Netanyahu's White House Delegation Pushed for Quarantine Exemption, and Got a Reduction

Health Ministry forms special five-day isolation framework for delegation members, who were required to take COVID-19 tests before departing to signing ceremony and upon their return

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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with U.S. President Donald Trump after signing the Abraham Accords at the White House, September 15, 2020
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with U.S. President Donald Trump after signing the Abraham Accords at the White House, September 15, 2020Credit: TOM BRENNER/ REUTERS

The delegation that accompanied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the signing ceremony in Washington has received a major reduction in the amount of time they will have to quarantine upon their return on Wednesday – only five days instead of the 14 required for those returning to Israel from the United States.

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The delegation was also required to take COVID-19 tests before their trip and upon their arrival in Israel.

The organizers of the delegation tried to receive a full exemption from any medical isolation upon their return, prompting a clash with Health Ministry officials, who insisted delegation members spend at least five days in isolation, ministry officials said.

"There was a bit of shouting, but everyone is going to sit at home until Monday,” said one of the officials.

The Health Ministry created a special framework for the members of the delegation for the Washington trip to sign of the normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. It required the delegation and those accompanying them to take a COVID-19 test before the flight and another after returning to Israel. In addition, they were required to remain inside their separate pods throughout their entire visit. “The framework was instituted according to the recommendations of the professional staff, out of an understanding of the importance of the historic agreement along with strictly keeping the Health Ministry instructions,” said ministry officials.

The United States is currently the global leader in coronavirus infections with 6.6 million Americans catching the virus and 196,000 deaths attributed to it since the outbreak began. Pictures from the signing ceremony on the White House lawn showed participants sitting close to one another and without masks. It was also quite easy to see an almost total avoidance of the social distancing rules from the television broadcast of the ceremony, when Netanyahu and his wife also avoided wearing face masks.

In response to a question as to whether Netanyahu and his family would be required to remain in isolation, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of medical services in the Health Ministry, said during an interview on Army Radio on Wednesday: “I haven’t seen the pictures, what it exactly looked like there. The framework constructed with this delegation was based on their coming as a single group on a separate plane, sleeping in a separate wing in the hotel," and not leaving their hotel for any reason other than the signing "so they will not require isolation."

Alroy-Preis added that "If this basic principle was violated, then it will be necessary to change the instructions they are given. I don’t think that the delegation received a VIP exemption, the framework is like the one we give professional soccer players,” she said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and wife Sara boarding a plane on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport, heading for UAE signing ceremony in Washington, September 13, 2020. Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO

Nonetheless, health system officials still criticized the unique framework tailored specifically for the delegation, just before all of Israel is put under a lockdown, due to the high infection rate. Some officials say that given the pictures from the signing ceremony, the approval of the special framework was a mistake – both epidemiologically and no less important, from the perspective of how it looks to the public, failing to provide a personal example and sending the wrong message to Israelis, who are required to pay a heavy price in the coming days.

The official delegation’s actions in Washington were a “serious mistake,” a senior health official told Haaretz. “It sends a very bad message to Israelis, while the country demands from them to carefully keep the rules of social distancing. They all needed to go into isolation for two weeks on their return, if just for the reason of the way it looks to the public,” said the official.

In practice, it is unlikely the health system will take any action on the matter. Two weeks ago, the highest levels at the Health Ministry participated in a meeting – it turned out later – in which a senior official who was later diagnosed with the coronavirus took part. Since then, all senior officials of the ministry, including Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, have been in isolation. Edelstein even took part in the press conference Netanyahu called about the coronavirus crisis via video call while remaining in quarantine.

The Health Ministry said in response: "On the one hand, Haaretz sends a reporter as part of the prime minister's delegation to the signing ceremony of the peace agreements. On the other hand, they criticize the same outline that was known in advance. There is one word: hypocrisy. The delegation remained in one capsule. Members of the delegation and journalists were required to take coronavirus tests and declare that they do not leave the capsule complexes throughout the visit. The outline was determined in accordance with the recommendations of the professional echelon, out of an understanding of the importance of the historic agreement and out of strict adherence to the guidelines of the Health Ministry."

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