Gamzu’s ouster, but then Health Minister Yaakov Litzman refused. The grudge survived for years. The story might be behind them; they will now have to fight together towards a common interest.

5- Gamzu has a history of stepping in when someone resigns in anger

In 2010, he took the health ministry directorship after his predecessor, Dr. Eitan Hai Am, dramatically resigned and criticized Litzman over a controversy regarding a cemetery near Barzilai Hospital. Gamzu took his place and was criticized for it, but became one of the most prominent directors in the ministry’s history. In fact, Gamzu is actually a protégé of Barbash, who mentored and promoted him at Ichilov from the days when Gamzu was a resident in gynecology.

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