Politics Could Make Israel Lose War on Coronavirus

After Trump entered into the equation in the decision to quarantine all travelers, Israel's trust in government policy is now at risk

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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Electoral officials count ballots cast by Israelis under home quarantine after returning from Coronavirus infected zones in the city of Shoham, Israel, March 4, 2020.
Electoral officials count ballots cast by Israelis under home quarantine after returning from Coronavirus infected zones in the city of Shoham, Israel, March 4, 2020.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov,AP
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

On Monday night, the decision finally came: The prime minister imposed a home quarantine on anyone and everyone returning from overseas. The decision, which was delayed (perhaps critically) beyond the date Health Ministry experts had advised, was preceded by problematic conduct – for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak, policies concerning our health were taken with political considerations in mind.

The fight against the virus is walking a fine line between public trust in the authorities and unprecedented suspicion about the ministry’s decisions. Israel is straddling that line at a particularly sensitive moment as the number of new confirmed cases accelerates.

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Loss of trust could lead to a loss of control over the situation. The public has become accustomed to the authorities acting transparently and decisively, and basing their measures on professional advice. That has begun to change and the Health Ministry isn’t to blame.

What is responsible for the cracks that have opened in the wall of trust in U.S.-Israeli diplomatic relations and the suspicion that they have taken precedence over public health considerations?

For more than a week, the number of coronavirus cases in the United States has been growing, mainly in Washington, New York and California. As the days passed, it was getting more and more difficult to explain why travellers returning from much of Europe and Asia were being subject to quarantine, while those returning from America were still subject to no restrictions. How could the U.S. stay exempt if Israel planned to impose an effective quarantine policy? And, if Israel was going to employ a less draconian policy, why was it still keeping tens of thousands of people in isolation?

Over the weekend, the questioning grew sharper as it emerged that people attending the AIPAC annual conference in Washington, DC, had contracted the virus. Even though at least three attendees were designated as confirmed cases and scores of Israelis were at the event, no one returning to Israel was subject to quarantine orders. Meanwhile, participants at other overseas conferences had been instructed since last Wednesday to quarantine themselves (including those at AIPAC, though not those who had returned before Wednesday). No one could offer any explanation.

On Sunday the media was invited to a news conference by Health Ministry officials and rumors started circulating that a quarantine requirement would be expanded to include the Netherlands, Belgium and, of course, the U.S.

The expanded list had already been under discussion since last week, when the dimensions of the coronavirus outbreak in these countries were starting to reach those of the countries already under quarantine rules. Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said before the cabinet meeting that day that “we’re planning major steps” and the director general, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, announced on Saturday night that a decision to expand the quarantine orders to travelers from the U.S. would be taken shortly.

Bibi intervenes

At a certain point the venue of the news conference was moved to the Prime Minister’s Office and journalists were informed that Benjamin Netanyahu would be speaking. Throughout the day, reports were circulating that Netanyahu was blocking the Health Ministry’s decision to extend the quarantine rule to travelers from the U.S. out of concern for bilateral relations.

There is room here for clarification: The decision regarding the U.S. was not an easy one to make because it would have important economic implications. The quarantine rule would bring a sharp drop in travel between.

Just in terms of merchandise trade, 60% of all air cargo brought to Israel is carried on ordinary passenger flights. The Manufacturers Association trade group estimates that 31% of exports shipped by air from Israel are sent to the U.S. as does 21% of all imports.

First and foremost, the dilemma wasn’t about the economy but an agonizing political and even personal one for Netanyahu: U.S. President Donald Trump would take the quarantine order as a personal slap in the face. Netanyahu didn’t want Israel to be the first country to impose a quarantine on arrivals from the U.S.

Shortly before the press conference, journalist Ben Caspit learned that a Netanyahu aide had notified Likud Party members that “in light of the epidemic everyone is asked to continuously follow the [Facebook] page of Benjamin Netanyahu to follow the dramatic events of the State of Israel’s leadership being handed over to the Joint Arab List.” Public health and politics were being mixed.

As the news conference was due to start at 7:15 P.M., all eyes were turned toward Jerusalem, not the least those of tens of thousands of people mulling whether to cancel their flights to the U.S. and other countries not yet facing quarantine orders.

But to everyone’s surprise, nothing new was revealed at the press conference, except to say that a decision was being delayed until the following morning and that Israel may decide to impose quarantine rules on travelers arriving from everywhere in the world, including countries where there has been almost no reported incidence of coronavirus.

Monday night the long-awaited decision was made after a turbulent debate over the issue of expanding the quarantine to all countries. It was a waste of valuable time. Previous decisions had been taken quickly in response to unfolding events, thereby preventing infected travelers from entering Israel.

Meanwhile, this week has seen a worrying turning point for coronavirus in Israel as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has started rising rapidly. That suggests that policy makers must step up measures by reducing the number of public gatherings or even keeping schools shut. Israel also needs to increase the number of coronavirus tests, as recommended by the Israel Association of Public health Physicians in order to identify unexpected sources of the epidemic.

Officials at the Health Ministry and even the Prime Minister’s Office have stressed again and again, and justifiably, that public trust is the key to success. Israel’s leader must not forget this, even when they face difficult decisions. In fact, it’s even more imperative when they are making tough choices.

Even unpopular steps can succeed when they are taken with real transparency. If that principle is preserved going forward, then the public will continue to stand behind the country’s decisions.

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