After two days of wrangling, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved Tuesday a bill that would allow hotels in Eilat and near the Dead Sea to reopen. The effort disclosed the obstacles faced by the government in trying to ameliorate the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis.
The pandemic has hit Eilat’s economy harder than any other Israeli town. On Tuesday, as it happens, the Employment Service reported that among large cities (50,000 or more residents), Eilat is at the top of the unemployment list, with 41.2% residents looking for work as of October. One-third of the city’s job seekers are in services and sales, which relies on tourism. For nearly 2,000 families, both partners are out of work. Former Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir tried to pass the bill several months ago, but was confounded by the second lockdown and quit the government. His successor, Orit Farkash Hacohen, took it upon herself to see the bill through and spent weeks trying to persuade Health Minister Yuli Edelstein of its necessity.
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The idea is to create two isolated tourism regions, which together account for some 56% of Israel’s internal tourism, and to try to turn them into a coronavirus-free bubble – anyone entering the region undergoes a virus test before being permitted to stay at a hotel. Given that each region is accessible by a single road, this is a feasible task. Edelstein initially expressed opposition because hotels are supposed to reopen only in the fourth phase of the reopening, which will take place in two weeks if the number of daily cases falls to 250. He gave in when Farkash Hacohen promised that she would ensure that the bill related only to Eilat and the Dead Sea region.
And yet, the bill presented to the committee Monday had several changes. The proposal passed by the committee led by MK Yaakov Asher (United Torah Judaism) was not limited only to Eilat and the Dead Sea, and gave the government the option of expanding it to open tourism in other regions.
Edelstein had forecast the political pressures to extend the format being offered Eilat and Ein Bokek to other regions. The Tourism Ministry is bombarded with relentless pressure from hoteliers in Jerusalem, Metula, Tiberias and other places around Israel that are seeking to reopen, and was afraid that ultra-Orthodox parties would start pushing to open sites favored by the ultra-Orthodox community, such as Tiberias and Safed.
And yet, the clause that surprised Edelstein the most was one that sought to create a new category for lockdowns and limitations: Citizens who had proof that they’d recovered from the coronavirus would be eligible to skirt restrictions meant to control the virus.
Asher began pushing the idea of creating a separate category for people who recovered before Yom Kippur. This category is particularly relevant for UTJ’s voters, given that as of a month ago, the infection rate in the Haredi community was five times higher than that among Israelis at large. The Health Ministry appointed a committee to discuss the matter, headed by Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto, which debated the risk that these people would be reinfected as well as the chances that people would forge proof of past infection. The committee was supposed to present its findings after the holiday, except Grotto is now planning to leave the ministry, and the findings have yet been formulated.
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And now, back to Eilat. The bill stated that people would be permitted to enter the city if they could show proof that they recovered from the virus, or had a negative virus test. Asher jumped on the opportunity, and had a clause added stating the cabinet needed to address the category of people who recovered from the virus as it related to all restrictions imposed on residents. Edelstein noticed, and was shocked by the possibility of creating a large category of people who would then be permitted to pray in large groups and crowd into yeshivas – and thus, on Monday evening he pulled the bill before it could come up for a vote in the Knesset plenum.
On Tuesday, the committee passed the bill in its original formulation. All that was left for Farkash Hacohen was to voice protest, “I have harsh criticism for coalition partners, for some of the ultra-Orthodox parties that tried to push entirely sectoral matters through the bill,” she said in the plenum. “Without thinking about unity, we won’t be able to manage this crisis. It’s untenable to have these acts that reflect a lack of thought regarding other sectors during a pandemic.”