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Coronavirus Presents Israel With Novel Threat to National Security

Israel is better equipped than most countries to deal with military threat on civilian population. But the coronavirus could reset the priorities

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The decisions announced Saturday evening in the wake of consultations held by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reflect a much tougher approach to trying to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus.

The measures reflect a compromise: The Health Ministry is pushing for a total closure, while the Finance Ministry warns against causing too much economic damage, too soon.

The result is the restrictions on the number of employees allowed in a workplace, the closure of entertainment venues and the restrictions on public transportation, without preventing entirely the movement of people. Nonetheless, the direction seems clear: Assuming the virus continues to spread, Israel will adopt – perhaps already this week – much stricter measures, along the lines of those taken by China and, recently and very belatedly, by Italy.

Presumably, at some point all workplaces will be closed except for those deemed essential for the functioning of the economy and society, and that travel outside of neighborhoods and cities will be halted completely – except to buy food and medicine, along with the movement of essential workers.

It seems that these decisions, according to most public health experts, are necessary in light of the severity of the situation. Because the scientists say that the numbers of those who are ill with COVID-19 reflects only those who were infected over a week ago, and the assumption is that the phenomenon of community infection has already begun, it is essential to make the rules for social distancing stricter. This is the reason for the figure emphasized Saturday night, the need the keep a distance of 2 meters between people when they leave home.

Other weak spots exist that require broad and immediate attention. Increasing the number of coronavirus tests was identified as the main bottleneck over a week ago, and it is clear that the medical teams, some of whom have already been placed in isolation, need much broader support – and of course proper protective gear. At the same time, the question of how to treat patients in fair condition, whose numbers will certainly grow in the next few weeks, because keeping and treating them at home could end up infecting everyone in the house.

The security forces have already begun preparing three centers for hospitalizing patients in fair condition, and they are supposed to open within a week. They will be able to accept about 3,000 people, though it is feared that even this number will be inadequate if the disease continues to spread. In contrast, some of the experts think that there is no reason to hospitalize those patients in good condition outside the home and the solution is to put them in family isolation, because by the time the disease is diagnosed the rest of the family has already been infected – and at that point the battle has already been lost.

Netanyahu and Heath Minister Yaakov Litzman are pictured following a a joint press conference regarding preparations and new regulations for the coronavirus in Jerusalem on March 4, 2020.Credit: AFP

But the main weak spot that was discovered Saturday, in all its severity, concerns Israelis' difficulty in dealing with an unknown threat to national security. Israel may be better prepared than most countries to address a military threat to the civilian home front. But the spread of the virus is a completely different type of threat and the public health system that has been deprived and neglected for years must deal with it, after national priorities were shifted in favor of other needs.

One of the critical components in dealing with coronavirus concerns explaining things to the public. For over a week, the contact with the public has rested on two people: Netanyahu and Moshe Bar Siman Tov, the director general of the Health Ministry. The latter has earned great popularity from the public, for now. The rest of those briefing the public, including Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Education Minister Rafi Peretz, looked like ineffective supporting actors in their appearances, bordering on the comic, who devoted a large part of their time on the air to sucking up to Netanyahu.

Alongside Bar Siman Tov, the spokesman’s work has been put on the tiny staff of the spokesman’s office of the Health Ministry. The Public Diplomacy Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office has been without a director for over a year, and the IDF Spokesman’s Office has not been asked to help out, so far. Given these circumstances, and when the public information system was silent all Saturday, it is no surprise that Israelis voted with their feet and rushed to the supermarkets and emptied the shelves of toilet paper and other essentials. Saturday night it turned to that the police had asked for a much wider role in informing the public about the crisis. Let us wait and see, but it is hard to be optimistic about it.

The great amount of experience Netanyahu has accumulated over the years can clearly be seen in his handling of the crisis and his public appearances. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that he approached the corona crisis after the third election campaign without a decisive result, with about half of Israel’s voters hostile to him and casting doubts on the purity of his intentions, in light of his criminal trial that was supposed to begin in two more days – and for now it is hard to believe it will happen.

The exceptional political situation has created other problems too: The Knesset is not functioning and there is no external oversight on the prime minister’s decisions. Netanyahu has also not bothered to convene the cabinet and has made do with consultations with professional forums, for which he occasionally brings in a few of the relevant ministers.

The army’s role

Over the past few days, it seems as if the penny has dropped and the IDF has finally come to the realization as to the severity of the crisis and need to shoulder the burden. Throughout the weekend, the General Staff held intensive discussions concerning two central issues: Preserving the military’s capabilities to prevent having to shut down entire units, such as air force squadrons, ships and intelligence units – and at the same time to provide help to the health system and police.

But as opposed to some of the reports in the media, the IDF is not interested in “taking charge” and receiving full responsibility for handling the crisis. In areas such as the economy and health, the IDF has no relative advantage over the professional organizations and also has no real understanding of how to manage a civilian crisis. The generals are in no rush to push to impose a military administration, and certainly not with the question of the trust in the prime minister hovering in the background.

The IDF can help out, but it cannot provide the solution to the corona outbreak, this is a civilian incident, that the country’s civilian authority must manage, in the hope that it will succeed as soon as possible.

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