Despite Centralization and Disorder, Israel Can Mark a Victory Over the Coronavirus

Once the effects of the coronavirus lockdown become clear, preparations for a possible second wave in the fall will start ■ In the meantime, Netanyahu will go back to annexation, Syria and U.S.-China tensions ■ Army chief of staff wants to resume his pre-pandemic plans

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A man shops at TLV Fashion Mall, as malls were reopened as coronavirus restrictions are eased, May 7, 2020
A man shops at TLV Fashion Mall, as malls were reopened as coronavirus restrictions are eased, May 7, 2020 Credit: Moti Milrod
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

What’s ours is ours, as people have been saying lately. This week Israel was entitled to mark a victory – however temporary and partial – over the coronavirus. With the number of people who were confirmed to be infected this week numbering only a few dozen a day, the coronavirus wards in hospitals shutting down and even the hesitant reopening of the education system, there is cause for a certain satisfaction. The reports from Western Europe and the United States are incalculably grimmer, and the comparison with them prompted the New York Times to hail Israel’s policy of “aggressive response” to the virus.

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There are also countries whose situation is far better than ours. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not “uniquely deserving,” as his lawyers incredibly told the High Court of Justice this week. It’s doubtful whether Netanyahu really saved the lives of thousands of Israelis, as a Likud communique claimed. But the policy of lockdown and social distancing, which was introduced in Israel at the recommendation of the health authorities, helped reduce the number of the sick and dead claimed by the epidemic very much.

The control group is already large enough. Countries that took similar measures – and, like Israel, did so at a sufficiently early stage – are succeeding in restraining the incidence of infection. The United States and Britain, which were late in doing so, are still burning. (The Swedish case is exceptional, and the final conclusions there have yet to be drawn.)

In the meantime, countries such as Russia, Turkey and Brazil, which initially presented a false picture that the virus would not affect them, are now beginning to pay the full price. Israel enjoys another salient advantage. Its relatively young population reduces the proportion of citizens who are acutely vulnerable to the coronavirus. A similar phenomenon is discernible in the neighboring Arab states, where the average age of the population is even lower. From the moment that Israel’s elderly population confined themselves to their homes, at the government’s behest, the danger of rampant mortality decreased – a danger that from the outset was lower than in Italy or Spain.

Partitions have been set up at the Western Wall to enable socially distanced prayers, May 6, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Netanyahu came to the crisis with long years of experience, a broad understanding of processes and good instincts. Equally, he was served by a basic pessimism and slight hypochondria, both of which entered into his decision making. At an early stage in the crisis he informed the officials involved that he preferred over-deployment, despite the large budgetary outlays this entails, over under-deployment. Shaul Amsterdamski, from the Kan public broadcaster, this week reported an unbelievable saga of the continued purchase of ventilating machines. The cumulative numbers, costing hundreds of millions of shekels, are already more than what Israel needs, but the procurement continues unabated.

The leader is the sum total of his fears and considerations. A true coronavirus miracle befell Netanyahu, and with perfect timing for him. The virus’ arrival in Israel helped him dismantle Kahol Lavan, coopting half of its MKs to the government under terms of near surrender, and at the same time to defer the start of his trial by two months at least. His nightly press conferences with the director general of the Health Ministry, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, left the country’s citizens anxious and obedient. Under the auspices of the epidemic, the prime minister continued his systematic undercutting of democratic values amid relatively limited civil opposition.

In his management of the crisis, Netanyahu was, as usual, simultaneously centralist and disorderly. All the recommendations to appoint a “coronavirus czar,” an experienced person who would concentrate the handling of the crisis under the prime minister, were rejected. The decisions were made between Bibi and “Barsi” (Bar Siman Tov), with a little help from the national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat. The government served mostly as a nightly debating club, void of any real influence. Much of its time was devoted to facilitating the work of pressure groups: from the strong ones, such as the owners of marketing chains and the heads of the Haredi yeshivas, to esoteric folks like proprietors of falafel stands and laser hair-removal shops.

Netanyahu at the High Court of Justice, where judges voted that Netanyahu be allowed to form a government while indicted, May 7, 2020Credit: Adina Wallman / Knesset Spokesperson's Office

In the background, a mediocre civil service appeared, along with some dysfunctional cabinet ministers. Not surprisingly, a high correlation was evident between ministerial helplessness and over-the-top kowtowing to the leader. Here’s another unsurprising conclusion: Devotion, excellence and displays of heightened responsibility by medical staff, scientists and defense establishment personnel helped Israel get through the crisis safely so far.

Two months of close work with the health system left the Israeli Defense Force officers flabbergasted at the paltry budgets and limited capacity of the medical personnel. The number of staff positions, budgets and freedom of maneuver held by the commander of, for example, Unit 8200 of the Intelligence Corps, or the head of the research branch of Military Intelligence, come from a completely different world compared to what the Health Ministry must cope with. Under the auspices of the crisis, the shifts of hospital residents were cut to 12 hours. Now the intention is to raise them back to 26 hours. Who wants to be examined in the ER by a resident who has worked day and night without sleep? Maybe now public attention will be given to their complaints.

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, before he split from the slate, at a Kahol Lavan faction meeting, Jerusalem, September 12, 2019Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The most difficult part of the crisis still lies ahead, in the long-term economic damage. It will be interesting to follow the fate of Bar Siman Tov, as the central figure identified with the strict lockdown policy, before the government decided to break with him sharply at the end of April. At times, it seems the writers of the satirical television program “A Wonderful Country” have access to Unit 8200’s eavesdropping capabilities. The dialogue between the Netanyahu and Bar Siman Tov characters on the show this week sounded almost real. I, the prime minister, say to the director general, who introduced a lockdown that saved thousands of lives – but your lockdown wrecked the economy.

It’s likely that the need to share the blame for the recession and its damage was a key element in Netanyahu’s decision to hook up with Kahol Lavan and not risk a fourth election. As the economy emerges hesitantly and gradually from the sweeping freeze, the battle against the virus will be fought in the shadow of two target dates. Next week it will become clear what the price – in terms of the number of people infected – of the lifting of the restrictions that has been going on since the end of the intermediate days of Passover is; and in the fall, according to some experts, another lethal round of the coronavirus is liable to strike.

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov at a press conference, Jerusalem, March 11, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Throughout, the prime minister will have one eye on a possible future commission of inquiry. This week, the state comptroller, Matanyahu Englman, in a brief reply to a letter from the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, stated that he is “examining the decisions being made by the government on the subject of the coronavirus,” adding, “The examination is being undertaken for the purpose of conducting a future review and paying heed to the complex period and circumstances in which the decisions are being made by the government.”

If that turns out to be the only investigation, and taking into account the watered-down report Englman turned out this week on a variety of issues, Netanyahu will be able to sleep soundly. With Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi on one flank, and Englman on the other, the only danger looming for him on the horizon is from the Jerusalem District Court.

Touring the region

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to arrive in Israel on Tuesday of next week, on the first diplomatic visit since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Pompeo, who will be exempted from the two-week quarantine imposed on visitors to Israel, is expected to discuss a range of issues with Netanyahu, including the struggle against Iran and the Trump initiative for an Israeli-Palestinian deal. Barak Ravid, who reported the planned visit on Channel 13, thinks that one item on the agenda will also be growing displeasure in Washington at the closer commercial and technological relations between Israel and China.

American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a press briefing, Washington April 22, 2020Credit: Nicholas Kamm / AP

As Haaretz reported a year ago, the U.S. administration is disturbed about the participation of a company under Chinese control in a bid to build a large desalination facility on Palmahim beach, close to an air force base and to the nuclear center at Nahal Sorek. The final decision on the matter is slated to be made at the end of this month. The Israeli defense establishment objected to the participation of the Hong Kong-based Hutchison corporation. Last year, in an interview with Haaretz, a senior Pentagon official also objected to the participation of China’s Huawei company in establishing a fifth-generation technological infrastructure for Israel’s cellular networks. 

The U.S.-Chinese tension, which stems both from economic competition and from Chinese responsibility for the spread of the coronavirus, which originated in the city of Wuhan, is likely to grow more acute in the year ahead. Israel, much against its wishes, will likely be called on to take a clearer stand in the dispute.

Annexation: Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said this week in an interview to the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom that the decision of whether to annex the Gush Etzion settlements south of Jerusalem and also the Jordan Valley is in the government’s hands. Netanyahu is determined to extract from the U.S. president every possible gesture ahead of the November election, regarding which Trump’s situation is looking far from great in the wake of the damage done by the coronavirus. In the talks dealing with the original “deal of the century,” sovereignty was to be applied to about 30 percent of the West Bank. Now, with the Palestinians having rejected the deal out of hand, it’s more likely that the annexation proposals will be reduced to about a third of the planned area. 

According to the agreement with Gantz, Netanyahu is supposed to start discussing the annexation plan in July. The Palestinian Authority is already deploying for political containment moves, while the countries of the European Union are expressing concern at the planned Israeli move. But the main concern of the defense establishment relates to the effect unilateral moves will have on relations with the moderate Arab states. Senior figures in the Gulf states have already warned that normalization efforts will suffer a severe setback if annexation takes place. In Jordan, such a move could exacerbate the instability, amid protests by the Muslim Brotherhood and the country’s Palestinian citizens. Netanyahu has been cautioned that annexation of the Jordan Valley could compel King Abdullah to annul the peace treaty with Israel.

Captives and MIAs: Notwithstanding the extensive reports in the foreign media about Israel-Hamas talks for an exchange of prisoners and bodies in the Gaza Strip, the wind in the negotiating sails seems to have slackened. The incentive for the renewal of the contacts was the fear of Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, that the coronavirus would deal a devastating blow to the Gaza Strip. At the moment, the authorities there appear to be containing the spread of the virus, thanks to their control of the only entry to the Gaza Strip, via the Rafah transit station.

The panic having abated, Hamas is in less of a hurry to strike a deal. When the coronavirus crisis erupted, it looked as though Sinwar would consider lowering the price he is demanding in the release of prisoners held in Israel, in return for immediate stepped-up aid to cope with the virus. Hamas was genuinely fearful that a major outbreak of the virus in the Gaza Strip would pose a threat to its rule. That fear has passed. Old-new constraints are discernible on the Israeli side, too. In the past few days, Yamina party ministers Naftali Bennett and Bezalel Smotrich have declared their opposition to the release of murderers of Israelis as part of a deal.

Syria: On Tuesday of this week, following a report from Syria about another Israeli air force attack, this time on the Scientific Studies and Research Center near Aleppo, a senior Israeli defense figure spoke with correspondents. In the past few months, he said, Israel has considerably ratcheted up the scale of attacks in Syria. Moreover, there are signs that, in the wake of the raids, many of which were aimed at targets of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Iran has started to remove its personnel from Syria.

Celebrations are somewhat premature, it can be cautiously said. It’s clear that the attacks have multiplied and also that Iran is indeed moving forces from western Syria to the east of the country – but there are diverse reasons for this. There is no doubt that the Israeli attacks are a nuisance for the Iranians, but alongside this the regime is having to cope with a vast economic crisis, which is threatening the ongoing investment in Hezbollah and in Shi’ite militias. Iraq is the first priority for Iran. The militias in Iraq have had an unsettled account with the American forces since the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January, an attack that also killed a senior militia figure. The impression is that all the parties involved – the Iranians, the Americans and the militias – are readying for the possibility of renewed escalation there.

Satellite photos released by ImageSat International - ISI, show the results of the attack in Syria on May 4, 2020, attributed to IsraelCredit: ImageSat International – ISI

In Syria itself, another power struggle is underway – between Russia and Iran – over which of them will wield influence on the Assad regime and which will make a killing from the economic contracts to rehabilitate the country after the civil war. Russia, interestingly, has refrained completely from condemning the recent attacks attributed to Israel. And in the background we cannot ignore political considerations in Israel itself. Bennett will soon vacate the Defense Ministry after half a year. When he looks around for a way to leave a legacy after such a short term, it cannot take the form of the battle for the acquisition of swabs for coronavirus testing. That’s one more reason that Syria is returning to the headlines.

Sense of momentum

At the beginning of the week, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi held a two-day strategic workshop with the IDF’s top brass to examine the effects of the coronavirus epidemic on the regional situation and on the army’s plans. When the crisis erupted, this newspaper wrote that its dimensions would force Kochavi to shelve Tnufa (Momentum), his ambitions five-year plan, which was intended to fundamentally alter the IDF’s structure, capabilities and means of combat.

However, the chief of staff seems to have a different view: He is in no hurry to give up his plans. Many structural revisions have already been implemented, even before the government has approved the budget for the plan. Some of the procurement depends on American security assistance, and additional elements may be spread across more years than originally planned.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi at the conference on the IDF and Israeli Society, Herzliya, December 25, 2019Credit: Nimrod Glickman

The army is detecting opportunities in this new situation. Since the crisis began, the readiness of officers in the ground forces to sign up for an additional round of service has doubled. The IDF and the Finance Ministry are discussing the possibility of the army absorbing, for a few months, high-tech personnel who were fired during the crisis. In part, this refers to tasks the IDF carried out for the health system, such as establishing a national information center for the coronavirus and the handling of the testing arrangements. Kochavi can still expect a lengthy period of bargaining with the treasury, with the IDF no longer first in the order of priorities. Still, the workshop makes it clear that he is not abandoning Tnufa.

The way Western armies coped with the coronavirus differs sharply from country to country. This week, the commander of the air force, Maj. Gen. Amikan Norkin, organized a long-distance conference (using a platform equivalent to Zoom) with 15 counterparts from Western countries, including the American air force commander in Europe. The three-hour meeting showed that most of the foreign forces cut down on their activity, a privilege the IDF doesn’t have. Others are occupied, among other tasks, with moving soldiers between various hospitals in “sterile” planes outfitted especially for such missions.

One thing all the air forces have in common is a very small number of infected personnel, even in countries where the epidemic is raging. That’s related to the young age of the personnel (even among the sick, some are asymptomatic) but also to the efforts of the forces to protect their personnel and maintain their capability. Besides flying sick soldiers, the involvement of the Western air forces in the battle against the virus has been minimal. In the Israeli air force, by contrast, about a thousand soldiers are engaged in aid missions of the Home Front Command, in assisted living facilities and in distributing food to civilians.

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