Analysis |

Coronavirus Made This Official the Most Powerful Man in Israel. Will He Now Join Netanyahu?

The coronavirus crisis gave Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman Tov unprecedented power. It’s difficult to assess exactly how many people’s lives were saved thanks to the steps he took, despite great criticism

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman Tov at a press conference during the coronavirus crisis.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman Tov at a press conference during the coronavirus crisis.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

In 2015 Moshe Bar Siman Tov faced down a Medical Association challenge to his appointment as director general of the Health Ministry. Five years later, he is stepping down after a tenure now defined by the coronavirus crisis of the past few months.

The complaint then was that he was not a physician, and the ministry had never had someone without a medical degree in that post.

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Bar Siman Tov, also a former deputy budget department head at the Finance Ministry, had abruptly ended a sojourn with his family as an envoy in Washington to take up an offer by Yaakov Litzman, then deputy health minister, to run his ministry.

The High Court petition against his appointment was defeated outright though with a cautionary note from the justices. Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, (who has since retired), called Bar Siman Tov’s appointment an “experiment” and hoped it would work.

The cloud of skepticism over his appointment never entirely disappeared. Never would physicians forget not only his lack of medical credentials, but also his onetime role in the budgets department, where he handled their wage hike negotiations that ended in a 2011 deal. But Bar Siman Tov changed sides very swiftly, and his term of office saw many tough struggles, sometimes in the extreme, to obtain more funds for the health system.

Bar Siman Tov steps down toward the end of – or the end of the start of – the coronavirus crisis, with which he will always be identified, more than any other endeavors he has overseen in his 20 years of civil service. He had been on the way out long before the crisis struck. If it hadn’t been for three elections within a year, he may have already been deeply steeped in his next position. But the nation’s worst-ever health crisis erupted in the twilight of his tenure, a piece of a global crisis with huge significance for all facets of life.

Within a short time Litzman simply disappeared from action and became irrelevant, later becoming sick and distancing himself yet more from the fray. For a period of three months Bar Siman Tov ended up being the country’s most powerful figure, alongside the prime minister. He made all the key decisions, from closing the skies to imposing restrictions and lockdowns, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The power he wielded was unprecedented for his stature as not even one of the country’s most senior officials.

Ironically, despite his strong economic past, Bar Siman Tov’s role in the crisis fell radically on the side of putting health above financial considerations, a stand for which he was strongly criticized.

This reality is about to change in the coming days as the new health minister, who will likely bring along his own director-general, steps into his role. Even if the new minister keeps Bar Siman Tov in the role, his status will likely resume the dimensions of a mere director-general. That’s a difficult place to be after handling the entire coronavirus fight, which is why stepping down at this time is a warranted step – although it does carry a certain sting of a general leaving the front lines in the midst of a major campaign.

Bar Siman Tov’s next role is unclear. Though rumor has it that he will be named director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office due to his close ties with Netanyahu, his resignation letter says he is leaving the civil service.

Moshe Bar Siman Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus, March 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

He may need time to recover from the crisis during which he carried on his shoulders the fears, hopes, distress anger, criticism and health of an entire nation; a crisis that transformed him from being a relatively little-known director-general to a household name across Israel, despite the tough investigative pieces written about him and the doctors’ letters against him, and the disparaging quotes from unidentified cabinet ministers carried by newscasts.

Aside from the coronavirus outbreak, he will be remembered as leading the campaign for a law to label unhealthy foods, and for significantly reducing the use of physical restraints in psychiatric facilities, and confronting doctors about their ties with drug companies – but also as someone who cooperated silently with the actions of his superior, Litzman, and who got involved in more than a few feuds with people in his office.

The bottom line is that Israel exited its first wave of coronavirus in excellent condition in terms of cases and mortality, compared to many similar countries. It’s difficult to assess exactly how many people’s lives were saved thanks to the steps Bar Siman Tov took at the start of the crisis, despite the great criticism he has received since. It seems the experiment that the High Court was talking about turned out to be rather successful.

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