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Deflated Cabinet During Election Campaign Guarantees Extension of Israel's Lockdown

Netanyahu said on Monday that Israel may extend its lockdown for another two weeks in light of high infection rates

Hagai Amit
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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, stands in front of a coronavirus testing booth at Ben Gurion Airport, December 2020.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and members of his cabinet check a coronavirus testing booth at Ben Gurion Airport, December 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Hagai Amit

The cabinet convening Tuesday to consider extending the third lockdown in Israel is very different from the one that approved the second lockdown in September: Resignations have reduced the number of ministers from 36 to 27.

Dominant figures such as Avi Nissenkorn, Zeev Elkin, Yoaz Hendel, Izhar Shay, Meirav Cohen and Asaf Zamir will be absent. Many of the remaining cabinet members are busy pondering their postelection political futures. Others, like Gabi Ashkenazi and Amir Peretz, have already said they will leave politics.

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If that weren’t enough, the election campaign is clearly under way, clouding the cabinet’s judgment.

Kahol Lavan ministers tend to support extending the lockdown by just 72 hours, to Sunday. “We believe the exit should be more flexible than the lockdown,” Tourism Minister Orit Farkash Hacohen told TheMarker Monday.

“7,000 new cases next week isn’t like 7,000 two months ago, because 60% of the more vulnerable population is vaccinated. We’ll condition lockdown extension on equal and heightened enforcement, and preexamination of every arrival from abroad, and mainly we’ll demand moving up the inoculation of 300,000 children ages 16-18, who are only due to be vaccinated in April. It’s important to us they return to school quickly and safely,” she added. Other ministers told TheMarker they haven’t formulated their position, awaiting infection data due Tuesday.

Positivity rates continued to rise through Sunday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will ask to extend the lockdown, presumably with additional restrictions, as he did previously when infection rates increased.

Israeli police officers check cars at a checkpoint during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / AP

‘It’s not the cabinet that decides’

One of the coronavirus committee’s recommendations in May was to appoint a “contrarian team” to challenge the assumptions and thinking underlying the cabinet’s decision-making. The team was never established, but since then former Science and Technology Minister Shay (Kahol Lavan) presented data challenging the Health Ministry’s position. But he quit on January 8 to join Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party.

“The opinions I gave the cabinet were fact-based,” Shay told TheMarker. “Kahol Lavan established a multidisciplinary team of experts called Team 19 made up of professors like the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Eran Segal and Yinon Ashkenazy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Racah Institute of Physics. It was the basis of my idea of a partial lockdown in July, and I presented, before the third lockdown, data showing infection rates in schools were low compared to the rest of the country.”

Shay said the data on infections in schools was logical: Children are supervised while in school, but when schools are closed “they are in the community, where most of the infections occur.”

Shay said that in a meeting the team held with Education Minister Yoav Gallant Saturday night, it emerged that when schools are closed infection rates in children match those of the general population, rising in particular among Haredi children in line with their community. “Similarly, when we proposed opening bed-and-breakfasts in rural areas, we used data to prove there’s no reason to keep them closed.”

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media ahead of the first hearing in his corruption trial, Jerusalem, May 24, 2020. Credit: YONATHAN SINDEL / POOL / AFP

However, he said, government dynamics dictate that every small thing you want requires an endless war with Netanyahu. “Before you advance an issue, you hold a closed meeting with him to convince him why to go along. Basically, it’s not the cabinet that’s deciding.” Shay added: “Everyone in this show called the cabinet meeting deludes himself that he has influence. In the end minister raise or lower their hands according to Netanyahu’s will. If I’d be there, I’d demand a discussion of the exit plan. The prime minister deceives the public that it’s all over, but wide swaths of the population still aren’t vaccinated, and we have to prepare for the next stage. The coronavirus didn’t disappear.”

Haredi coordination

Lacking certainty, the Haredi ministers coordinated their positions in a Zoom meeting Monday. The main issue bothering them is the lack of a separate plan for dealing with the more than 500,000 people who have recovered from COVID-19. They are disproportionately Haredi.

Half the students in some yeshivas have had the virus. Lockdown regulations apply to everyone equally, despite recovered patients being more likely to be immune. The Haredi leaders are expected to press at the cabinet meeting for advancing a plan to ease restrictions on recovered patients.

Restrictions on synagogues are also expected to come up. The Haredim oppose restrictions that don’t differentiate based on synagogue size. The question of easing restrictions for those who have received the second vaccine dose will also come up.

Some ministers, including Netanyahu, stand to benefit because they have already received or are due to get their second shot. Netanyahu got his on January 9. Immunity reaches 95% within a week of this shot, say researchers.

Bad for the economy

Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry estimates that in the second half of December, before the lockdown, the permanent restrictions on the tourism, restaurant and entertainment industries cost the economy about 500 million shekels ($155 million) a week.

The restrictions added during the lockdown on the commercial and service sectors and public transportation, on top of cancellation of the so-called green island plan, cost gross domestic product to fall by 2 billion shekels per week.

The additional restrictions on workplaces and closure of the school system two weeks ago already cost the economy up to 4 billion shekels weekly. The treasury has no detailed information from the Health Ministry explaining how much each sector contributes to infection rates. Still, any heightening of the closure will add billions of shekels in economic damage.

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