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Netanyahu Sells Out Coronavirus Fight to Keep the ultra-Orthodox Happy

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Netanyahu and Gamzu give a press conference at Sheba Medical Center, August 2, 2020.
Netanyahu and Gamzu give a press conference at Sheba Medical Center, August 2, 2020.Credit: Tal Shahar

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stinging slap in the face for coronavirus coordinator Ronny Gamzu this week could be heard all the way to Uman.

Maybe Gamzu had built up too much strength and independence, or maybe he came off as a threat due to his authoritative conduct and refusal to cut corners. Maybe because he keeps opposing a general lockdown contrary to Netanyahu, or maybe because of the rumors that he has political ambitions, but the decision came to put him in his place and possibly show him the door. And if he can also serve as the lightning rod for ultra-Orthodox anger at the intent to block flights to the annual pilgrimage in Uman, Ukraine, even better.

Ukraine’s government apparently did Israel’s conflicted government a favor by announcing that entrance to most foreigners would be banned outright for the next month. But the events of the past two weeks left a very bitter taste of a leadership crisis and a further erosion of public faith.

The signs were already there, but it became official on Monday when Netanyahu’s bureau issued a laconic statement and stabbed Gamzu in the back. “The prime minister did not ask to limit the number of people visiting Uman,” it stated.

In other words: Netanyahu won’t be standing in the way of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who want to visit Uman so long as “they maintain health regulations.” Then Gamzu came under direct attack: Former health minister Yaakov Litzman called for him to be fired for overstepping his authority, adding, “He didn’t petition the High Court of Justice against the protests outside the [prime minister’s official residence] on Balfour Street.” Coalition chairman and Netanyahu associate MK Miki Zohar responded in a similar vein, stating, “The Uman flights will take place.”

This was a stinging rebuke for Gamzu, who threw his full weight behind preventing the flights to Uman. When he took the job, he promised the public good faith and logic. He knew he had no way to back down on the issue, without destroying the trust in him.

On Monday, he reiterated his opposition to the pilgrimage and called to halt the 80 or so direct charter flights that would carry most of the pilgrims, while letting the few thousand people who would fly on layovers to go and return home for a two-week quarantine.

Hasidic Jewish pilgrims pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav during the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, in Uman, Ukraine, September 21, 2017.Credit: Valentyn Ogirenko/ REUTERS

Gamzu didn’t try to take a conciliatory tone. “The state of sickness in Israel is among the worst and most complicated in the world, so no one should take it lightly and say, let’s have weddings and events, or illegal weddings, and let’s let 20,000 to 30,000 travel to Uman for Rosh Hashanah,” he said. Putting 15,000 to 20,000 people into isolation upon their return would be impossible, he said.

Gamzu presented a model of leadership that contrasted with Netanyahu’s. He said he respects the followers of Rabbi Nachman and is upset by the harsh messages they’ve sent him, “but no one promised me a rose garden in this job.” He added, “If I’m not being given all the tools to minimize illness, then obviously I have no reason to be serving in this role.”

There’s no question that Netanyahu understands the epidemiological risk inherent in a mass pilgrimage to Uman. Netanyahu was one of the first leaders to understand the danger of the coronavirus, a major factor in Israel’s quick initial response in March, including the shutting of borders. This time, Netanyahu was ready to abandon all this just to avoid a conflict with his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners – Litzman, Arye Dery and several tens of thousands of Bratslav Hasidim who all know which buttons to press. At a time when Netanyahu is facing several court cases and has a fragile coalition and very few partners, there are quite a few buttons.

The Uman incident was the most pointed example of how Netanyahu’s weakness, lack of leadership and political cowardice has harmed Israel’s ability to combat the coronavirus. In order not to aggravate his natural partners, he was willing to settle for simply calling on tens of thousands not to fly to Uman, demeaning his virus coordinator who had shown too much independence and letting him take all the fire. And if he could get Gamzu to criticize the Balfour protests, even better.

The Prime Minister’s Office stated in response: “Netanyahu appointed Gamzu as coronavirus czar and appreciates his dedicated work, works with him daily and calls on everyone to do so.”

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