Analysis |

Netanyahu Labels Unvaccinated Israelis as the New Enemy

Netanyahu has tied his fate in the election to COVID vaccinations, and suspicion arises that his proposals are influenced by personal considerations. Meanwhile, disclosing names of Israelis who have yet to get vaccinated paves way for severe infringement of privacy

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv last week.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Israeli government ought to encourage the vast majority of people over 16 to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, especially older people and those with preexisting health problems, though it must be careful not to push vaccines on people who could be endangered by them.

This is the right thing to do not only to protect the lives and health of vaccinated people themselves, but also out of mutual responsibility and concern for others. These values require a person to reduce his potential to infect others (which the vaccine apparently achieves), as well as his potential to become a coronavirus patient who imposes a burden on the health care system and prevents it from granting optimal care to everyone who needs it.

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Israel is still far from exhausting the benefits of public relations campaigns in favor of vaccination. Such campaigns must be adapted to the characteristics of each hesitant population group and be led by the most credible medical experts.

Israel is also far from exhausting the policy of offering carrots to the vaccinated. Indeed, its efforts to reward vaccination have been marred by inconsistency.

An anti-Netanyahu protest outside of the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, last year.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Given all this, it’s hard to understand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to ram through legislation authorizing local governments to be given the names of all unvaccinated people as a way of pressuring them to get vaccinated. It’s not even clear whether the proposal will end with giving local governments the names or whether these governments will follow up by trying to get people to change their minds.

Bulls shouldn’t be brought into china shops, and that’s exactly what Netanyahu’s proposal to the cabinet does. Haste is from the devil, so legislation that needs to be intelligent and effective should never be pushed through in haste.

Moreover, when what’s at stake is an important and vulnerable right like privacy, which is already being eroded, it’s essential to ensure not just that the proposal would be effective, but also that there is no equally effective way that would infringe less on people’s rights, and that the benefit expected from the proposal outweighs the damage to privacy. This assessment must be made intelligently rather than in an atmosphere of hysteria.

The fact that the vast majority of the people likely to be at high risk from the coronavirus (the elderly and people with preexisting medical conditions) have already been vaccinated (or are in the process of doing so) – and this fact is to Netanyahu’s credit, since he played a role in it – enables Israel to act in a considered fashion.

Moreover, we’ve already learned to be wary of Netanyahu’s flashes of genius with regard to privacy, like the Shin Bet security service’s cellphone tracking. This tracking, aside from severely infringing on our privacy, has proven ineffective at identifying coronavirus patients, yet it has also proven hard to get rid of.

In fact, governments rarely go one step forward and one step back when they start riding roughshod over constitutional rights. Not only is it very hard for the right in question to regain the ground it has lost, but even worse, each such retreat paves the way for additional infringement on that right, since it no longer enjoys its former status, having already been weakened.

Israelis have already seen for ourselves that this is the case. And privacy will face even greater threats in the future.

It’s hard to take Netanyahu seriously when he demands haste in dealing with the coronavirus. Someone who for months delayed dealing with people returning from overseas, even though they constitute risks of the highest order and expose Israelis to serious dangers, and who dragged his feet over testing and contact tracing shouldn’t be listened to now when he proposes acting quickly.

Netanyahu has lost his legitimacy as someone concerned for Israelis’ welfare. Someone so focused on himself (“I’m the greatest of all, the most successful, the smartest”) has no room for anyone else. Someone whose sole interest is his political survival as prime minister can’t be viewed as credible when he pretends to be acting for our sake.

Someone who deliberately refrained from passing the state budget for political reasons doesn’t deserve the public’s trust. And having tied his political fate to vaccinations, the suspicion arises that Netanyahu’s proposals on this issue are influenced by personal considerations rather than substantive ones.

A populist, authoritarian leader needs an enemy like he needs air to breathe. Now that he has conferred his seal of legitimacy on the Islamists, Netanyahu needs someone to replace them. People who are hesitant to get vaccinated can easily be framed as public enemies, just like the people protesting against him, who have been branded as spreaders of the virus.

The health maintenance organizations already have all the necessary information about who has or hasn’t been vaccinated. So if the goal is a campaign of persuasion by professionals who can be trusted with our privacy, nobody is better suited to this than the HMOs’ family doctors, who already know their patients. Why do we need to expand the circle of people privy to this medical secret by involving local government officials?

These officials aren’t trusted to preserve our privacy, nor do they have the professional knowledge to persuade hesitant people to consent freely to vaccination. On the contrary, they are liable to demand that the hesitater reveal some medical reason that would prevent him from getting vaccinated.

There’s also a risk that they will apply pressure that denies patients the ability to consent freely. Moreover, when coercion is used, some people will always respond by digging in their heels.

Netanyahu has very belatedly discovered that local governments are important players, perhaps even decisive ones, in dealing with the coronavirus. But his proposal doesn’t empower these governments, and may well even undermine them.

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