Israel's Stuttering Lockdown Exit Reflects Its Ongoing Coronavirus Failures

Even as he celebrates the vaccination drive, Netanyahu completely ignores the fact that over 5,000 Israelis have died of coronavirus, and his campaign against the legal system is clearly undermining efforts to get the pandemic under control

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Benjamin Netanyahu at the district court of Jerusalem on May 24, 2020, during the first day of his corruption trial.
Benjamin Netanyahu at the district court of Jerusalem on May 24, 2020, during the first day of his corruption trial.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The government’s strained, stuttering exit from the third lockdown offers a frighteningly accurate portrait of its behavior over the entire last year – a mixture of panic, poor planning, shortsightedness and political interests.

This picture could still improve thanks to the widespread vaccination campaign. But it’s impossible to ignore the damage Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently doing to Israel’s battle against the coronavirus. His deliberate campaign to crush the civil service and bring the legal system to heel, a response to his criminal trial, is clearly undermining efforts to vanquish the virus.

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The cabinet’s meeting Thursday night provides an instructive example. At it, Netanyahu ambushed Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. When they blocked his attempt to unilaterally extend the lockdown over the objections of the remnants of Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, that gave him someone to blame.

His shocking statement that the blood of COVID-19’s next fatalities would be on his opponents’ hands was quickly leaked to the media. This requires unmitigated cynicism coming from the man who left Ben-Gurion Airport wide open, with no restrictions, for months, solely out of political and diplomatic considerations, and who continues to turn a blind eye to the opening of ultra-Orthodox schools in violation of the regulations.

Even as he celebrates the success of the vaccination campaign at every opportunity, Netanyahu has completely ignored the fact that over 5,000 Israelis have now died of the coronavirus. That news was received during Thursday night’s cabinet meeting.

Ultra-Orthodox men burn trash cans in protest against coronavirus lockdown measures in Jerusalem, July 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

His rare references to the people harmed by the virus, both physically and economically, seem to be mere lip service. Anyone who still expects some display of emotion from the prime minister should wait for Monday morning’s broadcasts from the Jerusalem District Court, where his trial will resume. Somehow, only his own problems manage to wring real feeling from Netanyahu these days.

The decision to ease the lockdown was made for lack of any other choice. Unlike the previous two lockdowns, this one didn’t produce a substantial decline in incidence of the virus.

Around 5,000 new cases are diagnosed every day, and the number of seriously ill patients hasn’t dropped much below 1,100, which is very close to the level where the workload becomes intolerable for hospitals. Only occasionally, in interviews with medical staffers, does the gravity of the situation at the hospitals emerge; usually, the full picture isn’t revealed to the public.

According to senior health officials, the lockdown’s ineffectiveness stems from a combination of the widespread presence of the more infectious British variant of the virus and the public’s decreasing compliance with government orders. Under these circumstances, and given the growing public demand for an easing of restrictions on movement, commerce and education, the cabinet decided on a partial retreat from the lockdown

One small ray of comfort can be derived from diving into the details of the daily data. The fact that around 85 percent of Israelis 60 and older have already received at least one dose of the vaccine has reduced their ranks among the seriously ill by almost half. A similar drop has occurred in the number of senior citizens who are hospitalized.

The Health Ministry’s limited hopes rest on the effect of the vaccines and the expectation that a controlled opening of the economy, despite the high number of coronavirus patients, won’t immediately overwhelm the health system. But there’s very little room to maneuver here, and the fear is that a rapid upsurge in incidence of the virus won’t be detected in time.

This fear, weighed against schoolchildren’s intolerable situation, led to the adoption of a strained compromise that’s full of contradictions. Even though they had almost two months to plan since a partial lockdown was imposed in December, the education and health ministries haven’t managed to come up with a sensible plan for reopening the schools.

Children go back to school following Israel's second coronavirus lockdown, November 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

The cabinet will therefore approve only a partial reopening, starting on Tuesday. This will once again leave children in grades five through 10 at home, as they have been for almost a full year now.

Netanyahu, who has celebrated the vaccination success and praised himself by citing incomplete quotes from the international press, somehow never mentions the fact that Israel tops the chart when it comes to how long schools have been closed.

With the situation so discouraging, radical ideas are enjoying growing popularity. One is that Israel should adopt a policy of “zero coronavirus,” like New Zealand and Taiwan (island countries that did so as soon as the virus erupted a year ago). This would involve severe restrictions on civil rights.

Aside from the obvious concerns about invasion of privacy and violation of rights, the question that must be asked is who would carry out such a policy? Our failed government, which can’t even manage to impose its will on a single ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Beit Shemesh? The police, for whom breaking demonstrators’ heads with their batons has become almost standard practice?

On Sunday, some of Netanyahu’s motives for his rearguard action to extend the lockdown became clear. The lead headline in the free daily Israel Hayom was a demand by Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud) that the evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s trial be postponed until after next month’s election. Since the high number of coronavirus patients is no longer a convincing excuse to extend the lockdown and postpone his trial, Netanyahu and his cronies have come up with a new argument.

A straight line connects the attacks on the attorney general, the efforts to disrupt the trial, the systematic crushing of the senior civil service and the Education Ministry’s chaotic plans. For Israelis, one single conclusion emerges from it – get vaccinated as soon as possible. Because nobody else will take care of your health and welfare for you.

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