Netanyahu Aides, Medical Officials in Tug of War Over U.S. Coronavirus Quarantine Order

Sources say the PM's associates are pressuring the Health Ministry to hold any new regulations concerning arrivals from New York, California and Washington

Ido Efrati
Noa Landau
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the coronavirus outbreak central response unit at the Israeli Ministry of Health, in Kiryat Malachi, Israel, Sunday, March 1, 2020
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the coronavirus outbreak central response unit at the Israeli Ministry of Health, in Kiryat Malachi, Israel, Sunday, March 1, 2020Credit: Tsafrir Abayov,AP
Ido Efrati
Noa Landau

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's associates are pressuring the Health Ministry to walk back from its intention to order a self-imposed quarantine on Israelis returning from New York, California and Washington state, fearing it may hurt relations with the United States and President Donald Trump's administration, according to sources from the ministry.

In recent days, medical sources close to ministry officials criticized the political echelon's involvement in the response to the virus, particularly the prime minister's. According to the sources, the involvement pertains both to the content of the ministry's orders and the timing of their publication.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the potential quarantine order for some U.S. arrivals in Israel with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in a Sunday phonecall, going over measures to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. 

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According to a statement released by Netanyahu’s office, follow-up talks will be held in the coming hours between Israeli and U.S. teams dealing with the crisis, with the coronavirus treatment coordinator at the White House, Dr. Debra Birks, planning on being present.

Netanyahu said any decision to expand quarantine regulations would only be made on Monday. Speaking at a press conference Sunday, he said “The measures we took so far have proven themselves… If we decide to expand (quarantine regulations) any further, it would apply to all destinations.”

Netanyahu made no specific mention of the reports on the planned quarantine order to some U.S. arrivals, but thanked President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence “for their cooperation.”

Netanyahu's more cautious treatment of the U.S. was supported by the Foreign Ministry Sunday, which recommended that Israel's political relationship with Trump should be taking into account.

Professionals within the Health Ministry had also sought to order home quarantine for people returning from the AIPAC convention in Washington, after it came to light that three of its attendants were diagnosed with the virus. However, following pressure from Netanyahu's surroundings, the directive scrapped, leaving hundreds of Israelis who were at the convention out of confinement.

Officials have also raised question marks regarding the decision not to quarantine Israelis returning from Belgium, which has seen a spike in diagnosed cases of the virus similar to other countries that Israel does apply the quarantine directive to.

The same officials wondered about the level of influence that the Gur Hassidic sect in Antwerp has had on the decision, as it counts Health Minister Yaakov Litzman amongst its members.

The Prime Minister's Office said in response that "The decisions are made solely on a professional basis." 

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