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Seeking to Extend Lockdown, Netanyahu to Face Harsh Public Opposition

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli police try to control a crowd of mourners during the funeral of Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, in the port city of Ashdod, Israel, October 5, 2020.
Israeli police try to control a crowd of mourners during the funeral of Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, in the port city of Ashdod, Israel, October 5, 2020.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov,AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

For the first time in many weeks, signs that the spread of the coronavirus is moderating a bit in Israel have begun to appear.

The rates of positive tests have fallen to around 10 percent for both Arabs and Jews, yet the rate remains very high among the ultra-Orthodox, at 25 percent. For the population as a whole, the rate has fallen to 11 to 12 percent, from a peak of more than 15 percent a week ago.

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This appears to be due to the full lockdown that began on Rosh Hashanah, a little over two weeks ago. The closure of the schools, curtailing of work and restrictions on movement all mean less human contact and therefore fewer infections, though many transmissions still occur within the family.

Moreover, a continued decline in the daily number of verified carriers should soon produce a gradual decline in the number of seriously ill patients and the daily death toll, both of which are currently at record highs.

At this point, all the usual caveats are necessary. The number of daily tests has been relatively low over the last few days. Much depends on the policy for referring people for tests and on people’s willingness to get tested. And the lockdown itself has extremely grave consequences – medical (for people suffering from other illnesses), psychological and, of course, economic.

Israel is the first country in the world to impose a second general lockdown, though the rise in incidence of the illness in Western Europe is currently leading to localized lockdowns in some cities. Moreover, there’s no shortage of countries, like Japan and Sweden, that have kept the disease under control without ever imposing a general lockdown.

Monday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet didn’t produce any dramatic decisions. The next decision point will be October 14, when the current lockdown ends. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would clearly like to extend it, but he is expected to face growing opposition from the public and parts of the business community, which fears the economic ramifications.

Just like after the first lockdown, the result will be a series of compromises that will enable a gradual reopening. But this time, the reopening is supposed to be slower and more controlled, to avoid producing a new outbreak such as occurred in August and September.

A billboard supporting President Donald Trump and first lady Melania is seen over a mostly empty highway during nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic in Tel Aviv, October 3, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

Consequently, industries like aviation, tourism and event planning will suffer a devastating blow. For them, relief is nowhere in sight.

A fierce debate can be expected over the opening of schools. Everyone realizes that this time, a genuine separation between capsules must be enforced in the classroom.

The National Security Council, which operates on Netanyahu’s orders, is already seeking to postpone the resumption of the school year until after the Hanukkah vacation, except for preschoolers and the youngest elementary school students. But the public seems unlikely to tolerate such a decision.

The endless Haredi dilemma

Another critical question is the ultra-Orthodox community. In early September, coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu wanted to institute a model of differential regulation, under which most of the restrictions would be imposed on “red” cities, or those with a high incidence of the virus. But Netanyahu thwarted that.

The reason was clear. Ultra-Orthodox politicians, whose towns headed the red list, objected. Netanyahu is completely dependent on them for his political survival. And if he doesn’t remain prime minister, he will lose any chance of stopping his trial.

But if incidence of the virus continues dropping among the rest of the population, this question will come up again with redoubled force. Residents of cities whose resistance to the virus has improved will demand to know why they must continue groaning under a lockdown, if most of the infections are happening in ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods.

The funeral procession for the Admor of Pittsburgh, in Ashdod, October 5, 2020.Credit: Meir Oliel

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is inflaming tensions among different segments of society by assailing the protesters against him, and trying once again to enact regulations restricting movement to within 200 meters of a person’s home rather than the current kilometer to thwart the demonstrations. Shut in with his aides and his family and drowning in anger at the legal system and the ungrateful citizenry, Netanyahu doesn’t seem to grasp the intensity of the fury mounting against him among significant parts of the public.

The severe police violence against demonstrators in Tel Aviv Saturday night sparked claims about selective enforcement, and about police avoidance of areas where the ultra-Orthodox held mass prayer services in certain synagogues. Police responded in the way they know best – by immediately cracking heads in ultra-Orthodox communities as well, in the name of equality. Now, everyone is mad at them.

Nobody should envy the police, whose work has become impossible due to growing public unrest. But the violence, unnecessary arrests, petty investigations and draconian fines all have a single address: Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is pressuring senior police officers to employ an iron fist, and is thereby creating the impression that standout performances in that dubious task will improve their chances of becoming the next police commissioner.

Meanwhile, social media overflows with the secular community’s wrath after every photo showing systematic violations of the coronavirus regulations by rabbis and their students. Once, it was a picture of a police officer bending down to receive a rabbi’s blessing; another time, it was the thousands of people at the funeral of a rabbi who died from the virus.

The Haredi community’s behavior stems from both ideology and constraints. Its leadership is deathly afraid that a prolonged closure of its educational institutions will ruin an entire generation of students, and it probably can’t compromise on this for more than a few weeks. In addition, large families living in small apartments create crowded living conditions that make compliance with lockdown rules especially difficult.

That is why there is increasingly overt support within the community for the theory of “herd immunity.” Some rabbis say it’s better to let young people get infected en masse in the hopes of making the pandemic subside more quickly in their communities.

What level of infection is needed to create herd immunity for the coronavirus is disputed, and so is the question of whether it’s even possible to keep different communities with different infection rates separated. But unofficial estimates hold that in some Haredi towns, almost 40 percent of the population has already been infected.

A personal example

In the United States, tempers are aflame over President Donald Trump’s illness, and especially his irresponsible behavior both before and after catching the virus. Trump ultimately paid the price for the culture of coronavirus denial that he imposed on his administration.

In retrospect, Netanyahu – who has demonstrated far more anxiety about the virus – escaped infection by the skin of his teeth during last month’s signing ceremony for the agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Even over the past few days, Trump has continued to endanger those around him with an utter absence of responsibility – from reporting his illness only belatedly, through hanging out with donors when he already knew he was infected, to his nighttime excursion outside the hospital with his bodyguards to wave to his admirers.

In Israel, meanwhile, a scandal has erupted over the behavior of Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, who caught the virus after thumbing her nose at the regulations, and then gave misleading statements about her actions.

Gila Gamliel at the Knesset on May 17, 2020.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

Both Trump and Gamliel deserve an apology for being compared to each other, but their behavior does have something in common. It’s not just their demand for extra privileges at a time when the rest of the public is suffering under the burden of restrictions and penalties. Nor is it just their culture of lies, their deliberate deceiving of the media and the public.

It’s also, and perhaps primarily, their complete lack of concern for others, as evidenced by their willingness to endanger the health of ordinary people who don’t enjoy the special privileges available to public figures.

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