Analysis

As List of Coronavirus Failures Grows, Netanyahu Returns to His Element: Fear

Netanyahu is behaving differently from Trump. But that’s about all that can be said on the positive side of the Israeli response

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Health Ministry national hotline in Kiryat Malachi, March 1, 2020.
AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Humans are adaptive beings. If someone had told us a month ago that this weekend we would be obsessively examining graphs that document the mortality rate in countries around the world, planning an exercise walk within 100 meters from our home, or donning gloves and face masks (which are apparently useless) every time we enter the supermarket, we would have laughed.

The images of the damage done by the coronavirus in China have been broadcast on screens since January, but few Israelis possess a sufficiently developed imagination to have entertained the thought that the dystopian scenario was about to strike here, too, and with such intensity. The fact that freedom of movement is being curtailed more every evening is gradually getting people here to accept the situation, like the frog in the pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil.

For more than a decade, op-eds in this newspaper have been warning about the demise of democracy in Israel. This week, democracy was curbed severely and frighteningly. However, a great many viewers of the various television channels – which in some cases deferred the report on the events in the High Court of Justice and the Knesset to the latter part of the newscasts – were too preoccupied with health and livelihood concerns to pay much attention. Instead, we gaped at passive-aggressive professors of medicine scolding us for not keeping a distance.

The limits of the imagination are not ours alone, and sometimes their results are graver. A series of newspaper ads and clips being disseminated by Donald Trump’s Democratic adversaries are documenting in appalling detail the chain of dumb, arrogant declarations with which the American president responded to the virus as it homed in on the United States in the past two months. The United States now looks to be on the fast and sure track to pass Italy as the country with the highest number of sick and dead from the coronavirus (in absolute numbers, not in percentage of the population).

Trump had advance information. The possibility of a viral eruption appeared in American documents of national strategy in 2015 and in 2017. The president took the opposite course and disbanded the National Security Council team that was in charge of dealing with epidemics. The British national strategy document in 2018 posited a scenario of epidemics in the top group of threats, at the highest probability; military escalation as a result of nuclear proliferation was noted as a lesser probability.

But the document that contained the most acute warning, titled “A World at Risk,” was issued by the World Health Organization in September 2019. The WHO team, headed by a former Norwegian prime minister, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, examined the state of world readiness for health emergencies. The document’s foreword states, “A combination of global trends, including insecurity and extreme weather, has heightened the risk. Disease thrives in disorder and has taken advantage – outbreaks have been on the rise for the past several decades and the specter of a global health emergency looms large. … [T]here is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5 percent of the world’s economy. A global pandemic on that scale would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability and insecurity. The world is not prepared. … Leaders at all levels hold the key” to cope with the threat.

As far as can be ascertained, that clear warning did not appear on the Israeli government’s agenda in orderly fashion in the past few months, nor was it known to the Israeli intelligence community, which is now abetting the health system’s procurement efforts. In past years in Israel, as in many other countries, there was a disconnect between the experts and the politicians in charge with regard to handling epidemics. Even the watered-down report issued by the state comptroller this week indirectly attests to this.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is behaving differently from his American friend. Unlike Trump, Netanyahu did not shrug off the virus, started to hold ongoing meetings about preparing for it in February, and took a number of steps – reducing the number of flights, mandating quarantine for Israelis returning from abroad, issuing directives for social distancing, and finally ordering an almost complete lockdown – which undoubtedly diminished the rate of the coronavirus’ spread in this country.

But that’s about all there is to be said on the positive side of the Israeli response. The list of blunders and hitches is longer. The public health system was neglected for years, leaving it almost without reserves when it’s facing its most critical test. The effort to procure ventilators and crucial protective equipment for the medical teams got underway very late, and only this week was it placed in the hands of the defense establishment. The scandal of the tests for the coronavirus, including the trench warfare that the Health Ministry is waging against them even this week, will need to be considered in a lengthy separate chapter in the report of the future commission of inquiry. The failure to enforce the regulations in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities, only because of political fear, could yet foment a catastrophe.

On top of this is the management of the crisis. For weeks into the epidemic, the government continued to work in a highly disordered fashion. The prime minister, according to cabinet ministers, is immersed in dozens of hours of meetings in which intensive but scattered attention is paid to a vast number of issues, some of which should not be his concern at all. The cabinet meetings are run like a debating society in which people lacking political clout (the Yamina ministers from the party’s previous incarnation), or unctuous types who were given ministerial status only as a prize for their sycophancy, express their uninteresting opinions on questions such as whether to permit jogging or to open ritual baths. It was only yesterday that the national crisis management center was launched.

Although there are advantages in the close coordination between Netanyahu and the Health Ministry, there are two vulnerabilities as well. First, because of the Health Ministry’s opposition, the prime minister did not wield the full weight of his authority to accelerate the rate of tests, which, according to estimates, could already have exceeded 10,000 a day. And second, Netanyahu is completely in synch with the Health Ministry’s horrific scenarios, even warning of a million Israelis falling sick and 10,000 dying of the coronavirus by the end of April.

Netanyahu’s alarmism is well known to those who spent hundreds of hours with him in meetings about the Iranian nuclear project, concerning which he always chose the most extreme scenario but at the same time refrained from making any sort of practical decision. Now Israel’s citizens are getting a taste of this, with the prime minister’s nightly addresses laced with evocations of the Black Death, Holocaust images and apocalyptic forecasts.

Netanyahu demonstrates blowing his nose at a press conference in the Prime Minister's Office, March 11, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

In the breach

In the background – and it’s impossible to ignore this – is Netanyahu’s battle for survival. The harsh measures are in tune with what most Western countries are currently doing, despite the immense economic price involved. But the scare tactics are not only a default – they impose a situation of instability and panic, which serves the prime minister in his confrontation with Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, and has already helped him get his trial delayed and justify the imposition of measures that generate fear. The draconian, unprecedented surveillance powers granted to the Shin Bet security service are a flagrant example.

This week, four former commanders of the ultra-elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit met in a demonstration outside the Knesset: former MK Omer Bar-Lev, Brig. Gens. (res.) Shahar Argaman and Amos Ben-Avraham, and just-retired Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon. Alon told Haaretz that the meeting of the four had not been coordinated in advance. “By chance I saw Shahar, and then Omer and Amos showed up, too. I came to demonstrate because I think there’s a departure here from the balance of the basic principles, separation of powers and their ability to maintain a dialogue with one another. Losing the balance is dangerous. It’s happening against the background of a severe and real health and economic crisis, which is being used with ulterior motives.

“What is happening here,” he continued, “could endanger the foundations of the democratic regime. There’s no reason to wait until things come to pass, but to act using the tools of a civic society: protest and public pressure at an early stage. I am not pessimistic. I don’t think we’re hurtling toward a dictatorship. There are many across the political spectrum who possess a democratic consciousness, who understand well the importance of the High Court of Justice. But the citizens need to raise their voice, too. I go to an essential job when I need to and I go to demonstrate when I need to. The crisis cannot become an excuse to stop the activity of the Knesset or the courts, or to halt demonstrations,” Alon said.

The battle waged against the High Court by the outgoing Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, looks like a trailer for something worse. The coronavirus has only begun to strike at Israel, but the combination between it and the deadlock that was created after the third election in a year, hastened its damaging influence on the democratic regime. Already now, Netanyahu and his supporters are placing the state’s institutions in a dilemma, in which they are required to choose who they’re committed to – the executive branch or the legislature, the government or democracy. The High Court stood in the breach this week. But the test could roll along to the institution of the presidency, the Israel Defense Forces, the Israel Police, the Shin Bet and other bodies.

Edelstein’s resignation opened the door on Thursday for at least a first meeting of the Knesset’s committee on the coronavirus. The chairman, MK Ofer Shelah (Kahol Lavan), whom Netanyahu Jr. described this week as “ugly on the outside and the inside,” summoned for the first time the senior figures in the health system to respond to harsh questions, instead of giving daily statements to the media. It’s likely that for some Israelis it was a first opportunity to see up-close how badly prepared the system is for the crisis – above all the fact that there are fewer than 1,500 ventilators available in the country to treat coronavirus patients.

The virus won’t stop at the fence’

Compared to the horrific statistics from Italy and Spain, and to the doomsday scenario that is taking shape in large American cities, particularly New York, Israelis can take some consolation from the coronavirus data here. Despite the increase in numbers, the proportion of the dying and of those in serious condition is still low relative to the scope of the infections that have been identified (though in practice the assumption is that a large number of people who are sick but asymptomatic have not been diagnosed).

But apart from concern that the curve will take off, Israel has another problem: It does not exist in a vacuum but abuts two Palestinian territories. One of them, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, is not separated from Israel in any way. The second, the Gaza Strip under Hamas, is under siege, but is in no way prepared to cope with the virus – and its weakness, part of which is due precisely to the Israeli siege, could have consequences for Israel.

A medic checks equipment during a tour by the World Health Organisation (WHO) of a coronavirus quarantine facility set up at Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, March 22, 2020
WHO in Occupied Palestinian Te

Fear of a plague in the Gaza Strip has become a central issue in defense establishment consultations. On Thursday it was reported that seven people in the Gaza Strip were infected – members of Hamas’ security units who were in contact with the two first cases in Gaza, who had returned from Pakistan. The elderly, vulnerable population in the Gaza Strip is relatively small (about 100,000 above the age of 65, out of 2.1 million inhabitants), but the intense overcrowding, inferior infrastructure and terrible weakness of the local health system will make it very easy there for the virus to spread.

“The coronavirus,” a senior General Staff officer told Haaretz, “will not stop at the security fence. We will have to help them as much as we can, within the bounds of what we ourselves are having to cope with. The [Israeli] health system also has to take this into account. At the same time, Hamas must understand that this is not the time for military provocations. At the moment they are very restrained, but I can’t completely rule out the possibility that someone there will start shooting when the virus spreads. The Hamas leadership has to understand that Israel can help them, but that in any case of terrorism from the Gaza Strip, our response will be very tough.”

Within the IDF itself, a constant effort is needed to adjust the work to the new circumstances. A few dozen soldiers have been diagnosed with the virus, all of them with mild cases, and about 5,500 soldiers are in quarantine after coming into contact with someone who was infected. In the past few days, the medical corps has started to test for the coronavirus in units, using its own laboratory. The low number of diseased soldiers that were located, particularly after the mass Purim parties and after the soldiers on the closed bases returned to their units, is reinforcing the assumption that the true percentage of infected people in Israel is higher, and that most of the young people are simply not displaying symptoms.

This week the activity of the Home Front Command was substantially increased as an aid to the healthcare system and the police in coping with the crisis. “All the pennies that had to drop in the army, dropped,” another senior officer says. “The coronavirus is a huge event. It’s a war, even if missiles aren’t being fired at us. We have no interest in being pushy and assuming responsibility to manage the crisis, but we will do everything that’s asked of us. And yes, we already understand that the IDF’s next multiyear plan will look completely different after all this ends.”