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Netanyahu's Fear of a Diplomatic Spat With Trump Amid the Coronavirus Crisis Risked Israeli Lives

Health Ministry figures pointing to hundreds of coronavirus patients coming into Israel from the U.S. bear out results of delay in isolating returnees

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Donald Trump looks over at Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House, January 28, 2020.
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Health Ministry figures indicating that hundreds of coronavirus carriers arrived in Israel from the United States between mid-February and mid-April – constituting some 40 percent of the Israelis with the virus who are known to have been infected abroad – point up the scope of the errors made by the Israeli government in dealing with the pandemic at two particularly critical junctures.

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The first was the delay in announcing mandatory isolation for all passengers returning from the United States. The second was the overall failure in handling Israelis returning from abroad, especially from the United States, after mandatory isolation was expanded to include arrivals from all destinations.

According to the data, over the course of approximately a month, 573 confirmed coronavirus carriers arrived in Israel from the United States, compared to 610 from all of Europe. Of the latter, 150 were from France, 110 from Britain and 70 from Spain.

The danger should have been possible to predict at the beginning of the crisis, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was well aware of it, but more concerned about a different threat, one named Donald Trump.

In early March several participants in the AIPAC convention in Washington tested positive for the virus, and the convention was attended by hundreds of Israelis who were about to return to Israel without mandatory isolation. (U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman had planned to join them but postponed his return.)

However, Netanyahu feared that the U.S. president would take the imposition of restrictions on incoming U.S. flights as an insult. After all, at the time Trump still opposed taking drastic measures against the coronavirus, and Netanyahu feared to spark his anger if Israel took a different approach.

And so, after self-quarantine became mandatory for arrivals from many European countries, for several days Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman held off on expanding the requirement to include the United States. In a bid to solve the diplomatic problem, the Health Ministry proposed ordering isolation only for passengers returning from high-risk states, such as California, New York and Washington. But the government kept dragging its feet.

Eventually, in the wake of a conversation between Netanyahu and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, it was decided that Israel would make isolation mandatory for all passengers returning from abroad, in order not to stigmatize the United States as a virus hot spot, heaven forbid. At the time, at least 447 people in the United States had tested positive for the coronavirus, and it was clear that this was a fraction of the actual number of Americans infected, due to the severe undertesting in the country.

That long delay, resulting from a desire not to ruffle Trump’s feathers, has now proved to be a costly mistake. Yet on the other hand, the diplomatic pressure may have been what pushed Israel into taking broader prevention measures: isolation for returnees from all countries.

However, isolation for everyone was also mismanaged. The second error in connection to the United States was, as mentioned, the failures in isolating arrivals from abroad in the past few weeks. Since Israeli citizens were not blocked from returning to the country, flights from the United States continued to arrive. But the cabinet resolution to bring returnees, immediately upon their arrival, to hotels that are being used as isolation facilities unless they can prove they have a suitable place in which to isolate, was never implemented. Only on Sunday did the cabinet give its approval for a nearly identical resolution, in the hope that perhaps this time it would be carried out. This oversight also put lives at risk.

There is another affair which, in retrospect, was dealt with correctly despite its doubtful reception at the time: When some 65 Israeli citizens from the Chabad Hasidic movement returned from the coronavirus-stricken Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights and traveled straight to Jerusalem, it was decided they should be taken to a hotel now meant for COVID-19 patients. Neither the logistics nor the explanations to the media were well executed, but when they tested positive for the virus the decision to isolate them turned out to have been a good one.

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