Israel's Emergency Government Makes Light of a Deadly Serious Pandemic

The poor personal example given by Israel's top politicians is more than a symptom ■ What is stopping Netanyahu from calling a new election

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A city worker cleans a street in Jerusalem on July 9, 2020.
A city worker cleans a street in Jerusalem on July 9, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

There’s no denying it: Being an Israeli citizen these days is no small embarrassment. At a time when European countries are gradually emerging from the prolonged lockdown they imposed upon themselves with the spread of the coronavirus, Israel is being depicted as a bad example of which everyone should be wary.

This, say the foreign media, is exactly how we must not behave if we don’t want to get entangled in a new, uncontrolled outbreak of the pandemic. Recent days have even more forcibly demonstrated everything that is flawed in the way Israel is dealing with the coronavirus: a lack of planning, management chaos, straying from decisions and timetables that are set, petty quarrels, clamorous resignations, passing the buck, crude lies and spin that doesn’t exactly conform to the facts.

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Apparently, to some extent every nation deserves the leadership it anoints for itself, but the emergency government that was established in Israel to deal with the coronavirus crisis started out in the lowest place imaginable, and since then has shown that it is possible to sink even further. This is especially frustrating because in Israeli society there are still tremendous capabilities – technology, science and medicine, initiative, volunteerism and solidarity – which are hardly being manifested at all during the current phase of the crisis.

The problem starts at the top. In the absence of a policy that is clear, fair and transparent to the citizenry, increasing disappointment with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s functioning in dealing with the pandemic and its economic repercussions is already evident in the public opinion polls.

A person who was involved in dealing with the coronavirus from the outset told Haaretz on Thursday that three things have brought the second wave down on us: incautious and unregulated opening of the economy, neglect of the plan to establish the epidemiological mechanism to cut off the chains of infection, and the damage to the public’s trust in the government’s policy. A few minutes after that conversation, Roi Yanovsky broadcast an amazing piece of news on the Kan public broadcaster: Right before the new restrictions came into effect, whereby gatherings of more than 20 people are prohibited even in private homes, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein – who had initiated those new restrictions – chose to comport himself otherwise. He celebrated his wife’s birthday at a party in the presence of dozens of invited guests.

Edelstein accused Yanovsky of reporting “fake news” but this, you should pardon the expression, is hogwash. If the Health Ministry is warning that such parties are infection hothouses, why did the minister choose to hold such a gathering when the situation was already clear to him?

In the U.K. there was a similar flap about two months ago when it emerged that Dominic Cummings, a close adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had violated the strict lockdown order in April and left London with the members of his family while they were still sick with the coronavirus. The British press did not lay off the affair for many weeks. In Israel it appears that we let go of it after just a few hours. After all, the health minister only added his name to the long list of instruction-violators that includes the prime minister, the president, government ministers and politicians.

Cynics will say that the news in fact did Edelstein a service, in that it paves an easy way out for him. Ever since Netanyahu appointed two of the strongest figures in Likud, Edelstein and Yisrael Katz, to the impossible positions of heading the Health Ministry and the Finance Ministry in the current circumstances, he hasn’t exactly been engaged in giving them backing. Anyone who has had a look at the latest pages of the official residence bulletin will find that the responsibility for the ills of the economy and the health situation is divided among Messrs. Katz, Edelstein and Benny Gantz, the alternate prime minister. In the meantime, there has been a delay in Edelstein’s attempt to appoint Maj. Gen. Roni Numa to head the national control center to fight the disease because it isn’t clear what the extent of Numa’s authority will be.

There’s no escaping the conclusion that this government is not taking the pandemic and its destructive economic repercussions seriously enough. The serial violations of the instructions at the top is more than just a symptom. It is signaling to the public that there is one law for the ordinary citizen and another for the higher-ups, the politicians, the billionaires and the celebrities. The disconnection between them and the citizens has become total.

Worst is yet to come

Two things are about to happen in the coming weeks. One is a more extensive spread of the disease. Even though many of the newly infected are young and asymptomatic, the circle of those infected around them is already including more vulnerable people, elderly people and people with pre-existing conditions. The increase in the numbers of the seriously ill is already clear and definite. Within eight days their number has increased by more than 200 percent, even without any connection to the question of whether the criteria for defining serious illness have been changed.

In the past two days there appears to have been a certain slowing of the doubling rate of the newly diagnosed, which stands at eight to nine days. However, the additional restrictions the government has imposed on gatherings and events will be felt, in the best case, only starting next week. Though there is some breathing space from the scenario of a collapse of the intensive care units, it is smaller than what it was last month. The advantage relative to the first wave has to do with the medical learning curve. The teams at the hospitals are more experienced and skilled and the treatments and medications are to some extent improving the chances of saving lives of seriously ill patients.

The second trend, and perhaps the graver of the two, is economic and social. The limited recovery of the economy with the decrease in infection and the lifting of the lockdown in May is liable to screech to a halt in the face of the new restrictions. As the health fears are growing and employment is unstable, many Israelis are not eager to risk leaving their homes to shop and spend money.

Presumably the danger that is really bothering Netanyahu, politically, is not the current protest near the official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. As long as that is being led by people whom Netanyahu can brand in front of his supporters as leftist, Ashkenazi and privileged, the damage it causes is minimal. The question is what will happen when the Likud “base” also starts feeling the full economic impact of the pandemic. This is the fear that at the moment is motivating the prime minister to risk going for a new election. In more difficult circumstances, it is liable to engender a widespread popular protest that crosses the lines of social classes and political camps – the 2011 Rothschild Boulevard cost of living protests squared, and maybe to the third power.

There is no doubt that Netanyahu is worried. The anti-democratic measures the prime minister is choosing to promote under cover of the pandemic – passage this week of the law for bypassing the Knesset and renewing the cellular tracking by the Shin Bet security service, despite the opposition of the top people in the organization – are liable to serve him in the future for curbing the protest as well.

Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman is standing in the breach, but next May his appointment will come to an end and a new person will be appointed in his stead. It is hard to overstate the importance of this appointment in these times. Of all the security organizations, the Shin Bet is the one that operates most nearly in the twilight zone, at the margins of the law. A prime minister who is capable of appointing to that position a person who will do his bidding there is sending a strong, threatening message to his political rivals.

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