Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on April 1 he had ordered all travellers landing in Israel to be sent to quarantine in designated sites. The announcement came only a few days after the Defense Ministry and the National Security Council published a message to the effect that all citizens returning from abroad must enter home quarantine for 14 days – and only those returning from the United States, Italy, France or Spain would be sent to quarantine in a designated hotel.
We can be skeptical about any announcement made on the date known as April Fool’s Day, but still, Israeli citizens were surprised to discover that even in the past week flights from New York continued to land in Israel, and some of the passengers were sent to unsupervised home quarantine. The regulations that were publicized by the government simply did not accord with Netanyahu’s declarations in the media.
On Saturday night, a new message was publicized by the Prime Minister’s Office, to the effect that “Netanyahu has turned to Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and it was decided to discontinue flights from the United States and other commercial flights until there is a cabinet meeting, at which it will be decided that anyone returning from abroad will enter quarantine in designated hotels under the responsibility of the Defense Ministry.”
On Sunday, the government approved an order in which every Israeli returning from abroad will be transferred to one of the hotels dedicated to the coronavirus quarantines. The legal reason for the delay is surprising, since those flying to Israel are supposed to sign, already in their country of origin, a document in which they declare that they agree to be tested and to be taken to a designated hotel upon their arrival in Israel.
Concealed behind the policy regarding flights landing in Israel is a political issue. The fear of coronavirus patients who arrive at Ben-Gurion International Airport can be focused on a single problematic country in terms of health − the United States. The number of flights arriving from the U.S. to Israel nowadays is greater than from any other country, and America has been receiving special treatment in terms of Israel’s border policy since the start of the crisis.
At a time when the number of those infected by the virus in the United States, Israel’s great friend, is approaching half a million, and the number of dead is over 16,000 – Israel is still not interested in singling out the United States as a center of the coronavirus outbreak from which we should sever ourselves. Such a move would be a direct blow to U.S. President Donald Trump – “my good friend,” as Netanyahu calls him – and would be tantamount to a declaration of Trump’s failure to deal with the virus.
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At a time when the president is involved in an election campaign and Netanyahu is busy drawing up the coalition agreement with Kahol Lavan, combined with the plan to impose Israeli sovereignty on Judea and Samaria based on Trump’s “deal of the century,” the Likud leader cannot permit himself to take such a step.
If that’s not enough, the United States has the highest rate of ultra-Orthodox Jews coming to Israel at this time of year, and they know how to pressure the leaders of Israel’s Haredi parties. Finally, it’s important to mention the deep pockets of some of those Jews, who are likely to be harmed if Netanyahu implements such a decision. In other words, can anyone imagine billionaire Sheldon Adelson arriving in Israel and being sent to a designated quarantine hotel?
The hammer or the tweezers
Behind Netanyahu’s declaration about quarantining all those returning to Israel are also differences of opinion between him and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett. Bennett believes that due to the high cost of quarantining all those returning from abroad in hotels – only those arriving from the four countries with a high risk of infection from the coronavirus should be quarantined in that manner. Such a step would could also solve, at least to some degree, the problem of the personal insult to the United States.
It is not only on this issue that Bennett continues to constitute an opposition within the government to the way in which the crisis is being managed. On Friday he once again attacked the government’s testing policy, when he announced that “the delay in establishing a testing system has necessitated a sweeping policy of general lockdowns that is causing tremendous damage to Israel’s economy and to the livelihood of millions of employees and business owners in the private sector.”
Bennett once again demanded that overall responsibility for the testing system be transferred immediately to the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry, because “without that we won’t be able to release Israel from the sweeping economic lockdown, which is ruinous for Israel’s future, without risking a renewed increase in the pandemic.” The Health Ministry does not particularly believe in the importance of the tests (which they call a “golden calf”) and as a body that is basically regulatory, it is not built for the swift institution of an efficient system of tests in a time of emergency.
“The situation at present is: too few tests, slow implementation – people wait for days until someone comes to [test] them, they receive results after five to six days, and test results are lost,” says Bennett. “Without many, fast and accurate tests, we will be forced to continue with the ‘hammer’ approach, which requires a sweeping lockdown on all of Israel’s citizens, instead of ‘tweezers’ that would enable us to open Israel’s economy along with localized quarantine of coronavirus carriers or a lockdown of specific centers of the virus. The Health Ministry is stuck in an ideology that doesn’t believe in the central importance of the tests as a tool for exiting the crisis.
“For that reason,” continues Bennett, “and due to serious problems in implementation and a surplus of bureaucracy, the process of increasing the [number of ] tests will take too long if it remains in the hands of the Health Ministry. The sweeping lockdown of Israel, which was entirely correct in the early days, cannot continue to be the main tool over time, due to its destructive effect on businesses and places of work in Israel. Every day of delay in constructing a testing system is costing us months of rehabilitation. South Korea, Germany and New Zealand are doing it, and are enabling the functioning of the country along with control over the pandemic. That’s the Israeli government’s most urgent task. We mustn’t waste even a single day.”
A loss of 13 billion shekels a week
The Finance Ministry, which is formulating an exit strategy from the crisis, is not dealing at the moment with the testing issue. Its present estimate is that every additional week of lockdown of the economy is causing a loss of 13 billion shekels (over $3.5 billion). The erasure of over 1 percent of Israel’s GDP each week is a frightening figure, but what is even more frightening is the fact that this is not a fixed number.
With every week that passes, the extent of the harm increases. Just as infection by the coronavirus is exponential, so is the economic damage. Many businesses that survived the first four weeks of the lockdown will not survive if it continues. The transition of many business from freezing the present situation by sending employees home on unpaid vacation to beginning a process of declaring bankruptcy will lead to a sharp increase in the scope of the weekly economic damage.
The considerations on which the Finance Ministry is basing its exit strategy at present relate to resumption of the activity of industries based on their level of productivity, their number of employees and the danger to workers’ health. Resumption of industries based on their productivity is likely to reward the strong workers in the economy and to lead to a situation in which those working in high-tech and technology, whose every work hour significantly increases GDP, will return to work before simple industry workers. Taking into account the number of employees in each business is supposed to compensate for that.
Another consideration must take into account the ability of businesses to recover from the crisis. There are industries for which a failure to resume activity would be a death sentence, while other industries can survive for a longer period of time.
Bennett believes that Israel’s exit strategy from the present crisis requires an increased number of tests. According to that approach, only tens of thousands of tests a day would make it possible to restore the economy to a routine based on tests: A citizen who is tested and found healthy would be allowed to go to work. A city whose tests prove that it is clean would also be able to return to regular commercial activity. As mentioned, the Treasury, which is dealing with the exit strategy, is not dealing at present with the issue of tests.