Analysis |

Saga of Israel's Coronavirus Czar Captures the Daunting Task He Faces

Prof. Gabi Barbash's biggest challenge is to become an authoritative enough figure so that his recommendations, including those with harsh implications, are accepted both by political leadership and public

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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Prof. Gabi Barbash; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Prof. Gabi Barbash; Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: Moti Milrod; AP
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

Almost a day has passed since the final appointment of a coronavirus crisis "project manager" for Israel was announced. But what initially seemed like a technical delay due to "final adjustments," code for further behind-the-scenes battles, turned out to be a delay due to another crisis preceding Health Minister Yuli Edelstein's July 6th announcement.

The ongoing farce of the appointment of a "coronavirus czar" is the perfect parable for how the entire crisis is being handled in Israel. And a terrifying glimpse into the extreme inability to make decisions in this failed government, where everyone pulls in their own direction in endless battles over power, politics and ego, and it is unclear if anyone is left to see the big picture or the public interest at all.

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On Wednesday night, after finalising the details, we will have a “coronavirus czar” with a name and a face: Prof. Gabi Barbash, the person who is supposed to save us all from the horror of the second wave and lockdown.

Barbash’s greatest challenge is not actually the management of the crisis. Even though he has experience in managing complex systems such as hospitals, he can leave the logistics to those under him. His largest and most important challenge is to become an authoritative enough figure so that his recommendations, including those with harsh implications, are accepted both by the political leadership and by the public. The mission: To stop the present intolerable situation in which the leadership is unable to make decisions, and squabbles for days over every subparagraph of every decision.

In a situation of a complete lack of basic trust – of the public in the government, of politicians in each other, of officials from different ministries and sometimes within the same ministry – this is an insufferable task with low chances of success, so we must admire someone who is willing to take it on himself.

In other words, the mission is first of all to create trust. This may sound simple, but in the present situation it is very difficult. To restore trust, Barbash will need to do everything differently than the way it was until now: To present an organized plan to handle the coronavirus outbreak and prepare for the winter, to justify every step and explain it to the public, to argue with ministers but be authoritative enough to make them accept his opinion – and brave enough to take on the responsibility for actions whose price is sometimes very high.

Trust also means showing a personal example, and this was damaged severely over the months of the crisis as reports multiplied of decision makers having one rule for the public and a different one for themselves, arranging indulgences for themselves, violating the rules and receiving various and strange perks. Barbash has a track record of someone who upgraded the system of perks at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and of being someone who made widespread personal connections among the wealthy – in his words, to help out the hospital. In this case, he must act in exactly the opposite way: To provide a personal example and ensure no one has any special treatment in the use of national resources – no quicker testing for those who can pay, no exemptions for cronies and no cutting corners for those in the inner circle.

Barbash needs to be the face of the coronavirus crisis, the Dr. Anthony Fauci of Israel – to talk to the public, explain what is happening and why. He has an advantage in this, after he participated in the Channel 12 News studio over the past few months almost every evening and became a known and accepted face. It is impossible to handle a plague without public relations and the public’s cooperation – so this role is critical.

His new job will require Barbash, who until now enjoyed the convenient and pleasurable role of a television commentator, to reach his hand deep into the filth of the political system at one of its absolute worst times. Some there will try to trip him up, make headlines at his expense, be jealous of his successes and take joy in his failures. We can only hope that at least one person, who happens to be named Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that Barbash must succeed – if only to save his own skin from what is beginning to look to be one of the greatest failures in Israeli history.

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