Five Months Into Pandemic, Israel Expected to Appoint Coronavirus Czar

Prof. Gabi Barbash, a well-known figure in Israel’s healthcare system, will be given a broad range of responsibilities ■ Appointment could be attempt by Netanyahu to keep Gantz away from management of crisis

Amos Harel
Ido Efrati
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Prof. Gabi Barabash, 2015.
Prof. Gabi Barabash, 2015.Credit: Rami Shllush
Amos Harel
Ido Efrati

Israel is expected to appoint a coronavirus czar on Tuesday evening, following talks between Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The appointment of Prof. Gabi Barbash, who, according to sources in the health care system, was Netanyahu’s pick, was supposed to be made public during a press conference later on Tuesday evening. It has since been canceled.

Barbash, a prominent figure in Israel’s healthcare system, will be given a broader purview over the country’s coronavirus response than anticipated, at his request. The final decision on his appointment, which has been under discussion for more than a week, could indicate that Netanyahu is interested in continuing to distance the defense establishment, subordinate to Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, from managing the economic and health crisis caused by the government's handling of the pandemic.

The professor became a familiar face during the pandemic as a commentator on the virus for Channel 12 News. He also took part in discussions to coordinate the government’s response since the beginning of the crisis, including in the restricted forum the prime minister called together.

He was the director of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv from 1993 to 2015, except for a three-year hiatus when he served as Health Ministry director-general. Since leaving Ichilov, he has headed a private firm that manages patient treatment by providing a variety of experts, as well as a scientific-clinical collaboration project at the Weizmann Institute.

When the coronavirus broke out, the Health Ministry tried to draft Barbash to head a dedicated PR team, but he reportedly declined because he wanted to remain an independent commentator. Barbash supported the Health Ministry’s strict policy throughout, but he did not hold back his criticism in certain cases, excoriating the tardy response to the outbreak among the elderly in residential care facilities, the reopening of the  education system, and a general lack of transparency and scientific collaboration.

Most candidates considered for the position during the last two weeks were senior army officers, under the assumption that the operational capabilities of the military would be useful in managing the crisis. However, a number of steps taken to bring in a high-ranking officer failed, some at the very last moment after it became clear that a decision had already been made.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein during a briefing, Jerusalem, June 28, 2020.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein during a briefing, Jerusalem, June 28, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

According to officials, the Health Ministry had difficulty finding a coronavirus czar due to the need to grant the position wider powers at the expense of the public health services in the Health Ministry.

One candidate floated for the job was Maj. Gen. Amir Abulafia, who until a few weeks ago was head of planning on the IDF General Staff, but he has since withdrawn his candidacy for the role. Before this, the name of Maj. Gen. Roni Numa was raised.

Numa, a former chief of the IDF’s Central Command, took charge of an emergency team during the first wave of the crisis that managed the quarantine in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot was also reportedly in line for the job.

Other than military figures, Prof. Ran Balicer, head of the Clalit Health Maintenance Organization’s research institute, was also mentioned as a possible candidate. Last week it was reported that former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov had turned down a request by Netanyahu to take the job.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, who is the executive director of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, cautiously praised the appointment, writing on Twitter: “There is no doubt that Prof. Barbash’s experience, wisdom and management ability are necessary to improve the planning, decision-making and operations of the difficult battle Israel is in.”

However, he said, skill and experience would not suffice without appropriate authority. Yadlin called for an interministerial, integrated command center with the authority to formulate policy regarding the pandemic. 

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