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A Perfect Winter Storm Is Brewing. Israel Isn't Prepared

Rising coronavirus cases, an economic crisis and the next phase in Netanyahu's trial could spell chaos

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Netanyahu visiting a school amid reopening this week, Mevo Horon, in the occupied West Bank.
Netanyahu visiting a school amid reopening this week, Mevo Horon, in the occupied West Bank.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A vast disparity, almost unfathomable, could be felt this week between the cordial welcome accorded the Israeli delegation to the United Arab Emirates and the depressing, chaotic reality that the delegation left behind back home. Even as Benjamin Netanyahu basked in the achievement scored by his regional policy and predicted huge deals for Israeli companies in the Gulf, Israel broke its record for daily coronavirus infections, the load in the hospitals gradually increased and somehow the new school year opened under an array of restrictions and improvisations that probably won’t let the schools remain open very long.

In the Gulf, Israeli reporters were bowled over by the luxuriousness of the palaces and hotels, and predicted a wave of visitors from Israel. Their articles resembled the consumer and tourist spots that waste long stretches of the evening newscasts every day.

Back home, the situation is radically different. The health chiefs are disturbed by the failure to halt the rising infection rate, the power struggles in the government are continuing unabated, and it’s clear that a continuation of the current trend will very likely see the reimposition of countrywide restrictions.

The gamble being taken, from a lack of choice, in resuming classroom studies is accompanied by complicated and at times contradictory rules that Israeli society will have a hard time implementing. Thus, most classes have been divided into two “capsules,” but all told it’s a pretense whose end will be another rise in the infection rate.

But the chaos’ main causes are in the coronavirus cabinet and in the wider government. Other countries are also experiencing a second infection wave as lockdowns are lifted. The difference is that they endured a more serious first wave than Israel, and for the moment at least, it looks like they’re not losing control.

The Israeli failure doesn’t end with the inability to draw up a uniform policy in the first week of September, even though it was obvious that the combination of a surge in infections and the return to school could destabilize the system.

At the moment, the leap in confirmed cases of COVID-19 hasn’t translated into a significant rise in the number of people seriously ill, on ventilators or hospitalized. But if the infection rate doesn’t fall and the percentage of people in serious condition remains at about 2.5 percent of the number of sick, we may later in the year approach the hospitals’ incapacity level, which in the past was set at 800 seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

And, as winter approaches, the load on the hospitals is expected to rise because of the interaction between the coronavirus and the seasonal flu, though the scale this year is still hard to predict.

However, preparations for the winter still seem to be proceeding lethargically. Also, the public’s lack of confidence in the government’s measures, in both the health and economic crises, is soaring, creating a vicious circle. That is, many people aren’t following the social distancing guidelines and are helping spread the disease. And as it spreads, confidence decreases – and obedience of the directives declines further.

This is especially flagrant in specific population groups – Arab Israelis, the ultra-Orthodox, secular young people – heightening the hostility and suspiciousness among the general public. The real problem isn’t policy but rather enforcement.

Children returning to school this week, Givatayim.
Children returning to school this week, Givatayim. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Probably the only person still getting a little credit from the public is the coronavirus coordinator, Prof. Ronni Gamzu. But his tenure, too, is hanging by a thread amid the disputes over the flights to Uman, Ukraine, by Hasidim to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman from Bratslav and attitudes about the “red” cities – cities with an exceptionally high incidence of COVID-19. These attitudes have raised the hackles of the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim.

True to form, Netanyahu isn’t bending over backward to defend Gamzu. His alliance with the Haredim is more critical to him. It wasn’t until slightly before midnight Monday night that the coronavirus cabinet decided to delay the opening of schools in the red cities the next day. That happened because Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s partner in the unity government, got the impression in a talk with Gamzu that the professor might resign if his approach was rejected.

In his statements this week, Gamzu set a target date of September 10. If there are no signs that the spread of the virus is being contained by then, more drastic measures will be required.

Iceberg ahead

The same government that sent thrilled representatives to Abu Dhabi this week is immersed in advanced processes of decay that have a direct bearing on the functioning of the civil service. The latest crisis between Likud and Kahol Lavan, which was supposedly resolved two weeks ago with a decision to delay a possible election, prevented the convening of the weekly cabinet meeting for the fourth straight time.

The security cabinet, however, held a rare meeting, on Wednesday. Because Netanyahu and Gantz are engaged in political squabbling and are putting out fires, it seems little time is being devoted to discussions on long-term strategy. What’s true of the health system’s preparations for the winter is equally true of defense officials’ decisions on security.

Gantz and Netanyahu at the a government meeting in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020
Gantz and Netanyahu at the a government meeting in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

Shaul Meridor, who this week resigned as head of the Finance Ministry’s budget division, revealed the size of the rift between Finance Minister Yisrael Katz and his ministry’s top officials. And this is unlikely to be the last resignation. Israel is being managed with a civil service marred by stopgap fill-ins: There is no permanent police commissioner, state prosecutor, prison commissioner or director general of the Prime Minister’s Office. In the military, there’s not even a comptroller or ombudsman.

This may all seem due to the political paralysis between Likud and Kahol Lavan, but the situation is convenient for Netanyahu, as seen in the obedient and frightened police chiefs as the prime minister and his people continue their jihad against law enforcement.

On Thursday, one of the prime minister’s most devoted servants, coalition whip Miki Zohar, took time off from his efforts to sabotage Gamzu’s work and accused the protesters near the prime minister’s residence of exclusive responsibility for the worsening COVID-19 numbers. Zohar didn’t bother to cite U.S. or Israeli studies showing that the risk of infection is low in an open space, even in mass demonstrations.

As winter approaches, another perfect storm is whipping up in Israel, combining the coronavirus affair, an economic crisis even grimmer than the disease, and the start of the evidence stage of Netanyahu’s corruption trial. Economists are already warning of the possibility that the Israeli economy will suffer a lost decade, as happened after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

But the danger doesn’t stop there. Ehud Olmert was forced to resign as prime minister about two years after the start of the investigations that led to indictments against him. And about two years elapsed between the eruption of the Watergate affair and Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Netanyahu, who is very familiar with the historical precedents, is stubbornly clinging to his job during the trial – and will through the appeal that would certainly follow a guilty verdict. His trial could drag the country into a lost decade even more chaotic than what we’ve experienced so far. Italy went through such a period during the Berlusconi trial and other corruption cases.

It’s doubtful whether Israel, facing an external security threat and  deep domestic rifts, can allow itself a similar adventure. Back in March, at the onset of the coronavirus crisis, Netanyahu, swept up in his heated rhetoric in a television interview, described himself as the person “who’s navigating this Titanic.” That prophesy was truer than he knew.

'Purple' yeshivas

Prof. Gamzu said on Wednesday that 28 percent of the spread of the illness  in Israel is focused in Arab communities, and another 22 percent in Haredi communities – in both cases well above either group’s proportionate makeup of the overall population. He cited the data so as to justify activating his “traffic light plan,” albeit late in the day, and  to support his calls for imposing extra restrictions on the “red” cities, where the coronavirus is rampaging more widely.

Israel's coronavirus traffic light plan

But the responses Gamzu received from each population group were very different. Arab mayors acknowledge that weddings and other celebrations held in their locales have caused a surge in the spread of the disease. Some of them also expressed support for taking tough measures in response. The Haredim are behaving differently. Most have been less concerned about the visits to Uman and more worried about the yeshivas.

Among the reasons for the high incidence of the disease seen among the Haredim in the present wave, in contrast to the first wave, is the way it’s being measured. Gamzu and his liaison with the Haredim, Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa, reached an agreement with the Haredi yeshivas that procured them a “purple badge” (a tag that shows they have fulfilled Health Ministry pandemic guidelines) when classes resumed at the start of the Hebrew month of Elul about two weeks ago. Some 30,000 students in dozens of yeshivas are abiding by these arrangements. Upon resuming their studies, they committed to two weeks of quarantine, during which they would be tested for COVID-19 and confine themselves to the capsules or smaller groups into which the students were divided.

Hundreds of  yeshiva students have tested positive for the virus. The worst case was in a yeshiva in Carmiel, where about 100 students tested positive for coronavirus, about a quarter of the student body. The data stirred some media panic on Thursday coinciding with the country having added another 3,000 positive cases nationwide over a 24-hour period on Wednesday. But, as always, it’s worth looking at the broader context. To begin with, most of the yeshiva students are young, hence also asymptomatic, and stand an excellent chance of safely weathering the disease. And secondly, under the arrangement with Gamzu they will remain in the yeshivas until Yom Kippur, so it is doubtful they will infect any older people. 

Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish pilgrims pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, in Uman, Ukraine, September 2017.
Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish pilgrims pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, in Uman, Ukraine, September 2017.Credit: Valentyn Ogirenko/ REUTERS

This is the backdrop to the controversy over a  directive issued by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, leader of the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) Haredi stream, to stop testing for the coronavirus at the yeshivas. Gamzu has warned that this is a dangerous instruction, which is liable to aggravate the rate of infection. And here, too, lies one of the reasons for the anger of the Haredim at the state. It seems that yeshiva students who test positive for coronavirus are included in the tallies from their hometowns or cities, even if their school is elsewhere, and this increases the chances of their home cities being labled as red, which would subject them to stiffer distancing and quarantine restrictions.  

In light of the rise in confirmed cases, the government needs to show that it is taking preventive measures. What’s on the agenda, as a close to a last resort before a nationwide lockdown, is imposing a lockdown in the red cities. This would deal a serious blow to about half a million people, which will also probably not bring about a fall in the national rate of infection, because the incidence of the disease is widespread, with red cities accounting for fewer than 20 percent of cases. 

Another idea under consideration is to impose a night curfew in the red or high risk  areas. This could imit nightlong celebrations held in Arab communities. The Haredim say this would not address the lifestyle of their communities apart from restricting the late-night Selihot (penitential prayers recited before the High Holy Days). They claim that the government is discussing identical measures in all the red cities only to preserve an appearance of avoiding any display of ethnic prejudice. 

Underlying the dispute is also the rabbis’ fear of canceling Torah studies and even of young people losing their faith. Some Haredi rabbis maintain that almost 10 percent of yeshiva students forced to take a break in their studies during the first lockdown, around Purim, did not return to the yeshivas when they reopened. Overall, these apprehensions are contributing to an evolving crisis between the Haredim and Gamzu, which is liable to void the coordinator’s status and undercut his few prospects of achieving success. It’s hard to rule out a scenario in which Haredi cities may refuse to obey a lockdown order, even a nationwide lockdown, as Betar Illit, a Haredi settlment in the West Bank, did this week when it ignored instructions against reopening its schools.

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