In learned essays in the press, in the TV news studios and even in a classified letter that somehow made its way to media outlets, the hoary slogan is repeated: Let the IDF win. Only the army can defeat the coronavirus, so it must be given full responsibility for dealing with the pandemic in Israel.
That’s certainly the view of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who has stayed in the job for longer than expected due to the breakdown in the Likud-Kahol Lavan coalition talks. The Home Front Command seems less excited by the prospect of leading the campaign. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Aviv Kochavi gave his opinion in the above-mentioned confidential letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bennett, but many in the army believe the letter was only perfunctory. The Israel Defense Forces offered, the offer was noted and the issue was laid at the door of the political leaders, who did not give their assent.
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Two things are clear. One: Were Netanyahu still the defense minister, as he was five months ago, the Defense Ministry would have received much more responsibility, perhaps even through the National Emergency Management Authority, that battered agency whose authority was curtailed some two years ago, with his approval. Two: This won’t happen as long as Bennett is defense minister, due to the rivalry between him and the prime minister.
Not everyone is sure that’s the right way to go. A person who served in several senior defense posts told Haaretz that the demand to put the IDF and the Defense Ministry in charge was inherently flawed. “There are a series of gaps and glitches in managing the coronavirus crisis, but they won’t be fixed with this method. The problems are known: There is a gap in patient information and monitoring due to the Health Ministry’s misconception and impaired capabilities that led to a delay in increasing testing.
"The pandemic is seen as a health matter rather than as a national security issue, and it is addressed accordingly, without a policy that balances the various considerations. And the entire event runs up against a defective management system. It’s very different from a state of war, in which the security cabinet knows how to work in a relatively organized manner with the defense establishment and its subordinate organizations,” he said.
“In the current crisis, something different is happening. There’s no entity that knows how to work the way the IDF does in a war: analysis, planning, issuing orders, supervision and control, evaluation and learning lessons. The army has protocols for risk management, it has scenarios and alternatives, strategic implications. It’s a whole theory, which is also rehearsed. In this health crisis, the likes of which we’ve never experienced, confusion was created – and more than a few charlatans stepped into this vacuum.
“But we cannot view this story as solely a health crisis,” he continued. “That’s a mistake: The implications of the coronavirus threaten our national security, in the broad sense. The virus affects the economy, foreign relations and the security situation, our core values.”
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The solution, he said, does not lie in assigning the task to the IDF. “The army has advantages in purchasing, in logistics, in command and control, in managing large numbers of personnel. It has to be ready to assume responsibility for the entire crisis if the situation deteriorates into a disaster. We’re not there. The IDF has practiced assuming responsibility in two situations: a special situation on the home front, such as a war that includes widespread rocket fire, or a natural disaster,” he said.
“In 2017 the IDF practiced a scenario called Summer Cage, involving an earthquake in which 200,000 buildings are destroyed, 7,000 people die, around 100,000 are injured and around 300,000 become displaced. The coronavirus crisis is far from such a catastrophe. Up to now we’ve suffered slightly over 100 fatalities and a few hundred patients in moderate or serious condition. That’s barely one or two percent of the scenario we rehearsed.
“There’s an extreme scenario in which we reach such a situation in around two months due to the spread of the virus. Delegating authority to the IDF at present would be a radical response to a not-so-bad reality. There’s hysteria here that grew out of a dysfunctional arrangement among the entities, insufficient preparedness despite the clear warning that the coronavirus outbreak in China in January gave to us, and the Health Ministry’s catastrophic scenarios. I’m not minimizing the dimensions of the crisis, but the IDF does not have the solution to it. I suggest that everyone just drink some water,” he said, recalling the advice often given during the 1991 Gulf War. “The actual worst-case scenario hasn’t yet happened.
“The basic problem is that the National Security Council isn’t built to manage this crisis and the Health Ministry is only fit to manage the professional side. The NSC, in its current makeup, is not an operational body. In a war, the IDF follows a defined protocol. The chief of staff goes to the afternoon situational assessment and knows the critical decisions he must take. Here, the prime minister goes into decisions on approving a flight from New York for landing and the lockdown policy in the streets of Bnei Brak, instead of focusing on setting a comprehensive policy. The problem is that when reasonable decisions are finally taken, that’s when the political pressure campaign starts and causes the prime minister to back down on some of them.
“A few of the cabinet members simply left the scene. The Finance Ministry has no real power when facing the Health Ministry. The correct solution is to significantly increase the NSC’s muscle and turn it into an operational body, a national crisis management center. The army must make its capabilities available to it, not take over its areas of authority.
“Israelis are disciplined and resourceful. Over a month ago, when the prime minister explained about social distancing and the need for older people to stay at home, people obeyed. It’s not by chance that we’ve had fewer fatalities than European countries that at first didn’t take the virus seriously enough. We have people whom you can work with, it just has to be much better organized.”
Solutions from academia
The impressive contribution of the scientific and technology communities against the pandemic stand in contrast to the government ministries’ difficulties in forming policy. The number of daily coronavirus tests remain an Achilles heel, but not through any fault of the scientists. The problem is one of resupply (of some of the materials), logistics (chaos in managing the testing process) and regulation (the Health Ministry’s slow response).
On Sunday Hebrew University announced a breakthrough by a research team led by Prof. Nir Friedman, Dr. Naomi Haviv, Prof. Dana Wolf (Hadassah Medical Center) and Prof. Yuval Dor. They say their method of testing for the coronavirus is not only cheaper and faster but will also reduce Israel’s dependence on foreign companies. Some 20,000 tests have been done at the university and at Hadassah. The new method is expected to allow 15,000 people to be tested simultaneously.
Prof. Dina Ben-Yehuda, dean of Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Medicine, told Haaretz she believed “the solutions for dealing with the virus will come from academia: Tests, vaccine, drugs. A lovely global process is taking place in which universities cooperate with each other, in Israel and abroad. Israel is a tremendous scientific force, enormous, and its mobilization to fight the virus is very impressive.”
The tests were approved by the Health Ministry, but moving from that to carrying out random-sample tests that would permit wider tracking in the community, including of people without COVID-19 symptoms, is going very slowly.
Random testing of around 1,500 residents of Bnei Brak was set for Sunday, with the help of the Weizmann Institute of Science and, later, also Hadassah-Hebrew University. It was postponed at the last minute, on Saturday evening. The reason: A dispute between the Health Ministry and the Weizmann Institute over the testing methods. (Some were to use an alternative method.) In a response, the Health Ministry said the modus operandi for the survey was not yet agreed, “but it’s important to us that it be carried out.”