In Netanyahu’s Coronavirus Israel, Rule of Law Succumbs to Looking Out for No. 1

The rush to get a COVID-19 vaccine, no matter what, is the natural outgrowth of broken policies

Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
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Netanyahu receives the second dose of Pfizer's COVID vaccine, January 9, 2020
Netanyahu receives the second dose of Pfizer's COVID vaccine, January 9, 2020Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz

A friend of mine called me Saturday morning and asked, “Do you know where I can get vaccinated without any problems? All my friends have already been vaccinated and I’m still waiting.”

She wasn’t the first one to ask me that question in recent days, but this time I was surprised because it came from a young perfectly healthy young woman imbued with values, who has turned down job offers from leading law firms to work at a non-profit for half the salary.

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“What about all the people who are over 60 years old and haven’t gotten inoculated?” I asked and added just to smooth over the criticism: “They say that Pfizer will be delivering enough vaccines soon.”

My friend wasn’t assuaged and said she didn’t believe what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Health Minister Yuli Edelstein promised. Anyhow, she has elderly parents with health problems and she needs to be inoculated for their sake and hers. “All these young people and people with connections have been inoculated, so why do I have to be the only sucker who isn’t,” she said.

It’s then that I understood: For years she had watched as the country has come under the control of the well-connected, the fixers, the lobbyists and the corrupt who only take care of themselves and their friends. The events of the last few months were too much for her as it was for many other Israelis, including business owners, who until now regarded themselves as ethical, law-abiding citizens.

True, we have witnessed corruption and the decay of institutions before, but the coronavirus has created disease and death. They feel there’s no one there to save them and at the end of the day they have to take care of themselves. If they have to take from others, work off the books or cheat, so be it. It’s the people’s version of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The scams and rule-breaking can be seen everywhere. A trip down a Tel Aviv street over the weekend found cafes offering on-the-spot takeaway and fashion boutiques that operate as if they’re dealing in drugs.

Israelis wait in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Tel Aviv, December 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

On the spot ‘delivery’

This is how it works at one cafe on Yehuda Hamaccabi Street: Customers come to an outdoor counter where telephones are placed to order “deliveries.” They place a call to a worker standing two meters away and order from what they see on display. Of course, the setup violates the regulations but the customers and the cafe owner are both happy with the solution. The system of “short-distance deliveries” is being used so widely that it has even gotten an acronym (shmak, for shaliach mirchak k’tzar).

Some will say that these business owners are being irresponsible or are endangering the public’s health, but the truth is it’s hard to blame them. The experts advising the coronavirus czar determined that takeaway orders are not dangerous, but the cabinet decided otherwise because it feared that it wouldn’t be able to prevent crowds from gathering if it were permitted.

In other words, the inability of the government to enforce its own regulations – mainly when it comes to the Haredim and Israeli Arabs – left it imposing collective punishment on all businesses, and not for the first time. In several instances, the mediocre administrative abilities of the state have resulted in sweeping bans on entire sectors of the economy.

Solutions that would have left much less damage could have been found, if the government was really interested in creative solutions. For instance, outdoor restaurant seating, sidewalk store counters and classrooms in open areas all could have contained the economic damage of COVID restrictions and encouraged business owners and the public to adhere to the rules. Instead, they went underground.

People standing in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, December 4, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

Small businesses feel the state has let them down. It starts with the exhausting obstacle course that they have to go through under the watchful eyes of the Finance Ministry and Israel Tax Authority to qualify for a grant to cover their costs during the pandemic. It not only takes a long time, but the money that comes is far less than the amounts Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yisrael Katz promised.

Meanwhile, many have slipped through the cracks in the government’s aid programs, such as women who had been on maternity leave the year before the coronavirus or newly formed businesses.

The decision to extend unemployment benefits to June 2021 led many to work off the books while they kept collecting money and has made it difficult for employers to fill job openings. At the same time, the government failed to create a job-retraining framework that would let workers adapt to the new economic realities. At least Google and have offered to help small businesses: At a demonstration on Friday they said they would offer courses on online marketing and website-building, saying “businesses need to rely on themselves.”

The grant the government promised to businesses that bring back employees put on unpaid leave has not reached most of them, and the process for getting a break on municipal taxes bounces around between the finance and economy ministries before it even reaches the relevant local authority.

The rules are replete with hair-pulling contradictions such as the one that requires event halls to pay back deposits on cancelled events but offers the halls no relief from the rents they have to pay over the months that they have been closed down.

The big and powerful have the advantage over the small and weak. Responding to a suit by toy store chains claiming that their business was being “stolen,” the High Court ruled two weeks ago that off-price stores cannot sell toys. But over the weekend the off-price chain Max, which is owned by the powerful Apax private equity fund, was still open for business and selling the toys and apparel that its smaller competitors can’t because they are under lockdown orders.

Even Israel’s successful vaccine drive hasn’t escaped the corruption, as my friend well knows. The Health Ministry and local authorities are using the most valuable currency there is these days – access to the vaccine – to score points and make friends by letting groups of people not yet authorized to do so get inoculated. Rule of law? The government and the man who leads it aren’t interested, so why should they be?

Clalit breaks the rules

When the Clalit health maintenance organization found it was lagging behind rival Maccabi in administering vaccines, it countered by, according to social media postings, inoculating everyone who showed up whatever their age or health status. “Medical Center, Herzliya. Only Clalit, without questions, a minute-long line and you’re vaccinated,” said one post. “Ramle cultural center, all ages quickly and courteously,” said another. Others said the same about Ashdod, Ramat Hasharon, Netanya, Kiryat Ata and Rehovot, to name a few.

Maccabi came under attack for not meeting the challenge. “Clalit members are getting messages for everyone to come and get inoculated. What’s happening with Maccabi?” asked one Maccabi member, triggering angry posts by other Maccabi members who said they would change HMOs. One uploaded a famous scene from the movie “Summer of Aviya,” where Aviya and her mother are waiting for birthday guests who never arrive. The caption says, “I belong to Maccabi.”

No one in today’s Israel wants to be a sucker, even if it means stepping on others’ toes. They see the prime minister, Health Ministry workers and celebrities getting vaccinated and they want to be, too. My friend told me later that she and her husband were vaccinated. “I belong to Clalit – at least they take care of you,” she said and then announced she was preparing food packages for those who have contracted the coronavirus.

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