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Political Concerns Delay Necessary Closure of Israel's Coronavirus Hot Spots

The government does not want to be portrayed as discriminating against ultra-Orthodox society, but the move must be made to curb the spread of the coronavirus

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A police checkpoint at the entrance to Tel Aviv, March 31, 2020.
A police checkpoint at the entrance to Tel Aviv, March 31, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

After a few days break, press statements and new restrictions on the public have resumed. It’s hard to avoid thinking that the changes in the coronavirus battle are connected, somehow, to the volatility of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political position.

Preventative measures slowed down somewhat after he managed to persuade the Gantz-Ashkenazi faction of Kahol Lavan to abandon its declared position and agree, in principle, to join a rotation government led by him. On Monday, however, the restrictions were further intensified, after a stormy day on the political front.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

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There is, of course, the data itself. Over the past two days there was a certain decline in the pace of new confirmed infections in Israel, due to measures that have already been taken. This data, which many naturally want to rely on, once again raises the dispute about further clampdowns on the economy, as the Health Ministry continues to demand a full closure.

Some of those attending Health Ministry discussions believe their position is totally coordinated with Netanyahu, whose nature – and desperate need for political points – tend toward a full closure, despite the clear risks to the economy. The collapse of health services in Italy, Spain, and in some major American cities is serving as a warning sign.

Other participants in these discussions stress the frenetic management of the crisis – long, marathon meetings with discussions that swing between opposing poles and sometimes end without a decision. To those involved it’s clear what the next focal point of the disputes is: The ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) cities and neighborhoods, where the rate of infection is several times higher than in other places.

People stand outside together despite coronavirus restrictions, Bnei Brak, March 30, 2020
People stand outside together despite coronavirus restrictions, Bnei Brak, March 30, 2020Credit: Nir Keidar

Most ultra-Orthodox rabbis have sobered up, but this awakening came after a critical delay. The required response, it would seem, would be to impose a tougher closure in neighborhoods with significant outbreaks. But there is concern that this would look like discrimination, not to mention what this would cost Netanyahu in his coalition negotiations. Netanyahu spoke about “increased enforcement” on Monday night, but didn’t explain what exactly this would entail.

There’s a risk that the ultra-Orthodox public will be harmed twice – once by the rabbis’ apathy, and secondly because of their politicians, who one would think would be calling to take all measures possible to protect those who elected them to the Knesset.

This morning, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman raised the flag first, calling on Bnei Brak to be closed. It seems best to do this quickly, and consider similar moves in other centers of infection too.

For now, if you’ll pardon the use of military terminology, the state is continuing to fire heavy artillery at the virus, but is refraining from focused surgical strikes. This is despite the fact that there has been a rise in the number of tests and private initiatives to collect information, such as daily questionnaires being distributed by Weizmann Institute researchers, which provide officials with more information about how the virus is spreading.

Like managing a grocery store

Meanwhile, Netanyahu promised an 80 billion shekel ($22.3 billion) economic aid program on Monday night. A random sampling of conversations with the self-employed and small business owners reveals real fear and an increasing difficulty to pay workers and cover expenses. Two municipalities in Israel’s center that conducted surveys last week found that 30 percent of business owners in their jurisdictions will have a hard time making their municipal payments this month.

Prof. Eran Yashiv, of Tel Aviv University’s School of Economics, told Haaretz that the management of the crisis so far has been “Amateurish and a failure, and reminds one of a grocery store. Successful marketing appearances by the prime minister isn’t good management. They must integrate the handling of the health and economic crisis.”

A policeman in Bnei Brak, March 30, 2020
A policeman in Bnei Brak, March 30, 2020Credit: Nir Keidar

Yashiv proposes establishing a “corona policy committee,” that will include equal numbers of people from the treasury, the Bank of Israel, and external experts. “A professional team from the treasury would work alongside the committee. The committee would set the time frames, the expenditure clauses and their size. All the expenses and tax breaks would be affiliated with the crisis and would be part of a separate section of the state budget.”

The primary expenses he expects fall into four categories. The health system will require capital expenditures (respiratory equipment, protective gear and testing kits) and wage payments (salaries and incentives for the medical staff). Assistance to households will also be needed, both as direct grants and by defining the scope, duration and eligibility for unemployment and income maintenance. The tax authority and the National Insurance Institute will have to help identify the needy, he says.

The third area relates to businesses, through transfer payments, subsidies, and the temporary suspension of taxes. The fourth area is connected to ensuring market activities like insurance, credit and capital. Yashiv added that the coronavirus crisis will require focused assistance for two economically weak populations, the Haredim and the Arabs, who together make up more than a third of the population.

Corona grade

On Monday it emerged that Rivka Faluch, Netanyahu’s liaison to the Haredi community, had been infected with the coronavirus. After several hours of confusion, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Netanyahu and his close aides were self-quarantining until Faluch’s “epidemiological path” over the previous few days had been clarified. At first, Netanyahu claimed that he hadn’t been in Faluch’s presence in the previous two weeks.

Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud faction meeting, Jerusalem, May 28, 2018
Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud faction meeting, Jerusalem, May 28, 2018Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The past few weeks have been full of political drama, most of which took place in the Knesset building. It’s reasonable to assume that some other senior government and Knesset officials ran into Faluch during this period. If the Shin Bet security service used its locating technology to determine this – and in theory, that’s what’s meant to happen with any confirmed case of the virus – some of the country’s top politicians would be paralyzed for the coming week. What’s more, Netanyahu, a sworn advocate of secrecy, will have to conduct all his consultations, including those regarding security, by phone or through an application like Zoom.

News of Faluch’s infection outraged Prof. Hagai Levine, chair of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians. For more than a week Levine has been complaining that the use of monitoring technology to identify people who might have been exposed to the virus was dubious, since its accuracy hasn’t been proven. Faluch’s case, he said, demonstrates this problem – and if the leadership is to be exempted, this justifies exempting everyone.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the Shin Bet might be only the first step on this slippery slope. Defense Minister Naftali Bennet proudly announced the next one: The “corona grade,” which would be given to every citizen on a daily basis, based on the monitoring of their movements, to calculate the likelihood of their exposure.

This time, our personal information will not only be in the hands of the Shin Bet and the Health Ministry; the boys from Intelligence Corps Unit 8200, the army’s main information gathering unit, will also be in the picture, along with spyware firm NSO, which has been accused of involvement in several instances of human rights violations in other countries over the past two years, though the company has vehemently denied this.

It could certainly be that NSO only cares about public health at this difficult time. Still, when the state asks citizens to voluntarily give up their privacy to such an impromptu mix of intelligence organizations and private companies, the question of what the next step will be arises. Perhaps in a couple of weeks they will suggest that to preserve our health we should start to smoke – and they’ll promise that we needn’t worry, because everything will be supervised by ethics and medical consultants with cigarette maker Philip Morris.

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