Israel Looks to Open Its Skies for Travel. It’s Playing With Fire

Huge economic interests are involved in the decision, and livelihoods depend on it. But a rushed process could backfire

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A street scene in Jerusalem, August 2020.
A street scene in Jerusalem, August 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

During the coronavirus crisis, the Israeli government has been focusing on positive thinking. The number of daily new cases only sometimes falls below 1,600, the daily number of deaths is in the double-digits and the hospitals are reporting full coronavirus wards.

Still, the newspapers and newscasts are focusing on a completely different matter (when the newscasts aren’t preoccupied with the daily diversionary tactics of the Netanyahu family). The media is focusing on the opening of the skies – on the plan, constantly being postponed, to let Israeli tourists visit a few European countries as the summer wanes.

Even if the plan is finally green-lighted, there’s a good chance it will fail. Israel’s high infection rates, which in part are due to an expanded testing policy, mark it as a “red” country on the coronavirus map. Relative to the size of the population, the numbers in Israel are higher at this stage than in most of Europe. Thus only very few countries, those desperately needing tourists or owing Israel a favor, will agree to open their skies to Israelis.

And even then, there’s a chance the gates will be shut again if it turns out that Israeli tourists have helped spread the virus.

On Thursday, even a country as friendly as Greece agreed to let in just 600 Israelis a week. Vast economic interests in Israel are trying to get the skies open, and many people are dependent on the aviation and tourism industries for a living. But hasty decisions to allow people to depart and return without an obligation to be tested and to self-isolate could turn out a reckless game with fire.

Also remember the other side of the picture. The rise in the daily number of infected (most of whom are young and asymptomatic) has been contained. Nor have the predictions that the government heard last month about a huge spike in the number of ill come to pass. The number rose slowly for a few weeks and peaked in late July.

But basic problems haven’t been resolved. In a large number of ultra-Orthodox and Arab towns, villages and neighborhoods, the virus continues to spread at a worrisome rate. Other segments of society are behaving as if the coronavirus were someone else’s problem.

Israelis don’t excel at long-term self-discipline. Most people are wearing a mask outside, under the threat of being fined. But with the exception of hospitals, it seems Israelis are very liberally interpreting the rules.

Restaurants in city centers are cramming in far more diners than the guidelines permit. And of course, the danger of infection lies in enclosed spaces, not outside.

But because enforcement is being implemented on the streets, the absurd result is that more people are wearing masks where they face no real danger of getting infected. Meanwhile, the wearing of masks and the level of crowding inside depends mainly on the goodwill of any given person.

Female soldiers of the Home Front Command distributing food in Jerusalem ahead of Passover, April 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Hovering above all this is the people’s deep distrust, for which the government has no one to blame but itself. That’s because of its confused policies and the many times senior politicians knowingly violated the guidelines they themselves issued.

The prime minister’s indifference to the health and economic crises is apparent in his failure to craft a consistent long-term policy, and especially in the tremendous amount of time he devotes to vacuous issues: preparations for a fourth election, squabbling with the opposition and with his rivals in the government, a world war against the judiciary and endless complaints about attitudes toward him and his family.

And beyond all that, a huge stumbling block awaits in just two weeks: the opening of the school year on September 1. The reopening of the schools last time around, in mid-May, helped fuel Israel’s worsening infection rates. In comparison to the vigorous discussions about renewing flights, the government is approaching the schools challenge with a flagrant lack of desire.

In recent weeks around the world, a riveting, sometimes emotional discussion has been taking place in the scientific literature about the severity of the pandemic. Studies conducted in several countries attest to the existence of “cross-immunity.”

Some 20 percent to 50 percent of the population has been shown to have encountered less-serious coronaviruses. Scientists and doctors disagree about whether this makes these people completely immune to the current virus or whether they will only become less seriously ill.

Some scientists hypothesize that this condition contributes to the creation of a relatively low “saturation point” for the virus. In their view, in urban areas where the virus has spread to about 20 percent of the population, a kind of herd immunity could soon be achieved in which around 70 percent of the population is resistant to infection by the new coronavirus (those who have already been infected and those benefiting from cross-immunity). So COVID-19 wouldn’t be expected to recur there in the winter.

Opponents of this idea consider it irresponsible conjecture. We’ll know in the months ahead who’s right when we see if the virus strikes hard again in cities already ravaged like New York, London, Stockholm and Madrid.

This debate is less relevant to Israel, where the identified infection rate currently stands at less than 1 percent of the population. It’s possible, of course, that the true number of asymptomatics here is far higher by a factor of five or 10, but that’s still far from 20 percent.

The right way to find out is a comprehensive serological survey. Israel announced in mid-May that it would conduct such a survey and finally launched it at the end of June. It’s now mid-August but the Startup Nation has yet to publish the results. That may be one more reason why world leaders have stopped phoning Benjamin Netanyahu to learn from him how to fight the coronavirus.

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