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My Slow Road Home From New York, Courtesy of Israel’s COVID Travel Ban

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New York City's skyline
New York City's skyline Credit: MIKE SEGAR/ REUTERS

I am writing this column from Israel. Being an Israeli citizen of more than 35 years standing that shouldn’t be anything remarkable, except that for the fact that I was overseas until this week and a citizen of perhaps the only country in the world that bars its own nationals from returning from abroad due to the coronavirus.

A government spokesman would rebut that there is an “exceptions committee” that grants permission to return. But, as has been widely documented, most applications have either been rejected or go unanswered. There are suspicions that the Netanyahu government has politicized the process in favor of applicants who are likely to support the Likud and its ultra-Orthodox allies.

I can’t explain my success. I applied five times over one month and got approvals to fly three times, two of them arriving just before the government zigzagged on policy, causing my airline to cancel the flight I had booked. Why was I (in relative terms) so lucky? Perhaps because I kept applying even before I got an answer. Perhaps because I live in a city that votes right-of-center, and the exceptions committee was playing politics. Perhaps because it was the heart-rending story I provided for why I was abroad.

The policy itself was bad enough: no country has imposed such draconian rules on entry for their own citizens. What made it worse was that it was implemented with seemingly no forethought. The original ban was announced without any advanced warning or special provisions for exemption. Afterward, it was changed several times without warning or adequate notification to the airline involved.

The legal and humanitarian implications of closing the skies were never evidently thought through, as evidenced by the fact that the ban led to a set-to with the U.S. The information made available to the public was vague. To this day, there’s no phone number to call for information, and in my personal experience, the Israel consulate New York was useless. No one was answering phones and its standard answer over WhatsApp and emails was to copy and paste a boilerplate statement of rules that were already available in the public domain, followed by messages about how they know nothing and can’t help.

Coronavirus testing at the incoming passengers' terminal at Ben-Gurion International Airport, March 2021Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Is there anything to learn from this? Yes, but the lesson is more subtle than the usual railing against Israeli bureaucracy, Netanyahu’s managerial incompetence and alleged politicization.

From afar, other countries’ bureaucracies almost always look more competent and efficient than your own. Having spent three months in the United States, I got a firsthand look at mismanagement in a country that traditionally prides itself as doing everything the best. Certainly Trump’s casual dismissal of the pandemic made things worse for America; but the fact is the problems run much deeper. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York State, went from COVID hero to COVID goat after being accused of covering up nursing-home deaths, behaving like a bully and engaging in needless power struggles with New York City’s mayor. America’s vaccination program, which is administered by the states, has been a fiasco, with desperate people jumping the line and taking advantage of the confusion.

Public distrust of governments’ COVID management is pretty universal. Even New Zealand’s widely lauded prime minister Jacinda Ardern has come under criticism for the country’s slow vaccine rollout. In Israel, the level of trust is so low that people naturally assume that the incompetence has to be at least in part due to narrow political considerations. The evidence is mixed about that, but Israel’s Transportation Minister, Miri Regev, opened herself up to accusations of politicizing entry approvals by remarking in the past that she regards the government as a tool for advancing her personal and party interests.

But even if you cut Israel some slack compared to the rest of the world’s COVID blundering, we still come out looking pretty bad. In demographic, health care and economic terms, Israel went into the pandemic pretty well prepared. Israel’s population is relatively young and healthy; our public health care system among the most efficient in the world and the economy was well prepared to sweat a period of prolonged lockdowns.

Coronavirus testing at the incoming passengers hall, Ben-Gurion International Airport, March 2021Credit: Ofer Vaknin

What Israel lacked was a government capable of managing a crisis. The kind of discipline, planning and organization required to deal with a pandemic wasn’t there, and a year into the crisis remains as lacking as it was in the first days. There’s been no discernable learning curve.

The qualities for mass management are lacking. Instead, we have a slow and blundering bureaucracy, serving under a weak and distracted political leadership. Netanyahu, who is often blamed for this, is actually just a manifestation of a wider cultural problem Israel has to contend with, of resistance to organization and hierarchies.

This is a warning for the future. As much as Israeli society has other, inevitable qualities, such as the mission-oriented, rule-bending style that made Startup Nation, the coronavirus has taught us that big government is important. It is probably going to become even more important in the post-COVID era. Countries with governments that are up to the task will have an advantage.

Israel’s successful vaccine rollout shows us that we’re sometimes capable of pulling off crisis management. Our centralized and comprehensive public health care system, a legacy of the now much-reviled socialism of our early years, worked beyond almost everyone’s expectations. In this case, its success was thanks to the strange brew of socialized medicine and free-market competition between Israel’s four health maintenance organizations.

That brew can’t be applied everywhere in the public sector, but it can be in some places. Take job retraining: As a state monopoly, vocational and technical training has been a massive failure. With expectations that the post-COVID economy will need a different skillset, Israeli bureaucracy shouldn’t be given charge of this of managing this crucial task. By imitating the HMO model, we might again show the world how to do something right.

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