Israel Botched Its Handling of the Coronavirus by Dubbing It War, Former Mossad Chief Says

Tamir Pardo tells Haaretz how declaring war on COVID-19 got people believing that the authorities could destroy it quickly. Instead, a disintegration of society is possible

Yossi Melman
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Tamir Pardo. Worried about the leadership problems the coronavirus crisis has exposed.
Tamir Pardo. Worried about the leadership problems the coronavirus crisis has exposed.Credit: Meged Gozani
Yossi Melman

Former Mossad director Tamir Pardo just can’t stand the way the coronavirus pandemic has been presented to the public. The government should have put the economy on a coronavirus footing from the start, and it should have explained that we’ll be living with the virus for at least a year before a vaccine is available, he told Haaretz in an interview.

Pardo is very worried about the impact of the crisis on society, and above all about the leadership problems it has exposed. He doesn’t think retired generals should be managing the crisis, though he does name one he’d be happy to see dive into politics.

“It’s not a war. The way the response to the coronavirus has been characterized isn’t only unnecessary and wrong, it’s also very dangerous. The danger is that an incorrect analogy leads to incorrect decisions,” he says.

“Israel’s government, from the prime minister to the last of the cabinet members, has continually stressed since the outbreak began that we’re at war with this terrible virus. That analogy has trickled down to the Health Ministry and all institutions of government, and from there to the entire Israeli public. The prime minister himself claims that the Knesset is being obstructive and that under these conditions ‘it’s impossible to command.’”

What’s the problem with calling it a war?

“In a war, there is a defined enemy with intentions, capabilities, strategies and varied forces by air, sea, land and cyberspace. The objective of a war is to defeat the enemy, destroy it and force it to wave a white flag, or at least agree to stop the fighting when it has been deterred and won’t try to use force again to achieve its aims.

“A virus is neither a state nor a terrorist organization. It consists of genetic material enclosed in a protein shell and isn’t even considered a living creature. A pandemic isn’t an unconventional weapon that’s deployed by an enemy, just as earthquakes, floods, droughts or hurricanes aren’t an enemy.”

Since retiring from the Mossad in 2016, Pardo has spoken out on current events a number of times, but he always does so cautiously, weighing in on topics rather than individuals, even when he has firm opinions about them. He served in the Mossad for over 30 years, took part in and commanded numerous operations, led a number of different departments and was appointed to lead the organization after Meir Dagan stepped down in 2011.

In his talk with Haaretz, he discussed all aspects of the coronavirus crisis in Israel, and from a perspective that transcends public health.

“The pandemic has implications on three levels: health, economic and societal. The most deadly is the societal. Missteps in this area could lead to a societal disintegration stemming from a total loss of trust in the systems of the state and government.

A man protesting Israel's coronavirus response, Jerusalem, July 21, 2020. The slogan on the sign, which rhymes in Hebrew, says: 'Not right, not left, just an Israeli who wants to eat.'
A man protesting Israel's coronavirus response, Jerusalem, July 21, 2020. The slogan on the sign, which rhymes in Hebrew, says: 'Not right, not left, just an Israeli who wants to eat.'Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“The coronavirus is a pandemic requiring that we contend with a stubborn and deceptive virus over the long term. The very act of declaring war on it gets the public believing that the authorities have the power to destroy it and that deploying concentrated and effective force in the short term will defeat it.

“Such a claim is sleight of hand, throwing dust in the eyes of the public. It’s dangerous on all three levels. Israelis understand war and they know its rules. The longer it continues, the greater the effect of the economic and societal components, until the public is often willing to settle for less than the total defeat of the enemy in order to return to its daily routine.”

Mission not accomplished

And Israelis always look for shortcuts, quick victories? Get it done and get out?

“A virus has its own rules, certainly when we’re talking about one that was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization already on March 11. So Israel’s government had a duty to explain to the public that until there’s a vaccine or treatment, we’ll have to change our way of life for an unknown period of time.”

And the government didn’t do that?

“In the absence of an understanding of the implications of labeling the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, the government created the illusion that flattening the curve would achieve the goal needed to handle the virus. To reach it, the public was required to enter a lockdown during which a very large part of the economy was shut down. This got around a million people unemployed.

“The government had a duty to understand the economic and societal implications of these decisions and give the economic and societal solutions the same priority. When the curve was flattened, the government celebrated it as a victory, misleading the public as if the ‘war’ had ended. It was a shortsighted way of looking at things that indicated a fundamental and unjustified misunderstanding.”

Ex-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, left, and former National Security Adviser Giora Eiland speaking in Herzliya, February 25, 2020.
Ex-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, left, and former National Security Adviser Giora Eiland speaking in Herzliya, February 25, 2020.Credit: Gilad Kavalerchik

What should the government have done?

“It should have put the economy on a coronavirus footing from the start and at the same time explained to the public that there are no magic cures, that we’ll be forced to live with the pandemic for at least a year before a vaccine is available. The Israeli public is obedient when there is total trust and an understanding of why various measures are being taken. Even situations of great uncertainty require complete transparency and decisions that are logical and doable.

“Here are a few examples of things that were handled badly:

“1. The instruction to stop wearing face masks in school during a week with unusually high temperatures [outdoors]. From that moment, the public understood that masks are important but comfort is more important. It would have been better to close the schools or return to the ‘learning capsules’ model.

“2. The promise to reach 30,000 virus tests a day within days. Today, four months later, we’re nearing that capability on the technical level, but not the speed of delivering test results to the people who were tested.

“3. The absence of personal example, when the country’s leaders and other public figures violate the very directives they’re imposing on the public.

“4. The promise that every person can fill out a simple online form and receive money from the state within 48 hours.

“All these and many other examples led the public to lose trust in the decision-makers.”

Eisenkot the answer?

The previous military chief, Gadi Eisenkot, was on the short list of candidates for the job of coronavirus czar. Now there are calls in the media and from the public for him to enter politics. Do you know him well?

“Yes, I do know him well. I think Gadi is a person with rare capabilities, and in his integrity and values. An entry into politics is about more than these capabilities. There are additional questions. Does he have the fire in his belly to enter this field that’s so different from the place he came from?

“If so, then go for it. On the political playing field there’s a whole complex of capabilities that don’t come naturally to people in the defense establishment. There are completely different rules of conduct and a different language. You have to understand the language and you have to want it very much.

“When a political leader says that every morning the thought ‘What do I need this for?’ goes through his head, even for a second, it means politics doesn’t flow through his veins. On the other hand, Israel needs people like Gadi. We need a courageous, decent leader, capable and principled, and that’s Gadi. Regarding political skills and above all the willingness to pay the personal price – I don’t know. If he does, I’d be very, very happy.”

The situation isn’t particularly joyous.

“Israel is in a bad way. Anyone watching what’s going on here sees a country in crisis. When no one knows how to deal with the economy and public health, the government is sputtering and has completely lost the public’s trust, we’re in trouble. Everyone sees that, we and our rivals. We’re seen as a country that’s showing weakness and radiating weakness. That has nothing to do with military power. We see ourselves as weak, even though we aren’t.”

Vis-à-vis Hezbollah this week, for example?

“It must be understood that a war with Hezbollah isn’t a war of army against army but mainly their war against our home front. And our home front is weak today.”

Let’s return to the coronavirus. The government tried, at least until the appointment of Ronni Gamzu as coronavirus czar last week, to put high-ranking defense officials in key positions in the fight against the pandemic.

“There’s no need for generals and senior commanders to manage the crisis. What are needed are administrators who can plan, manage and execute in situations of uncertainty. The government must assign the tasks while clearly defining the goals and give them the authority and responsibility to draw up alternatives, submit them for approval and carry them out.

“The cabinet isn’t a planning body. When the cabinet begins to do the work of administrators, this leads to a lack of planning, execution and supervision. The result is a failure to manage the crisis and the loss of public trust. Remember, it only takes a moment to lose trust but many years to win it.”

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