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As Infection Rate Runs High, Israel Takes No Small Gamble to Open Schools

The cabinet is circumventing the coronavirus czar's recommendations, but should he resign it could shatter once and for all the last shreds of public support for the government’s policy

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An empty classroom in a closed primary school in Ramat Gan, Israel, March 15, 2020.
An empty classroom in a closed primary school in Ramat Gan, Israel, March 15, 2020. Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

The government’s decision to open the school year on Tuesday morning as planned, at the height of a wave of infection in which close to 2,000 new virus carriers are being confirmed daily, is no small gamble. No other Western country is reopening schools amid this level of infection, but it may be a necessary gamble, given the dire situation of the Israeli economy.

It’s clear that unless children return to school, many parents won’t be able to go to work. Nonetheless, the coronavirus cabinet’s insistence on opening schools without any restrictions, including in “red” cities where infection rates are the highest, is irresponsible.

The team of experts consulting coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu was unanimous in the view that it is too risky to open schools in red locales. This is also the view that Gamzu presented at the cabinet meeting Sunday evening. Prof. Ran Balicer, a member of the team of experts, said Monday that opening the school year in the cities dubbed red is not a calculated risk and that if new infections are identified in the classrooms, it will likely quickly lead to schools being shut down. Gamzu himself said he didn’t believe the Education Ministry would take that risk.

But Education Minister Yoav Gallant announced that he views the schools, including those in red cities, as “an island of stability." But hours ahead of the beginning of the new school year on Tuesday morning, cabinet ministers came to their senses and decided to delay opening schools in communities with high infection rates by two days.

At the same time, at the urging of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a ministerial committee is now looking for ways to circumvent Gamzu’s recommendation to ban travel by Bratslav Hasidim from Israel to Uman ahead of the for Rosh Hashanah holiday amid the pandemic. If the Ukrainian government doesn’t step firmly into the breach, this ban will be eroded as well.

Benjamin Netanyahu during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020Credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

A direct line appears to connect the difficulties Gamzu keeps encountering and the resignation letter of Finance Ministry budget division chief Shaul Meridor. Both the previous interim government headed by Netanyahu and the current unity government established on the pretext of the need to fight the virus (who remembers that anymore?) have failed miserably in combating the pandemic. And their failure in handling the virus’ ruinous economic effects appears even worse. But politicians have a simple solution: Pin the blame on the professionals, make fiery speeches against the rule of the bureaucrats, make it impossible for them to do their jobs properly – and ultimately, as in Meridor’s case, lead them to resign.

Meridor’s resignation letter, particularly its denunciation of Finance Minister Yisrael Katz’s efforts to distribute funds on the basis of fictitious budget sources, could have harsh consequences for the country’s economic situation, specifically its credit rating. Katz tried unconvincingly to respond to Meridor by disparaging his father and claiming that this all stems from an old family vendetta against Netanyahu.

However, the balance power between Netanyahu and Gamzu is more complicated. Gamzu was tapped for the job by the prime minister, but the Health Ministry has become so sidelined since Gamzu’s appointment that Netanyahu can no longer hide behind the narrow shoulders of Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. Ministry Director General Chezy Levy even found time on Monday to join the historic flight of the Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi, as if the coronavirus has already been handily defeated.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu.Credit: Moti Milrod

It will be much harder for Netanyahu to get rid of Gamzu without causing collateral damage. The prime minister’s problem here derives from the low level of public trust in the government’s actions after six months of zigzagging, double standards and mistakes while trying to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Should Gamzu, who is still regarded favorably by the public, hand in his resignation, it could shatter once and for all the last shreds of public support for the government’s coronavirus policy. It would certainly make the public’s willingness to adhere to government guidelines even more open to question.

This is where Gamzu’s bargaining power against Netanyahu lies. The prime minister, who is not devoid of paranoia, especially given his shaky legal and political situation, is surely imagining a possible scenario in which the esteemed professor calls another press conference, explains whom he believes is to blame for the situation and then joins the protests against the government.

Gamzu nevertheless was able to obtain basic approval from the cabinet two days ago for his “traffic light” plan, which will (at last) enable a differential approach to be taken to different cities, depending on the infection rate there. But even this approval comes with qualifications. For example, no system was put in place for monitoring movement from red cities with high infection rates to safe green cities – and of course any sanction will be seen as an opening for new negotiations by the political representatives of the affected interest groups.

School children wearing face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus as they walk in Tel Aviv, July 6, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / AP

Over the past weeks, Gamzu has tried to project a very optimistic attitude which says that if the proper steps are taken, we can still lower the infection rate to a more tolerable level without having to impose another lockdown. Another lockdown would mean severe economic, psychological and medical harm (for people with other illnesses). But with the school year opening under the current circumstances, and with the Jewish High Holy Days only weeks away, the odds of another lockdown appear to be steadily increasing.

One of the arguments repeatedly made by Netanyahu and his supporters in recent years revolved the “governance problem” supposedly caused by the rule of the bureaucrats and jurists. But in the coronavirus crisis, when the government and cabinet had an opportunity to make crucial decisions, the required measures were put off again and again due to hesitancy and internal power struggles. And at the same time, the politicians continually boxed in the coronavirus chief and sabotaged his efforts ti manage the crisis. 

On Monday, Netanyahu and his lackeys sounded rather disappointed with the media, as well as with the general public, for being ingrates and not rejoicing wildly with him over the historic moment of the El Al plane with an official delegation on board landing in the UAE.

The trip certainly has long-term strategic significance. And it’s definitely impressive to see Israelis receiving such a warm welcome in an Arab country which, up until two weeks ago, seemed set on shunning full normalization with Israel absent a resolution of the Palestinian conflict. But with the coronavirus infection rate refusing to decline, the economy taking blow after blow and the government persisting in its abysmal handling of the virus, it’s understandable why people aren’t getting carried away celebrating the scenes from the Gulf.

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