Analysis |

Netanyahu Seeks Full Lockdown, After He's Back From UAE Deal Ceremony in D.C.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Police officers enforcing the nighttime curfew imposed on the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, September 8, 2020.
Police officers enforcing the nighttime curfew imposed on the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, September 8, 2020. Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Members of the coronavirus cabinet believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to impose a nationwide lockdown of limited duration toward the end of this month. A power struggle is shaping up within the cabinet that was formed to handle the pandemic, with members from Defense Minister Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan working to reduce the likelihood of having to announce a full closure.

A one-week nighttime curfew and other restrictions took effect Tuesday in 40 neighborhoods and communities with particularly high infection rates. 

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In recent public statements, Netanyahu has mentioned that the cabinet might consider a full lockdown in light of rising infection rates. At the same time, the prime minister has stressed his efforts to exhaust all the less restrictive options at his disposal before making such a decision.

Cabinet members say Netanyahu fears that only a lockdown of a few weeks’ duration can significantly reduce the daily number of new infections – currently around 3,000. People who have attended recent meeting of the coronavirus cabinet say there is another consideration at play, which cabinet members in Netanyahu’s own Likud party do not mention explicitly: a desire to curb anti-government protests, which focus mainly outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem and his private home in Caesarea. Judging by its own precedents, the High Court of Justice would likely permit demonstrations even in a lockdown, but a closure would also make it harder for some protesters to participate.

The signing of the agreement normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates could also figure into Netanyahu’s thinking. U.S. officials said that the ceremony will be held at the White House next Wednesday, September 15. It’s considered unlikely that Netanyahu would travel abroad while the country is locked down.

Several options have been examined in consultations in recent days, including severe restrictions during the Rosh Hashanah holiday weekend, starting September 18, or a transition to a longer lockdown. Another suggestion was to close schools for the entire three-week period of the fall religious holidays, from September 18. Health Ministry Director General Prof. Chezy Levy told Channel 13 News Tuesday that harsh restrictions during the holidays are inevitable.

The latest spike in infections is evident, more than in previous weeks, among young and asymptomatic carriers of the virus. That is the reason the increase in the number of daily infections is only minorly reflected in other critical indices such as the number of severely ill patients or the number of hospitalized people or those on ventilators.

However, hospital directors – especially in northern Israel – are already warning that their coronavirus wards are strained as it is, partly due to the spike in cases among Arab Israeli communities. The hospitals have cautioned that they may be forced to refer the patients elsewhere.

The rise in the number of infections is largely connected to the increase in the number of tests, which on Monday for the first time crossed the 40,000 threshold. The number of positive tests is very erratic, ranging from 7.7 to 11.8 percent this week. The main indicator worrying the health system is the number of seriously ill patients, which will impact the tipping point at which hospitals will be unable to cope. The high numbers of new patients have further effects, detrimental mainly to the economy.

Responsibility for the nationwide epidemiological tracing systems has been shifted from the Health Ministry to the army, and is supposed to break the chain of infection. When 3,000 people a day are confirmed to have the virus, and each one may have been in contact with dozens of people in a week, it means tracking down tens of thousands of people every day to let them know they must quarantine. In practice, the tracking system cannot meet this demand, resulting in thousands of people that are not located. Some people also choose to ignore the guidelines for entering quarantine, with local authorities incapable of enforcing these guidelines.

In sectors of the population in which infection rates are particularly high, such as in Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities or among young people, there is a growing phenomenon of people evading testing in order to avoid missing work or harming the livelihood of others. In cases in which contacts are traced and instructed to go into quarantine, the result is that tens of thousands of people a week are restricted to their homes. In many cases, families are quarantined for a second or third time, mainly due to children exposed to virus carriers at school. 

This often leads to a chain of asymptomatic virus carries: a child with no symptoms is identified as a carrier due to a positive test by another family member who does have symptoms, thus forcing dozens of other children and their families into isolation. Most of the other children do not get infected. Others may catch the virus but remain asymptomatic. And yet, the result is a shock wave, causing a long chain which spreads much destruction throughout the economy.

According to Education Ministry figures released Tuesday, 1,800 pupils were infected with the virus since the school year opened last week. In the meantime, the ministry canceled a guideline requiring a school with more than three cases to shut down. The decision was placed in the hands of epidemiologists. As expected, schools are again turning out to have a high potential of infection, as do yeshivot and army bases.

Even if most of the people infected have no symptoms, the high numbers are driving the country and the economy into a tailspin, with many people in isolation and a resulting closure of educational institutions and workplaces, making it hard to maintain business as usual. The “traffic light” plan devised by coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu was not intended to lead to a sharp drop in the number of infections. It was meant to bring things under control and start a trend of containment, which would prevent another tailspin.

For now, despite increasing criticism by doctors and experts and public concerns about the serious ramifications of a lockdown, it appears that Israel may find itself under another extensive lockdown before the end of September. This will happen despite public declarations of intent by the prime minister, the coronavirus czar and the relevant cabinet members. This is additional testimony to the severity of the organizational mismanagement of contending with the virus.

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