Coronavirus in Israel Is a Civilian Crisis, but the Army Can Help Turn the Tide

The Health Ministry refuses to draw upon the army’s resources, while decision-making on a response to the epidemic is in the hands of a threesome led by Netanyahu

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A shopper in Jerusalem.
A shopper in Jerusalem, Mar. 22, 2020.Credit: אוהד צויגנברג
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel’s decision-making in response to the coronavirus pandemic is being made by a small triad of players, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the top, joined by the head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is irrelevant to the process. Most of the rest of the cabinet is busy, in the aftermath of this month’s Knesset election, with public gestures of loyalty to Netanyahu, while the Prime Minister’s Office is being run by Ronen Peretz, a junior politico whose title is temporary acting director general.

After three inconclusive rounds of Knesset elections, it is not only Israel’s health care system that is worn-out and exhausted as it faces the unprecedented challenge posed by the coronavirus. It is the entire government, including its ministries and senior officials.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70

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A series of conversations with people who held senior positions in the defense establishment and government reveals a broad consensus over the need for a more effective organizational structure. That might help handle the coronavirus crisis, which is expected to worsen and persist.

Drawing conclusions from the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the cabinet back then decided to establish a national crisis management center. The National Crisis Administration Center could be put into action now – and there is also no reason not to involve the public affairs department in the Prime Minister’s Office instead of placing the entire burden on Heath Ministry spokespeople, professional as they may be.

This issue is closely related to the refusal to enlist the help of the army on a much wider scale to help deal with the threat posed by the coronavirus. For its part, the Health Ministry says, with justification, that this is a civilian crisis, and that the army has no advantage when it comes to knowing how to deal with a such a serious heath care threat.

A senior official in the health care system told Haaretz that the Defense Ministry’s eagerness to help out has actually been harmful in some instances. Defense Ministry procurement officials began competing with their Health Ministry counterparts over the purchase of ventilators and parts, and in the process made it more difficult to obtain the appropriate equipment, the official said. From the official’s perspective, the Defense Ministry is intruding into a field that it doesn’t sufficiently understand, operating with the “standards of AliExpress,” as he put it.

Contradictory messages

But the army, through its Home Front Command, does have an advantage over the Health Ministry in maintaining contact with local governments and ministries, as a result of the civil defense drills that it conducts, along with its actual experience in dealing with rockets fired at civilian areas. For the time being, the enormous capabilities of the army as a whole, and of the Home Front Command in particular, have not been drawn upon. Instead, the army has been focusing on running hostels for coronavirus patients who are not seriously ill and providing assistance to the Magen David Adom emergency medical service at its call centers.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who is clearly frustrated by all of this, is trying to advance a wide range of initiatives – even if this explicitly involves bending the rules. As a result, absurd situations have come about. On Sunday, Bennett issued a call for patients in a good condition to be referred to the army’s hostels, although the Health Ministry has been emphasizing the advantage of home isolation for such patients. The bottom line is a failure to draw upon the defense establishment’s huge supply of resources – and a government that is sending contradictory messages to the public.

A closed playground at a Tel Aviv beach, Mar. 21, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

The Health Ministry had been fighting a losing battle over the question of testing members of the public for the coronavirus, but now it appears that the pace of testing will be stepped up shortly to about 5,000 a day. That number is still too low, not only from Bennett’s standpoint, but also according to scientists and officials inside the health care system. The scientists also believe that enlisting Israeli scientific institutions in the effort could quickly make it possible to boost the number of tests for the virus.

Excellence: the major enemy of the very good

Borrowing a military analogy, intelligence is critical. A mass of different kinds of tests would provide a better understanding of what is happening at centers of the outbreak – and make it possible to treat patients much more quickly.

It has looks as if the Health Ministry has wanted to be 100 percent certain about the test results. But in the circumstances under which the virus has been spreading, that seems to be an impossible demand: Excellence is the major enemy of the very good.

In the background, there is growing concern in Israel over what is happening in the Palestinian territories. The West Bank has dozens of coronavirus patients, while in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas-controlled government reported the diagnosis of the coastal enclave’s first two patients.

Israel is concerned that the Palestinians in the West Bank will also create further spread of the virus over the Green Line in Israel proper because the two areas are not sealed off from one another. As for Gaza, the concern is over a humanitarian disaster due to the crowded conditions there and the meager resources that Gaza’s health care system has.

Domestic deadlock

Despite the dramatic dimensions of the coronavirus crisis, Israel’s domestic political duel between Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz has been continuing, even reaching the doorstep of the High Court of Justice on Sunday.

Gantz is in an impossible situation. Having been tapped by President Reuven Rivlin to form a government, he is having difficulty accomplishing the task, but if a fourth round of elections takes place, Netanyahu could well shift the blame to the Kahol Lavan leader – and then prevail at the ballot box. But if Gantz joins a coalition government with Netanyahu, it could be seen as a surrender and lead to the breakup of Kahol Lavan.

There is a logic to the Gantz-Gabi Ashkenazi wing of Kahol Lavan’s joining a government in which Netanyahu and Gantz would hold rotating terms as prime minister, but it’s also difficult to believe that Netanyahu would keep his promises.

It is impossible to divorce the prime minister’s actions in dealing with the corona crisis from his political considerations. Anyone who has watched him up close in security crises – from the Iran issue to Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas and its allies in Gaza – would have discerned a pattern: adherence to the most extreme scenario, stoking fear among the public and an endless flood of statements – all intended to serve an emergency situation that, even if based on reality, also provides political advantages to the prime minister.

The coronavirus outbreak has already provided him with an excuse to postpone the opening of his criminal trial on corruption charges. It could also give Netanyahu a way out of the political trap that only two weeks ago looked like a dead end.

Cooperation between the army's Home Front Command and the Magen David Adom emergency medical service, March 2020.Credit: IDF Spokesman

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