For Netanyahu, Most Urgent Coronavirus Measure Is Resuming Shin Bet Tracking

There seems to be no chance of a commission of inquiry being appointed into Israel’s failures in handling the coronavirus pandemic. But senior politicians don’t like taking unnecessary chances, and they take no prisoners

Amos Harel
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Benny Gantz (L) and Benjamin Netanyahu at a government meeting, Jerusalem, June 7, 2020.
Benny Gantz (L) and Benjamin Netanyahu at a government meeting, Jerusalem, June 7, 2020.Credit: Mark Israel Sallem
Amos Harel

The authors of the most comprehensive guidebook to government bureaucracy – I’m referring, of course, to the creators of the British TV series “Yes Minister” – sharply and clearly described, 40 years ago, the problem faced on Monday by Israel’s coronavirus cabinet. In one episode, two senior clerks are deliberating on what advice to give the prime minister at the height of some crisis. They choose “the standard Foreign Office response.”

This response is divided into four stages. “First we say that nothing will happen. Then we say something might happen but that we don’t have to do anything about it. In the third stage, we say that perhaps something should be done about it, but there is nothing we can do. Finally, we say that there may have been something we could have done, but it’s now too late.”

With a few cultural adjustments, Sir Humphrey would fit easily into discussions of Israel’s response to the new spread of the coronavirus. After celebrating its success during the first round against the virus, Israel’s leadership grew tired of dealing with the crisis. Meanwhile, the coronavirus quietly started spreading again, affecting numerous locations. The almost continuous (though so far not exponential) rise in the number of people identified as infected with the virus is reflected in a spike in the number of people moderately or seriously ill with COVID-19.

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The vacuum left by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers, who have almost completely stopped discussing this matter, has been filled by corona deniers and doubters. The high numbers of people infected with the virus, as reported by the Health Ministry, are received with suspicion. It’s much easier to believe this is a hoax inflated by the government for its own purposes than to insist on wearing a mask when it’s 30 degrees Celsius outside.

Since imposing a complete lockdown again would devastate the economy and might be met with widespread public resistance, the government will now choose to take steps it did not prepare for earlier. This includes upgrading the system designed to break the chain of infection and removing new obstacles to testing that have arisen following an increase in the daily number of tests. On Monday, the cabinet approved raising the fine for not wearing a mask and decided to increase enforcement on businesses. Later, opening indoor venues to large crowds may be reevaluated.

But for Netanyahu, the most urgent issue seems to be resuming cell phone tracking by the Shin Bet security service. The coronavirus cabinet discussed legislation to authorize this on Monday, after several ministers prepared the ground by making statements to the media.

Another step was also taken, though it’s not clear by whom. Channel 12 television had a highly unusual news report on Sunday featuring a recording of statements made by Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman at the cabinet’s previous meeting.

Argaman can be heard explaining to the ministers why it’s better to reduce his agency’s involvement in fighting the virus. The tape’s publication, by reporter Amit Segal, is an important public service that gives Israelis vital information.

It is also unprecedented. We’re used to quotes and leaks from cabinet meetings, but in this case, one of the people present at a closed meeting actually recorded the discussion held there.

One can only imagine what this report has done to the motivation of other senior officials, from the chief of staff to the director of public health services, to talk to the ministers openly. If they hadn’t understood it before, it’s now clear to them that people will be waiting in the corner for their every slip, real or imaginary.

Israelis on a newly functioning train, on June 22, 2020.
Israelis on a newly functioning train, on June 22, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

At the moment, there seems to be no chance of a commission of inquiry being appointed into Israel’s failures in handling the coronavirus. But senior politicians don’t like taking unnecessary chances, and they take no prisoners. All means – recordings, creating fake scandals, diverting the media debate – are kosher to set the direction of the public discussion.

Netanyahu expressed shock at the recording’s leak on Monday and demanded that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit launch an investigation. It’s interesting that in this case, the prime minister trusts an official he has sought consistently to fire. It will also be interesting to see whether this time, unlike with the leak of an army presentation to the cabinet during the 2014 Gaza war, the people responsible will be found.

'The train has already left the station'

A tool the coronavirus cabinet seems to lack is one that would enable a better assessment of the efficacy of previous steps against the virus, and thereby help them make their upcoming decisions. A panel of independent experts calling itself the Civilian Cabinet, together with researchers from the Technion’s math department, recently developed a “coronavirus simulator” that could help overcome this lack.

Members of the Civilian Cabinet said the latest data on the rise in incidence of the illness paints a worrying picture. It’s possible that “the coronavirus train has already left the station,” one said.

At this point, they warned, it’s already difficult to expect that locating and isolating patients will stop the spread. Thus, even if the Health Ministry solves its contact tracing and testing problems, other steps will be needed.

The Civilian Cabinet argued that alongside quarantining patients, it’s essential to increase public cooperation and reduce contact throughout the economy, meaning fewer crowds and more working from home. Despite the risk of mathematical models producing erroneous forecasts, they added, it makes sense to use such simulations to manage risks – not to predict how many people will die, but to compare alternatives and develop a plan of action.

They rightly highlighted a basic weakness in any forecast: Uncertainty over how many asymptomatic carriers there are who have never been tested or identified, but could still infect others.

A panel of experts advising the National Security Council estimated that about one-fourth of patients are asymptomatic; if so, around 0.3 percent of Israelis have so far contracted the virus. But a serological study of blood tests by researchers at Tel Aviv University (admittedly based on a small sample) put that figure at around 2 percent.

The greater the number of unidentified patients, the less effective any system of contact tracing will be. If it turns out that only one out of seven patients has been identified (because most are asymptomatic and have never been tested), then quarantining that one won’t stop the virus from spreading.

Under these circumstances, only a high rate of public compliance with the regulations could decrease the number of infections. In the expert panel’s view, even a 10 percent improvement in compliance would have the same impact as keeping the most vulnerable population group, people aged 70 or older, at home for the duration of the crisis.

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