Analysis |

Israel's Treasury Itching to End Lockdown, but Netanyahu's Politics Are in the Way

With infection rates down, Netanyahu is concerned about protests and a reopening model that could exacerbate clashes with ultra-Orthodox allies

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Black Flag protester holding a sign reading 'go' at a demonstration in line with Health Ministry guidelines against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, October 6, 2020.
A Black Flag protester holding a sign reading 'go' at a demonstration in line with Health Ministry guidelines against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, October 6, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The daily figures released by the Health Ministry are already showing a clear trend. The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests has been dropping for a week, from about 15 percent at its peak to a bit less than 10 percent now.

The number of coronavirus carriers identified daily is dropping too, though this figure is also related, to a certain extent, to the reduction in the number of tests. The figure of 10 percent positive results is still a high and worrying level, according to the standards of the World Health Organization, but the first signs of halting the broader spread of the virus are beginning to appear. Even the number of patients in serious condition, a number that always changes one stage later than the change in general infection rates, clearly shows a small decrease, too.

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The changes are the result of the restrictions on the economy, even before Rosh Hashanah. It is hard to know how much the contribution of the general lockdown, declared on Rosh Hashanah, was decisive. The drop in infection rates stands out among the general population and the Arab community. The Haredi community still shows absolutely no signs of stopping the infection.

Health system officials praise the rising awareness in the Arab community and the help coming from mayors. The unruliness that characterized the wedding season in the Arab community has been stopped and the adherence to the guidelines has risen a great deal. The same goes for the coordination between local governments, government ministries and the Home Front Command.

These positive trends are encouraging a new discussion of the restrictions of the across-the-board lockdown. The Finance Ministry wants to lift some of them as soon as possible, next week already, especially those on workplaces that receive the public. The health system supports this too, to a certain extent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking the opposite line. Netanyahu wants to continue with the lockdown as long as possible, in an attempt to lower the daily number of virus carriers from 5,000 to just 2,000 or less. Netanyahu has two other considerations, which he does not admit in public: Easing up on most of the public and switching to coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu’s “traffic light” plan would speed up the collision with the Haredim, because of their towns on the list of “red” areas; and easing restrictions would also force him to lift the limitations on the protests against him.

In every meeting, the lack of long-term thinking stands out. Gradually, the exit strategy is coming together – but at this stage it does not include any orderly plan to restart classes in the schools, except for the preschools and the lower grades. It is also not clear what the solutions are for the winter. Assuming that the country manages in the end to enforce the regulations to pray outside, it will become very hard to implement from November on, during the relatively cold and rainy season.

A family in Jerusalem's Sacher park amid Israel's coronavirus lockdown, October 7, 2020.
A family in Jerusalem's Sacher park amid Israel's coronavirus lockdown, October 7, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

In Gila Gamliel’s defense

A few words in defense (not really) of Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel. Out of the huge number of violations of the coronavirus regulations by elected officials, senior government officials and celebrities, Gamliel’s actions truly are exceptionally bad. Not only did she travel 150 kilometers from her home during the lockdown, but she deceived and lied – to the Health Ministry and the media. And while being sick with Covid, she also hindered the efforts to break the chain of infection, which could have happened much faster if only she had not acted as she did.

But Gamliel is not just the cherry on the top of a very long list of names from just the past few days, including Sara Netanyahu, the head of the Shin Bet security service, a Knesset member from Yesh Atid and even the 15-year -old son of the rising candidate for prime minister. All of them were caught violating the rules, some of which involve hosting guests in the sukkah.

All this teaches us, as has already been written, that senior officials and celebrities seem to think that somehow they are exempt from the rules and punishments inflicted on ordinary citizens. This crude contempt reflects their disconnection and even arrogance – the mistaken assumption of theirs that in the era of social media, it is still possible to hide their flouting of the rules without getting caught.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel. 'Using the skin and pelts of wild animals in fashion is immoral.'
Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel. 'Using the skin and pelts of wild animals in fashion is immoral.'Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

All these violators of the rules have accordingly earned the flood of attacks and insults coming their way on Twitter, and to a great extent also in the media. Shocked journalists demand a show of repentance for their sins, and collective firings; it’s lucky that at least in the case of the youth from the House of Bennett, a bit of patience and sense of proportion was demonstrated. But it’s worth saying that not all these officials and celebrities who were caught are the equals of Gila Gamliel, and not all of them shoved it in the public’s face with the same brazenness.

When the first violations were exposed, on the part of Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, it happened at the beginning of the first wave of the virus in Israel, when the lockdown was even stricter and the public acted in almost total obedience to the rules. The public believed with all its heart in flattening the curve, and truly and naively thought that if only we all listened every evening to the Netanyahu-Bar Siman Tov duo, we would make it through the pandemic safely. Families left their grandparents all by themselves for the Passover seder, because the idea was that everyone joining together in the fight would quickly stop the virus. When it became clear that senior officials arranged “celebrity discounts” for themselves, the public’s anger rose up.

The second lockdown is a different story. The wide-scale flouting of the rules by these senior officials seems to reflect they really think: The restrictions are too strict, they have no consistent logic and it’s doubtful whether they truly are advancing the fight against the virus. When police leave the Haredi neighborhoods and towns as autonomous regions in practice, where there is no enforcement except for a few violent rounds of make believe, then all the rest of the public disrespects some of the guidelines too. And the senior officials allow themselves even more – while at the same time, it is a scandal when they are caught.

This is how a somewhat hysterical situation has been created under the auspices of the coronavirus, whose danger is serious enough in its own right: Fifty percent Sholem Aleichem’s shtetl pettiness, fifty percent Stasi-style informing. One day they filmed soccer star Eran Zahavi making noise between 2 P.M. and 4 P.M., the next day they caught Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman spending time with his adult children in the sukkah, in violation of the regulations. Today we will demand the head of the Shin Bet boss, tomorrow we will fire an MK., the important thing is for there to be something to keep the machinery of self-righteous anger running. This daily saisson diverts us from what is important – the government’s failures in handling the coronavirus crisis and its antidemocratic attempts to stop the protest against it.

Instead of this witch-hunt – which by the way serves Netanyahu because it creates a feeling that everyone is equally corrupt – it would have been better to search for how it would be possible to ease up soon on the general lockdown. It would be preferable to focus on realistic, enforceable guidelines, and especially on fact-based policy. This would include, for example, more extensive treatment of red cities, without handing out exemptions for political reasons to the Haredi leadership – many of whose voters, it seems, would actually prefer the enforcement of the regulations in their communities, with the goal of limiting the spread of the infection. The wall-to-wall ban on family get-togethers over the holiday – in whatever fashion – is a decree the public has voted against with its feet, too.

Police and protesters in Tel Aviv, October 6, 2020.
Police and protesters in Tel Aviv, October 6, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Murder in their eyes

A., a man from Tel Aviv who works in high-tech, rode his electric bike on Tuesday on his way to the park near his house. At the corner of the street stood a group of protesters – 10 adults and children who waved black flags and signs against Netanyahu. When A. stopped at the traffic light, a car stopped alongside him too, with four young men inside. They began showering curses on the protesters: “Leftist whores, traitors, you’ll burn in hell.”

A., maybe without the necessary common sense, could not restrain himself and interfered. He turned to the driver, who had led the verbal attack, and asked him if he wasn’t embarrassed to speak that way. “There are children listening,” he said.

In response, the driver stopped cursing the demonstrators and turned to give A. a good, long, narrow-eyed look. The passengers in his back seat began to open their doors, in what looked to be preparations for an attack.

In his military life, A. is an officer in the reserves, rich in operational experience, even decorated. Not exactly a person who runs away from confrontations. But in this case, he did the calculations quickly: “I’m one, they’re four.” The traffic light changed to green and he sped away from there on his bike.

What he saw on the street corner left him without a doubt. “It would have ended up in a murder. The atmosphere on the street toward the protesters is hostile and violent. There won’t be something planned here like Yigal Amir or Yona Avrushmi, but a local burst of insane hatred, as a result of incitement. They had murder in their eyes. If I had stayed there another second, I would have finished this incident in the hospital.”

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