Israel Must Figure Out How Many of Its Citizens Are Stuck Abroad by Monday

With flights now allowed from anywhere in the world, and elections less than 10 days away, Israel faces dilemma between right to vote and curbing new COVID variants

Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf
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Ben-Gurion international airport, last week.
Ben-Gurion international airport, last week.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf

Israel's High Court of Justice demanded on Sunday that the state provide an updated estimate of how many Israelis remain stuck abroad by 4 P.M. on Monday.

At Sunday’s hearing on a petition against the cabinet decision limiting how many Israelis can return each day, the state said that around 1,300 Israelis were still stuck overseas as of last Friday, based on a survey conducted by the Foreign Ministry.

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Government attorney Yonatan Berman said that because the cabinet also restricted the number of overseas cities from which flights to Israel are allowed, the daily number of returnees has actually fallen short of the quota of 3,000 people a day. Consequently, the state has decided to allow flights to Israel from anywhere.

“Is it possible that the view that there will be a collapse without a quota is completely wrong?” Supreme Court President Esther Hayut asked. She was referring to fears that unrestricted entry would allow new coronavirus variants into the country and send cases surging, particularly since most Israelis returning from abroad violate quarantine.

“Supply creates demand,” Berman replied. “There are also petitioners before you who want to leave. More flights mean more people leaving and then more entering. It’s hard to separate the two.”

Nevertheless, the justices were critical of maintaining the quota when there’s an election in less than 10 days, on March 23.

A coronavirus testing station at Ben-Gurion International Airport, last week.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“You could say we’ll raise the quota solely in the period before the election,” Justice Neal Hendel pointed out. “Instead, you’re saying it’s impossible to budge from 3,000, and I don’t understand that. When a person’s right to vote is in the balance ... in this situation, I don’t understand why we have to accept 3,000 instead of flexibility for a limited time.”

Israel allows absentee voting only in rare cases; most people must be physically present in the country to vote.

The Health Ministry’s director of public health services, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, also attended the hearing. She told the court a quota is needed because vaccines work against all virus variants currently known to be present in Israel, but “our fear is of bringing in a variant against which the vaccine isn’t effective and which we don’t know about right now. This is a risk that we as a country don’t want to take after we’ve managed to vaccinate five million people.”

But Justice Isaac Amit sounded unconvinced, saying, “That’s a variant that hasn’t yet been born and we don’t know that it exists or will ever exist.”

Moreover, Hayut said, “If the fear of variants stems from the fact that you can’t enforce quarantine, then you need to look for enforcement solutions, not restrict entry, which is extremely draconian” – especially “a week and a half before the election,” she added.

Ben-Gurion International Airport, last week.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Berman said the government is working to improve enforcement of home quarantine, including by requiring returning travelers to wear electronic monitoring bracelets. A bill authorizing this has passed the first of three required Knesset votes. And once better enforcement is in place, relaxing the quotas will be possible, he added.

When Hendel asked whether any Health Ministry officials oppose the quota, Alroy-Preis said no.

Hayut also criticized the government’s plan to allow flights from more destinations on the grounds that in a brief submitted prior to the hearing, “you wrote ‘soon,’ but this could mean any date.”

Berman responded that the change requires a new cabinet decision, and a draft resolution has already been circulated among government ministries for comment. But the plan is for the new policy to take effect at the start of next week, he said.

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