Analysis

Israelis Act as if the Coronavirus Crisis Is Over, and It's a Dangerous Illusion

Economic hardships and claustrophobia have pushed Israelis to embrace fully the easing of restrictions – but the country is far from being back to normal. Meanwhile, the northern front is heating up.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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People queuing outside an Ikea store after it reopened following a coronavirus lockdown, in Netanya, Israel, April 21, 2020.
People queuing outside an Ikea store after it reopened following a coronavirus lockdown, in Netanya, Israel, April 21, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The plight of the self-employed, unemployed and parents of young children this week overrode the anxieties of top Health Ministry officials, and fears for the lives of major at-risk groups: The elderly and those with underlying health conditions. This, in essence, is what drove Israel to move at lightning speed from waging war against the coronavirus by all means necessary, to impatiently discussing how to get the economy back on track.

Instantaneously, the somewhat obsessive calculation of the number of ventilators, the newly infected and the seriously ill was replaced by careful consideration of the rules for reopening falafel stands, optometrists’ offices and branches of Ikea. And because our cabinet ministers dwell among their people, and more particularly among the pressure groups they respond to, we were privy to several exceptionally odd dialogues in virtual cabinet meetings. Meanwhile, the government has not yet found time to address the problems of parents whose children are wards in institutions and who haven’t seen them for more than a month.

The deputy director general of the Health Ministry, Prof. Itamar Grotto, a natural spokesperson seasoned in the art of public diplomacy, offered a succinct summary: “The present wave of the virus has pretty much played itself out.” Israelis heard him – and voted with their feet. It’s not surprising that on Wednesday police handed out only two tickets in the whole country, both for failing to wear a face mask in public. The dam can no longer hold the floodwaters.

The tremendous economic hardship and people’s exhaustion with being stuck between four walls are giving rise to layers upon layers of rationalizations that play down the dangers of the epidemic. There is a resurgence of the groundless claims that “it’s only flu” (tell that to the physicians in New York’s intensive care units), and the rise of unproven theories, for example that the majority of the public has already developed a natural immunity to the virus.

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Corona keeps Bibi in power and unmasks the MossadCredit: Haaretz

Israel was spared a disaster on the scale of New York and some Western European countries thanks to a mix of natural advantages (a young population, only one major port of entry) and correct decisions made early on (supervision of those entering the country, isolating the elderly, a partial lockdown). Now, the distance from a total collapse of the healthcare system – where the number of people who need respirators exceeds the number of machines – looks safe.

The measures that were taken by the executive are responsible for containing the coronavirus, for “flattening the curve” – not some kind of mysterious inner logic displayed by the virus. According to some theories, it completes its path of destruction within a period of two to two and a half months.

Although trends in various countries look similar, peaks of morbidity appeared in countries where social distancing was introduced late: Italy and Spain (which were hit by the virus at an early stage), Britain and the United States. All these countries are now examining theories that the true number of coronavirus deaths might be double the official published number. And in all of them, the curve’s descent does not resemble its ascent. The containment stage is lengthy, extending over weeks and months. Even Singapore, which was praised for seemingly overcoming the virus, is now experiencing a severe outbreak, compelling authorities to impose a rigid lockdown.

A patient in intensive care during the coronavirus outbreak, Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv, April 22, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Some good news looms on the horizon. Studies have raised questions about how infectious – if at all – children are who fall ill with the virus (most of them are asymptomatic). The international effort to develop a vaccine is proceeding in a number of countries. The experimental medication Remdesivir, of the Gilead company in the United States, seems to be showing promising signs in the treatment of coronavirus victims. Yet, the virus is a long way from disappearing. Indications are that we will have to live in its shadow for some time yet.

Prof. Ran Balicer, from the Clalit HMO, described the situation Thursday in Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth: The lockdown has played itself out; the partial return to normalcy is called for, but must be carried out with maximum caution. Balicer emphasizes three essential elements: Investigating, locating and isolating those who are sick within 24 to 48 hours of a test (Israel is far from this, because it did not set in place an efficient epidemiological testing system); a focus on “red zones” where an outbreak occurred; and improved protection of the at-risk populations.

Hezbollah flags flutter along an empty street, amid the coronavirus outbreak, at the entrance of Mays Al-Jabal village, close to the Lebanese border with Israel, March 26, 2020.
Hezbollah flags flutter along an empty street, amid the coronavirus outbreak, at the entrance of Mays Al-Jabal village, close to the Lebanese border with Israel, March 26, 2020.Credit: AZIZ TAHER/ REUTERS

Message from the north

As a news item, the coronavirus is running roughshod over every other story. For example, a disturbing incident that occurred last Friday evening on the Israel-Lebanon border slipped quietly under the media’s radar.

The border fence was cut in three different places simultaneously – next to the villages of Metulla, adjacent to Kibbutz Yiftah and close by Kibbutz Yiron. Ibramin al-Amine, editor of Al Akhbar, a newspaper close to Hezbollah, wrote that Hezbollah personnel were able to disconnect the cables connecting the fence to observation networks. The breach next to Yiron was six meters wide, “enabling vehicles, and not only fighters, to cross deep into occupied Palestine.”

According to Dr. Shimon Shapira, an expert on Hezbollah from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the message sent by the organization in this action was loud and clear. Israel prided itself on destroying six tunnels dug by Hezbollah, which were discovered beneath the fence in late 2018. But the organization is signaling that it remains capable, if it wishes, of transporting its forces to launch a coordinated surprise attack on the ground.

On Wednesday, an air strike attributed to Israel targeted a jeep used by Hezbollah personnel on the Syrian side of the border with Lebanon. The occupants of the vehicle had abandoned it when a warning missile landed close by, but it’s not entirely clear whether they managed to take with them their cargo, which apparently included components related to “Project Precision.” A joint Iran-Hezbollah effort, its aim is to upgrade the precision of the rockets in the organization’s possession.

In the background, Iran is still pulling the strings. Col. (res.) Udi Evental, from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, wrote this week that despite the catastrophe being wrought by the coronavirus epidemic in Iran, the regime there is continuing to develop its nuclear and ballistic capabilities, and is still meddling in countries across the Middle East. Tehran recently announced an around-the-clock effort to complete the development and operation of advanced centrifuges. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran is intensifying its breaches of the nuclear agreement and has increased its stock of low-grade enriched uranium, and has put into operation six sets of centrifuges at its subterranean facility in Fordo.

In Evental’s view, “Iran is liable to take advantage of the world’s focus on the coronavirus and of the difficulties the epidemic is posing for the International Atomic Energy Agency to carry out effective supervisory operations.” David Albright, a leading expert on nuclear affairs, estimates that Iran’s timespan for making the breakthrough to capability of manufacturing nuclear weapons has been shortened and now stands at less than four months. The question, of course, is whether nuclear weapons is what the regime wants and whether it is ready to risk – in circumstances of a very acute health and economic crisis – a direct confrontation with a U.S. administration whose behavior is unpredictable.

A first military satellite named Noor is launched into orbit by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, in Semnan, Iran, April 22, 2020.
A first military satellite named Noor is launched into orbit by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, in Semnan, Iran, April 22, 2020.Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

Washington, like Tehran, is currently preoccupied with the coronavirus epidemic. The two countries responded late to the virus, which brought them masses of victims. At the beginning of January, President Donald Trump surprised his advisers, and perhaps even himself when, against their view, he ordered the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a senior commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. But lately, the administration’s attentiveness to events in the Middle East and Central Asia has diminished.

The United States is getting ready to remove its forces from Afghanistan and reduce its military presence in Iraq. The American-Iranian confrontation in Iraq is on a low burner, with the Iranians acting through proxies in the form of local Shi’ite militias. But the Israeli defense establishment’s impression is that Tehran prefers in the meantime not to get into a direct clash with Trump. Its target date is the presidential election in November, in the hope that the coronavirus will remove him from the White House and bring in Joe Biden instead.

As for Israel, it appears to have identified a propitious moment in terms of Iranian weakness and is accordingly stepping up its activity in the “campaign between the wars.” The coronavirus crisis required several weeks of adjustment, but it is now clear that it’s possible, up to a point, to have it both ways. And Hezbollah, notwithstanding its surprise action a week ago, is still being careful not to approach the brink of war, both because of the economic debacle in Lebanon and because it’s not certain how Israel will act.

Broadening the terms

The Israel Defense Forces does not use the term “exit strategy” in connection with the coronavirus epidemic, preferring instead to refer to it as a stage in the battle against the virus. We are now entering “life in the presence of the coronavirus,” a period that might last a year, or maybe even two. It is expected to include ups and downs in the rate of the disease’s spread in Israel, the imposition of site-specific lockdowns and a general slowdown of the economy. The crisis will continue under conditions of great uncertainty, with the army busy maintaining the fitness of its units, assisting the state and formulating plans for the day after.

Some General Staff officers believe the crisis also presents a great opportunity. This has to do, as many civilian companies also discovered, with working from home. “Without the coronavirus, that process would have taken us years longer,” a senior member of the General Staff tells Haaretz. The IDF does not use the Zoom app; it has other options for video conferences, some of which allow a discussion to be classified “secret” or “top secret.” The total amount of time taken up by these remote discussions multiplied fourfold in the past month, from about 2,500 hours a day to more than 10,000 hours.

IDF Chief of Staff bumping elbows with a Haim Bibas, head of Israel's federation of local authorities, in Deir al-Asad, Israel, April 22, 2020.
IDF Chief of Staff bumping elbows with a Haim Bibas, head of Israel's federation of local authorities, in Deir al-Asad, Israel, April 22, 2020.Credit: IDF Spokesperson Unit

The army estimates that eliminating traveling, cutting down the waiting time for meetings and unnecessary talking have saved about 20 percent of the officers’ time. At the same time, awkward, slow processes such as personnel management will be made digital.

The crisis has also forced the defense establishment to take a more serious look at national security issues. The previous chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, referred to this in an article he published last year, after his retirement. The coronavirus has shown – the hard way – that Israel’s security, as on that of the international community, can be affected by a far more complex set of causes.

The Israeli healthcare system did not have the appropriate research tools to forecast epidemiological developments, and they were not included in the forecasts of the Israeli intelligence community, either. In recent years the latter has addressed issues that were not previously considered to be associated with security, such as cyber infiltrations, world economic crises, or the implications of the growing use of artificial intelligence. It’s clear now that in the years ahead, the dangers of epidemics will occupy a significant place on the list of threats. This period would also seem to offer a good opportunity to include the climate crisis and the risk in Israel of a significant natural disaster.

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