He’s not happy, of course, but it’s clear MK Ofer Shelah is relishing the challenge of tackling the coronavirus crisis. After more than a year dealing with the muck of Israel’s three election campaigns, the legislator in Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party now heads the special Knesset committee to battle the virus. Still, the panel’s future is unclear given the short lives of many such committees.
Shelah is a leading legislator in Yesh Atid, which has refused to enter a government with Benjamin Netanyahu, unlike the party’s former partners in Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, which is negotiating with the prime minister’s Likud.
What do you think about Netanyahu’s statement that Israel is the safest country in the world regarding the virus?
“Examining the situation only through the prism of the number of people who have died from the coronavirus is incorrect. Not because it isn’t sad that people have died from the virus, but because from the perspective of human lives, and even more, from the perspective of the economic and social significance, this is a crisis with many aspects.
“It’s true that regarding the number of people on ventilators and the number of fatalities, we’re definitely in a good place relative to other countries. I think this has to do with decisions like closing the borders as well as the boundaries drawn within the country, which got us in a good situation in slowing down the illness at the start. But equally it has to do with characteristics of the Israeli population related to genetics and previous illnesses.
“I’m glad we’re in the place where we are, but now there has to be a change in policy and I don’t yet see the parameters of that change. The price the lockdown is exacting from the economy and society is becoming unbearable, and if the existing policy continues, we’re going to pay for that as well in human lives.
“The nearly total cessation of elective and semi-urgent activity at the hospitals will take a toll: This year many more people are liable to die of cancer and heart disease than of the coronavirus, and of course these are just two examples.”
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Shelah lists critical measures for emerging from the lockdown, such as many more tests and much shorter waits for their results. Also, elderly people must remain in isolation, and local lockdowns must be imposed when there's a local outbreak.
“Given all this, by this Sunday there must already be a gradual start to opening the economy, but with strict enforcement of public behavior including the use of masks and gloves and maintaining distance. In short, a whole fabric of life surrounding the coronavirus.”
According to Shelah, the main failure in handling the crisis, surprisingly or not, lies in the management dictated by Netanyahu. “The managing of this crisis has been improper because it’s concentrated in a very narrow system surrounding the prime minister,” Shelah says.
“He’s working directly with the director general of the Health Ministry and the director general of the Finance Ministry in a way that doesn’t show any relative advantage or reflect Israel's administrative capability. The head of the National Security Council told us in a committee session that the NSC is coordinating the issue because the NSC is close to the prime minister and so he can make decisions quickly.”
What you’re saying indicates that a small number of people have tremendous power. From your familiarity with their work, can we rely on them?
“I think the best possible person, if he’s working in an incorrect framework, won’t make the best decisions. I’ll give you an example from the area of informing the public – hasbara – and it’s hugely important, not some ornament. There are a lot of things the public can get that it simply doesn’t know it can get; for example, information from the Health Ministry.
“In all the committee’s deliberations we haven’t managed to receive basic data about anything – not about the ventilators, not about tests, not about anything. In a discussion on the ventilators, for example, there was a disagreement not only on how many ventilators we have but also on how many we’ve ordered. One person says 11,000, another 12,000, 13,000 – and all this in the same session.
“For six years I was a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and there wasn’t a single thing I asked the defense establishment that didn’t get answered. If you ask the head of the Operations Directorate how many tanks the army has, he gives you an answer in a single kind of tank and tells you how many are in the workshop at the moment. And if not, he gives you two phone numbers.”
And the top people at the Health Ministry don’t know these things?
“I don’t want to dump this on an individual. It’s the mentality of a system that isn’t built for an emergency at all. It’s built to sustain the here and now, and this keeps it in a tremendous shortage, even at the best of times. And all of a sudden such a big event lands on it.”
The efficient IDF
In Shelah’s view, the centralized management by the prime minister and his personal connections isn't enough.
“There has to be a kind of General Staff with representatives of all the agencies sitting around the table: the Health Ministry, the Finance Ministry, the defense establishment and so on – with representatives of the Health Ministry sitting next to the head of the table because this is above all a health crisis. But not at the head of the table,” Shelah says.
“At the head of the table sits a person who understands how to make systems work. This entity will have operative authority to manage; for example, if there is a coronavirus problem now in Deir al-Asad, it’s the entity that will ensure a presence there and that food will be brought there,” he says, referring to a town in the Galilee.
“And in matters of policy it will bring proposals to the government and carry out the instructions of the coronavirus cabinet headed by the prime minister and relevant ministers, the way the General Staff works with the security cabinet during a war. Why am I using military analogies? Because the Israel Defense Forces and the defense establishment are the only body in the government that is built entirely for a state of emergency.”
So why shouldn’t the IDF manage this crisis?
“Because in this kind of crisis the IDF doesn’t have the insights or knowledge that somebody else has. What does the IDF understand about serological tests or other medical questions? The IDF must provide resources and the defense establishment must give its input at the table, but not manage the crisis.”
Why hasn’t a body like the one you’re talking about been established?
“Ask the person who isn’t doing this. The best people in Israel are coming and telling Netanyahu: Do this. This is a total consensus. And he isn’t doing it. I think Benjamin Netanyahu – and this also happened during my stint in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee – has intentionally atrophied the operating entities one after another.
“It’s not by chance that there hasn’t been a police commissioner for such a long time, that there wasn’t a governor of the Bank of Israel for six months, and that the National Security Council is so atrophied that the NSC chief today is a lot more of an emissary of the prime minister than the head of the NSC.”
To what extent do you see political considerations in this process?
“The whole Ben-Gurion Airport affair reeks of political considerations. [Defense Minister Naftali] Bennett comes along and volunteers to do something that isn’t under his authority in the ramshackle management framework: examine travelers and transfer them to isolation hotels. Netanyahu and the NSC revoke this decision because it was Bennett’s decision.
“After that they reinstate the decision and so on. All the issues that touch on the ultra-Orthodox have from the outset been totally influenced by politics and the fact that Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, at least ostensibly, wanted to make things easier for his community – and in the end found himself making his community the center of the coronavirus. And the fact that Netanyahu went along with him reeks of how the political power Litzman wields over him was a consideration in making the decisions they didn’t make regarding any other community in Israel.”
Where is Litzman? Is he involved?
“An excellent question. We didn’t examine personally who has received instructions at the Health Ministry. But I can tell you that apart from his involvement in easing things for the ultra-Orthodox, it was hard to see his fingerprint on the issues.”
No less harsh than Shelah’s criticism of Netanyahu is his criticism of Gantz and Gantz’s No. 2, Gabi Ashkenazi, who until late last month were partners with Shelah in Kahol Lavan until Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem left the broader alliance. Shelah attributes the split to the talks between Gantz and Netanyahu on establishing a unity government, which recently stalled.
“The time has come to talk about the person largely responsible for this story – Gabi Ashkenazi and not Benny Gantz – and subverted our moves from the day after the last election. Ashkenazi subverted not only the efforts to establish a minority government but also the takeover of the Knesset and so on.
“It’s no secret that Ashkenazi thought we should have entered a government right after the second election. That’s definitely a legitimate view. I think what isn’t legitimate is to act against things your party and the head of your party are trying to do, and to put the head of your party in this situation.”
Shelah shows zero understanding of Gantz’s situation, which he believes stems from the former army chief’s weakness. “Today you can see how ridiculous this is. They talked about an emergency government that would deal only with the coronavirus,” Shelah says.
“So today there’s a government with 34 ministers who aren’t getting any roles that have to do with the coronavirus and they have to agree to an annexation [of parts of the West Bank] and to all kinds of laws and agreements regarding the Supreme Court. Is this an emergency government? Benny Gantz simply collapsed under the pressure at the moment of truth. He has conceded everything, rushing into Netanyahu’s arms and now he’s pleading for mercy.
”Standing up to Netanyahu? That isn’t pressure. That’s a pleasure. Pressure is what small business owners are under now. And you’re there because you don’t have any alternative. Yair [Lapid] and I are sitting together and enjoying ourselves. If you didn’t go into politics to be in this moment – if you don’t have this megalomania that says ‘I have to be there at this moment’ – then what are you doing there?
“Benny’s problem is that he came in without any aim in mind. He’s a good person to whom a lot of people said come, you can get elected and save the Jewish people. Then he made his decision, he’s sticking with it and life is battering him.
“Now, if you’re going into politics aimlessly, politics is going to peel you fast. I think there’s nothing more indecent than coming into a system and saying you aren’t adhering to its rules because you’re too good or your values are too good. You’ve entered this system? You’re supposed to know what you’re getting into. Don’t tell me stories.”
Shelah sums up about Gantz: “He’s a weak man. Simply a weak man. And Netanyahu is a morally rotten person at levels hard to describe.”
Replying to Shelah’s remarks, a source close to the prime minister said: “The coronavirus committee has turned out to be a totally political committee. At a time when the whole world is praising Israel’s great success in fighting the coronavirus, the committee’s attacks on the decision-making and the lockdown are more ridiculous than ever. Ofer Shelah should stop riding in a car with three people and tell his boss Yair Lapid to stop telling people to breach the lockdown.”
Kahol Lavan responded: “Ofer Shelah is a worthy individual and an industrious Knesset member, therefore Gantz and Kahol Lavan appointed him to the important position of chairman of the coronavirus committee. It is very unfortunate that because of a legitimate political disagreement he has chosen to lie, vilify and descend into gutter language.
“Shelah and Yesh Atid prefer in a time of historic crisis to drag Israel into a fourth election, while Gantz and the members of Kahol Lavan have made the difficult decision that leaders make and considered whether there is a way to prevent [a fourth election] while preserving Israeli democracy. His remarks show yet again that instead of putting Israel first, Shelah is putting himself and his petty interests first.”