Israel is now entering the third month of the coronavirus crisis. The first case of COVID-19 – the disease caused by the virus – was diagnosed on February 27, in a person who had returned from a trip to Italy. Subsequently, the constantly rising curve, the dramatic declarations and the ever stricter restrictions attested to the fact that the virus was continuing to spread. Along with the cost in human life, there was steep economic damage, leading to a recession and an unprecedented unemployment rate.
But while the country was in the shadow of generalized confinement, the past few weeks have seen a gradual shift to containment. This is due in part to the quick, appropriate measures that the government adopted at the start of the crisis, and also to Israel’s relatively young population, which is less vulnerable to the virus.
The daily figures about the number of sick – which yesterday reached almost 16,000 – are somewhat misleading. In practice, more than half of those who contracted the disease have already recovered, so that the infection rate today resembles what it was at the start of April. The number of patients on ventilators has fallen below 100. This constitutes only about five percent of the country’s capacity, which has increased in recent weeks.
These are reasonable safety margins. The government’s decisions on easing the restrictions reflect these changes, though they were also, and perhaps mainly, the result of pressure from the grassroots. The public is fed up with the restrictions and skeptical about their logic and their consistency, and the ministers are falling in line accordingly. In many cases, small businesses even reopened before the government gave the official go-ahead.
Another factor might also be an attempt at reducing fear. Nearly half of those actively ill with the coronavirus are from Haredi communities or Haredi neighborhoods. Notwithstanding the many speeches about unity that were delivered this week, Israeli society is split and divided between tribes and sub-communities. With the rate of illness from the virus in Tel Aviv at 0.3 percent, it’s unlikely the average resident of the city feels their health is under direct threat.
Typically, the decisions about the easing of the restrictions are also being made in disorderly fashion, without a uniform message to the public, and usually at the last minute. On Sunday, the Education Ministry is planning to resume school for kindergarten through third grade, after a two-month pause. Did the cabinet meet to discuss the plan? What’s the hurry? The discussion will take place Friday, even though the municipalities and the teachers’ organizations say they don’t have a clue about what the reopening will look like. In the meantime, heads of Arab local authorities have announced that they will not reopen the schools in their communities until Ramadan is over at the end of May.
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There is also another question, which will soon come up for public consideration. Given the reasonable assumption that no vaccine or effective medication will be developed this year, and that the virus will not “just disappear one day,” as U.S. President Donald Trump predicted again this week, another extensive outbreak is possible in Israel in the autumn, as the weather cools. In these circumstances the correct solution might be to shorten the summer vacation in all the educational institutions, with the remainder of the break postponed until the Jewish holidays in the fall, amid deployment for another possible lockdown then.
If by the summer, the skies are still closed to airlines and many families are unable to afford day camps or a holiday in Israel, that seems the most reasonable solution. But it’s hard to do that with the education minister serving only temporarily, and the tension between his ministry and the teachers’ organizations disrupting cooperation.
The process of exiting from the lockdown will need to be accompanied by an intensification of testing for the coronavirus. Reports in the past few days have indicated a decrease in the number of tests, because of a decline in requests from the public to be tested: Fewer people are experiencing symptoms and therefore are not seeking to be tested. But the presumption is that the number of asymptomatic people is still large. Accordingly, the Health Ministry could initiate more tests in areas where outbreaks occurred, in hospitals (to isolate staff who have been infected) and in assisted living facilities.
Israel made the right decision when it acquired early on serological tests that show the presence of antibodies in the blood, which make it possible to detect people who were infected and recovered without showing symptoms. The Food and Drug Administration in the United States this week approved the tests, manufactured by Abbott Laboratories.
In contrast, doubts are growing about the measures the state took in March, to use the Shin Bet security service to track coronavirus patients. The subcommittee of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee extended only until next Tuesday the procedure by which the Shin Bet can do this. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to decide on Sunday whether to continue with the surveillance, which was severely criticized by human rights organizations. The representative of the attorney general informed the subcommittee that Netanyahu is considering the revocation of the regulations issued by the government in this regard. The High Court of Justice recently ruled that the government must enshrine the regulations in primary legislation by the Knesset.
The state is defending the Shin Bet monitoring of cellular phone location as an effective means against the spread of the coronavirus, even though only a handful of countries, among them, China, are employing digital surveillance as far-reaching as Israel’s. But Netanyahu is not backing down completely from the rampant increase in such measures, which are rarely employed by democracies.
As part of the plan devised by the Health Ministry this week to reopen malls and open-air markets, customers will be required to install an app on their phones that will monitor their movements in the mall or market. The declared goal is to prevent crowding, but no great imagination is required to calculate the advertising use that the retailers will be able to make of this, not to mention the scale of the invasion of privacy.
Until a few weeks ago, Netanyahu thought it was urgent for him to address the nation almost every evening, to praise his policy and to announce the imposition of new restrictions. That might have been due to something of an anxiety trait in his personality, or perhaps it stemmed from personal needs, in the coalition talks and in the maneuvering to delay his trial. People who work with Netanyahu say he tends to adopt the worst-case scenario in a crisis. He did so again this time, and it’s possible that the constant tension helped him obtain the public’s obedience. That line worked until it was revealed that senior figures, with the prime minister foremost among them, were not obeying the very directives they were laying down for the public.
Of late, Netanyahu has been seen less in public. The most recent appearances of the prime minister and his family occurred in the context of Memorial Day and Independence Day, and were characterized by an astonishing comparison he drew between the coronavirus epidemic and the Holocaust (in which Netanyahu intimated that if he had led the Jewish people in that period, their fate would have been different), by heightened self-congratulation, by blistering reprimands of the European Union (by his son, Yair) and by dubious instructions for making an impossible biscuit cake (his wife’s contribution).
The government’s moves, as well as the identification of the management of the crisis with Netanyahu, drew a severe counterreaction. Thus Prof. Yoram Lass, some of whose claims are not information-based, while others are easily refutable, became something of a folk hero, extreme as befits the period we’re going through. A more sober critical voice is that of a different physician, Prof. Eitan Friedman, from Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. Friedman is an avowed amateur swimmer, so most of his public appearances begin with a (justified) complaint about the sweeping and unnecessary prohibitions imposed on swimmers. And there is also plenty of truth in his other allegations.
In a Facebook post this week he wrote, “We will be obedient only if we understand the logic, if there will be precise timetables [for decisions about easing the restrictions]. We are not new army recruits and we don’t owe you a thing. There is a lack of attention here to details that affect each and every one of us. That arouses considerable suspicion that those who are managing us don’t exactly understand. We are fed up with carrying out irrational orders that have no purpose, that are originating from all kinds of unclear considerations.” Friedman would seem to be a mouthpiece for many here.
When the government examines its achievements in the campaign against the virus, it focuses on one single index: the number who have died. In this case, the low figure is indeed worthy of esteem. As of Thursday, 222 Israelis had died from the coronavirus, or about 1.4 percent of the confirmed sick. That is a significantly lower proportion than in the United States and in the great majority of the countries of Western Europe. In the overall calculation, when the crisis finally ends, it will be necessary to take into account other indices as well: The rate of deaths from other illnesses in which treatment was delayed because of the coronavirus panic, the number of confined elderly people who fell into clinical depression, the unemployment rate and the long-term growth in the deficit of the state budget.
In the international arena, the pandemic is accelerating the strategic confrontation between the United States and China. In Washington, even on both sides of the dramatic party fault line dictated by the Trump era, Beijing is increasingly being seen as an enemy, not only as a competitor for economic success and hegemony. Two basic facts provide the context for this view.
First, the virus came from China. The regime there was late in reporting it, and also suppressed those who rang alarm bells. Second, the United States is the runaway leader in terms of the mortality rate in the world. On Wednesday, the number of those who have died from the coronavirus there passed the 60,000 mark – more than the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War (who, though, were young), the most piercing American trauma since World War II.
China’s economy is undergoing a marked slowdown because of the coronavirus crisis. Concurrently, anti-Chinese sentiment is becoming more acute in Washington. In March, Congress adopted legislation strengthening support for Taiwan. There are reports that China is stepping up provocative actions against the Americans in the South China Sea, as part of the dispute over freedom of navigation. According to a recent survey by the Pew Institute, 66 percent of Americans now view China negatively, up from 47 percent before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. In Israel, by contrast, a 2019 survey found that two-thirds of the public harbor a positive view of China.
Given the looming economic setback, Israel will need more international transactions. It’s not clear how willing Western companies will be to invest against the backdrop of the world crisis. It stands to reason that China will be less inclined to invest in Israel in the foreseeable future. This question has preoccupied Israeli decision-makers for some years, because of growing American opposition to Chinese investments in sophisticated Israeli industries, particularly in areas that could have strategic implications.
But the pendulum of considerations tilted clearly toward the economic side, even when the government announced last year, in response to American pressure, that a new mechanism was being put in place to supervise large foreign investments (which was aimed at Chinese investments). Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, head of the Institute for National Security Studies’ research program on China, told Haaretz on Thursday that “Israel is playing for time here. In the years ahead it will have greater and greater economic need for China. At the same time, American opposition to those ties, for security reasons, will increase. The coronavirus epidemic is accelerating processes that were taking place in any case, and will confront the decision-makers here with a more acute dilemma.”
Deals and signals
The coronavirus crisis might also provide the impetus for another important shift from Israel’s point of view: progress in a deal with Hamas for the return of the captives and the soldiers missing in action. Last week, Netanyahu convened the ministerial committee on captives and the missing for an update on the developments in the negotiations. Yaron Blum, the coordinator of the efforts, recently spoke with the family of Capt. Hadar Goldin, whose body is being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In the meantime, Arab media continue persistently to report a looming breakthrough in the talks.
The change, it will be recalled, started after five years of stalemate. In the past, Hamas made any transaction conditional on the release of the prisoners of the Shalit deal, referring to a few dozen West Bank Palestinians who were released in the Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011 and rearrested in 2014, in response to the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teens in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. Recently, senior figures in Hamas have spoken of the possibility of a deal in which the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers they are holding and the two civilians in their custody will be returned in exchange for a humanitarian package that will include, in addition to the release of Palestinian prisoners, increased medical aid for Gaza to help fight the coronavirus.
It’s likely that in addition to the Shalit prisoners, the talks are focusing on the group of prisoners that is always the first to be released in deals of this kind: the elderly, women and minors. In the case of the elderly, Israel may have a specific interest in letting them go, because they are more vulnerable in terms of becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus. Cabinet minister Yoav Gallant (Likud) confirmed to the Kan public broadcasting service on Thursday that progress has been made in the indirect talks with Hamas.
The second front that is preoccupying Israel is Syria. The past few weeks have seen a proliferation of reports about Israeli air force attacks there, targeting weapons deliveries, Iranian bases and positions connected with Hezbollah close to the border in the Golan Heights. Additionally, a series of assassination attempts was reported by rebel organizations against officers and officials of the Assad regime in the town of Daraa, in southwestern Syria, where the protest against his regime began in 2011.
The situation, especially in southern Syria, is not stable. Along with other incidents, Israeli activity is apparently signaling to the regime that it would do well to reduce its ties with Iran. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett declared this week that Israel has switched from a strategy of containing the Iranians in Syria to a pro-active move to expel them from the country. The increasing pressure is indirectly related to the pandemic. It rests on the assumption that Iran is more vulnerable, in the light of the impact of the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the outbreak of the coronavirus in the country and the severe economic plight in Iran caused by the intensification of the American sanctions and the plunge in oil prices.