Coronavirus Lockdown Testifies to Netanyahu's Failure, and Could Last Much Longer

Unlike the first wave, the Israeli public isn't on board, and a growing infection rate overshadows the prime minister's latest diplomatic wins

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An aerial view shows Israel's empty roads during the lockdown imposed ahead of Passover eve, April 8, 2020.
An aerial view shows Israel's empty roads during the lockdown imposed ahead of Passover eve, April 8, 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Sometimes one should start with the obvious: The apparent decision to impose a general lockdown in the country for a few weeks around Rosh Hashanah reflects a serious management and leadership failure of the government and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel came out of the first wave of the coronavirus with quite a reasonable outcome in terms of health, but having paid a high social and economic price due to the lockdown. Then it quickly declared victory – “go out and celebrate,” the prime minister urged – without strict planning and enforcement when it came to an exit strategy. Now, with the number of confirmed new virus cases between 3,000 and 4,000 a day, it is ahead of most Western countries in leaping toward a second nationwide lockdown, which might not be its last.

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This is, first and foremost, the fault of the government. The failure in the fight against the coronavirus has become entwined with a severe political and constitutional crisis, the outcome of which is a widespread lack of faith in Netanyahu among large sections of the public. Deep political suspicion is also contributing to a lack of solidarity among various communities in Israeli society; it has led to prolonged disregard of regulations by a good many Israelis. The rise in confirmed infections (most of which are asymptomatic and among young people) is a direct manifestation of this, even if it is somewhat connected to the increasing rate of daily testing.

The leaks from the coronavirus cabinet meeting on Thursday described the lockdown as inevitable, with almost complete consensus among the participants. This is indeed the position of Netanyahu and the Health Ministry, joined, somewhat reservedly, by the coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu. This position is largely based on four hospital directors’ warnings to the coronavirus cabinet that the health care system might collapse if the number of patients continues to rise. With a lag of a week to 10 days, an increase of seriously ill patients could bring hospitals closer to the saturation threshold – about 800 such patients throughout the country.

Some of the ministers even argued that Gamzu’s “traffic light” plan, which called for different measures in different communities depending on the numbers of infected people, had failed. But in fact, Gamzu’s proposal was never given a chance and never implemented. The plan was diluted and was ultimately not put into place because of an abundance of political objections.

Benjamin Netanyahu visits a military base in Ramle, with Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) on September 7, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

No one doubts that the burden on hospitals is growing and the medical teams are worn out by work under particularly challenging conditions. It is also clear to all that the Health Ministry began the fight against the virus from a weak position, due to underfunding and a lack of correlation between hospital sufficiency and population growth. Hospital directors issue heartrending cries even during a severe flu season.

But the major burden currently seen in some hospitals is in the north (where there were many infections in the Arab communities) more than in the center. And not all senior physicians agree that a full lockdown is the right way to save hospitals from becoming overburdened.

Moreover, there’s not much truth in talks of a closure for only two weeks – the preparations are for at least a three-week lockdown. After that, as opposed to the gallop toward unrestricted reopening we saw in the first wave, what is planned is a slow, closely monitored reopening: a limited easement restrictions, a two-week wait for results and then either increased easement of restrictions or a return to lockdown.

This is all being done while preparations are underway for a system that aims to break the chain of infection. The army is discussing a target date in early November. But Netanyahu has already scolded the Home Front Command during the last few meetings and in fact, there is a quite good chance that the apparatus will begin to be effective only much later. The bottom line is that the lockdown is going to be much longer than the ministers are discussing in the coronavirus cabinet. It seems that the economy is headed for a few months of slowed activity.

Because frustration is growing among the public, and with it, suspicion of the motives and functioning of the government, we can expect real difficulties in enforcement. As ultra-Orthodox opposition to a lockdown in “red” cities showed last week, this time we won’t see widespread public cooperation in the fight against the virus. We might even see a refusal to cooperate – from the ultra-Orthodox to small business owners – certainly when state compensation is partial and difficult to obtain. We can only hope that in this round, the state will refrain from all kinds of foolishness such as banning people from going more than 500 meters from home or chasing after joggers.

Netanyahu, the 2020 version

A policeman speaks to a driver ahead of a nighttime lockdown in a Jerusalem neighborhood, September 9, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The spread of the coronavirus is casting a long shadow over Netanyahu’s diplomatic achievement – the signing of a peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, which has now been joined by Bahrain. Even if complicated considerations by autocratic regimes lie behind the agreements, as well as U.S. President Donald Trump’s undisguised aspiration to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Israel is clearly profiting diplomatically – in dealing with Iran and in undermining a Palestinian veto on Israel’s improved ties with the Sunni countries.

But Netanyahu somehow managed to complicate things as usual. First, he insisted on flying to the signing ceremony in Washington at the height of the second wave of the coronavirus. Then came his decision to not only bring his family along for the ride but to have them fly to the United States in a private plane, out of fear that rubbing elbows with ordinary folk would endanger him and his wife.

Only after a report on Channel 13 and withering public and media criticism was Netanyahu forced to do what should have certainly already been clear to an experienced politician like him: give up on the private plane. His bureau issued an unsurprising statement to the effect that he decided against the private plane “so as not to allow the media to divert public attention from the historic peace accord with the UAE, and potentially with other Arab nations.”

The whole affair reflects Netanyahu, the 2020 version, in a nutshell: surprising and sophisticated diplomatic moves around the world; extreme and problematic compartmentalization (the negotiations were concealed from the Kahol Lavan ministers and so far, the agreement has not been brought before the inner cabinet or the government); and together with this, utter disregard for the distress of the public and the anger sparked by his ostentatious and wasteful actions. One would think he had learned his lesson after the fiasco that followed his attempt to charge his pool in Caesarea to the public purse less than two months ago.

Another crisis around the corner

Meanwhile, tangentially, and perhaps not so tangentially: The great coronavirus pandemic, which almost stopped the world in its tracks, is turning out to be more minor in term of its impact on health than other pandemics in the past. Except for a few instances that happened over short periods in a few countries, the bodies of the dead are not piling up in the streets; children are barely harmed as a result of the disease and morbidity among them is minuscule.

But in many ways, COVID-19 is merely a prologue to a worldwide global warming crisis, which could be much greater and more dangerous. The recent pictures from the West Coast of the United States tells part of the story. California and Oregon are experiencing a huge wave of fires, paralyzing life there for a week now, even more so than the coronavirus.

Over time, the results of the climate crisis might be comprehensive and immeasurably greater than anything we have seen as a result of the virus thus far. And what is shared by many administrations that failed in the fight against the pandemic, like that of Trump in the U.S. and Bolsonaro in Brazil, is their widespread disregard for the early signs of the accumulated implications of the climate crisis.

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