On November 25, the Health Ministry’s director of public health services, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, sent two identical WhatsApp messages – one to a group of senior ministry officials, and one to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
The texts informed about the new coronavirus variant in South Africa and warned that both her staff and Military Intelligence considered this strain very dangerous. As a result, she wrote, Israel should immediately close its skies to people coming from South Africa.
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This message posed a challenge to one of the cabinet’s strongest alliances. Despite the enormous ideological differences between Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, the coronavirus crisis united them far beyond expectations. They managed the delta variant in almost complete harmony.
“They speak at least seven times a day and write each other on WhatsApp all the time,” one source said.
But this unity was completely overtaken by the new variant, omicron. At the peak of the crisis, Horowitz’s aides accused Bennett of being hysterical, while Bennett’s aides accused Horowitz of being irresponsible, political sources say.
That day in late November, Bennett and Horowitz held their first telephone consultation on omicron. Two important decisions were made – banning travel to and from most of Africa and replacing the PCR swab test for returning travelers at Ben-Gurion Airport with one better at detecting omicron. The deliberations ended at 10 P.M. with a general feeling of satisfaction.
But the following morning, a Friday, Bennett suddenly requested another discussion. He wanted to close the skies completely for four to five days, immediately. No one would be allowed to come in or leave. Horowitz was shocked.
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Bennett said he wanted time to glean information about the new variant, but Health Ministry staffers said they needed at least a month for this, and closing the skies for four to five days wouldn’t be effective. Horowitz thus insisted on sticking to the decision made the previous night, but Bennett wouldn’t budge, and the conversation ended with no decision.
A few hours later, Bennett released a surprising statement that hadn’t been coordinated with anyone. “We are currently on the brink of a crisis situation,” it said. “I ask everyone to prepare and devote themselves fully to working around the clock.”
Horowitz was furious. He said it wasn’t at all clear that a crisis was impending, and declaring one was would undermine public trust.
Their differences heightened as the weekend progressed. They held several long discussions on Friday and Saturday; Bennett, who is religious, had said before taking office that the coronavirus took precedence over observing Shabbat. The prime minister continued to demand a complete closure of the skies; Horowitz remained vehemently opposed.
Unlike many ministers, Bennett and Horowitz rarely shout at each other. Thanks to the coronavirus, the former chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements and the leader of the left-wing Meretz party developed what may have been the closest relationship in the cabinet. “The fact that Bennett and I both came from such ideological parties created a common denominator between us,” Horowitz once said.
Horowitz has frequently supported Bennett in both private and public forums. Even when Bennett’s wife, Gilat, took her children on vacation abroad despite the prime minister’s recommendation that people not travel overseas, Horowitz said nothing to the media or to Bennett.
And during their hours of discussion that weekend, they finally reached a compromise. Everyone returning from abroad would have to quarantine for three days and then take another coronavirus test. Foreigners would be barred from entering. The coronavirus cabinet approved their decisions that Saturday night.
One issue Bennett and Horowitz did agree on, surprisingly, was letting the Shin Bet security service track omicron patients for a limited period. But as criticism of that decision grew, with Horowitz in particular getting slammed by his own base, both realized that tracking needed to be further curbed. It ultimately ended after just a week.
But on December 9, their disagreements came to a head. That morning, Bennett convened another discussion and suddenly raised draconian ideas. First, he proposed a lockdown on unvaccinated people. After legal advisers vetoed that idea, he proposed barring the unvaccinated from traveling abroad, but the lawyers vetoed that, too.
Finally, he again proposed closing the skies. Horowitz exploded. For the first time, he and Bennett screamed at each other. That was the day Horowitz’s aides called Bennett hysterical and Bennett’s aides called Horowitz irresponsible.
In private conversations, Bennett accused Horowitz’s aides of leaking the details of the meeting, on top of the “hysterical” dig. He attributed this to the criticism Horowitz took over the Shin Bet tracking, saying the health minister was now trying to repair his image on the left.
In any case, after a round of mutually acrimonious leaking, the meeting ended with no decision.
'Tired of restrictions'
The two men also disagreed over whether Israelis needed a fourth dose of the vaccine, something that Bennett strongly favored. “He put crazy pressure” on the government’s expert advisory panel on vaccines, a source present at the meetings said.
Horowitz was appalled, believing that only the expert panel should decide whether a fourth dose was needed, not politicians.
In a discussion this week, before the panel recommended a fourth dose for certain high-risk groups, Bennett asked Alroy-Preis, “When will we give the fourth dose?! We’re buying time with very, very expensive steps, the research hasn’t begun yet, and every day it gets postponed and postponed and postponed again.” He was referring to clinical research on a fourth dose by Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv.
Horowitz isn’t the only minister opposed to Bennett’s handling of omicron. Others said that they were embarrassed by Bennett’s efforts to speed up a fourth dose and that he was acting impulsively without a clear plan or the necessary legal and economic groundwork.
Some cabinet members were open about their opposition. Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai both voted against adding new countries to the “red list” of places where Israelis may not travel. Shai said the public “is tired of restrictions.”
Michaeli and all the Meretz ministers also said they wouldn’t support restrictions on economic activity without compensation to businesses that were hurt. But so far, the Finance Ministry has successfully opposed compensation.
Still, even people with clear reservations about Bennett’s recent stance are backing him for now and refusing to attack him openly. “He’s doing everything he can to prevent us from crashing into an iceberg that the public doesn’t yet see,” one source said.
Another added, “It’s always better to go overboard in preparing than to be caught unprepared. Overall, I’m not certain I would have acted differently in his place.”