After an alarming summer during which the spread of COVID-19 got out of hand, Israel is now in the midst of a second nationwide lockdown in a desperate attempt to stop the health care system from collapsing.
The latest lockdown is being met with fierce resistance from many Israelis, who are worried about its economic impact and have lost trust in their government. Some critics claim the real reason for the lockdown is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to shut down the wave of protests against him that has been steadily growing over the past three months.
On Wednesday, Haaretz provided an in-depth Zoom briefing on the subject with senior defense analyst Amos Harel and senior reporter Judy Maltz.
Amos, who has covered countless wars and military operations over the years, spoke about his transition to covering the biggest health crisis in the country’s history, and the Israeli military’s attempts to fix the failures caused by the government.
Judy, who has been covering this summer’s anti-Netanyahu demonstrations, spoke about how the current crisis and economic collapse have caused young Israelis to take to the streets for the first time in a decade. She also discussed the impact of Israel’s decision to close its borders to the rest of the world on the ties between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.
The conversation was moderated by Amir Tibon, who recently returned to Israel after three years as Haaretz correspondent in Washington.
Here are some of the questions Haaretz readers asked Amos and Judy during the Zoom session – and their answers. (Quotes have been abbreviated to provide clarity. Watch the video above for the full dialogue.)
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Will the three-week lockdown actually bring down the number of COVID-19 patients in Israel?
Amos: “Our current rate of positivity in testing is 14.5 percent – there’s no sign yet of things slowing down. We’ll probably break another record [in the number of positive test results] by [Thursday]. Having said that, things take time. We’re used with this pandemic to talk about a two-week period for steps to have an impact, and we haven’t reached two weeks since the decision to enter lockdown.
“In the end, at one point or another, the Israeli public will grasp the severity of the situation. At one point or another, Israel will learn how to handle this. But we do need to get our act straightened out, because right now the situation is bad.”
A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute shows that the level of trust Israelis have in Netanyahu and his government is very low, standing at less than 30 percent. Do you think that has impacted Netanyahu’s decision to impose a second lockdown?
Amos: “Netanyahu is in deep trouble, it’s a deep political crisis. His legal troubles are the heart of the matter, he doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver anymore. The possibility of another election seems far-fetched. I don’t think he’s going to win another election as easily as he thought a few weeks ago. Most of the public is gradually losing trust in how the government is handling the crisis. On the other hand, I think there are some Likud hard-liners – what we call ‘Bibistim’ – who will support him no matter what. It’s like what [Donald] Trump said about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue and not losing any voters.”
Is the COVID crisis creating a bigger conflict between the secular and Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] communities in Israel?
Judy: “For sure, it is. Among secular Israelis there’s this perception that the ultra-Orthodox live in a state of their own, have their own leaders who tell them what to do, and many of them are not taking this virus all that seriously. The secular Israelis feel they’re paying the price for that, because initially the biggest outbreaks were in the ultra-Orthodox community: this is what caused the initial lockdowns and with them businesses that closed, people who lost their jobs.”
Do you think the demonstrators against Netanyahu could succumb to public pressure and decide to stop the protests for two or three weeks, let everything calm down and only then return to the streets?
Judy: “There’s a big split now happening within the protest movement – between those who are saying ‘We have to keep going on, if we stop now we’ll be playing into Netanyahu’s hands,’ and others who are saying, ‘This is a moment of crisis. Maybe there aren’t any documented cases of COVID-19 infections at these protests, but being around lots of people who are shouting and chanting, even out in the open air, is not recommended.’ Already last week we saw at the protests that there were fewer people coming out.”
Is there anything optimistic we can look forward to regarding this crisis? Maybe a vaccine or a new treatment for the sick?
Amos: “I think science will win in the end. What we’re seeing right now is the whole international scientific community working to reach a vaccine; it will be here sometime next year. Once that happens, there’ll be a way out. Winter will be difficult, but a vaccine will help solve this. The protocols of treatment will gradually improve as well, the doctors know more today than they did in February and March. We’ll probably also see quicker tests – and the ability to take a test and get an answer within 45 minutes will be a game-changer.”
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