Wary of Trump, Netanyahu Overrules Health Ministry on U.S. Coronavirus Quarantine

Shocking those aware of officials' opinion on coronavirus, PM pulls back on requiring Israelis returning from U.S. to self-quarantine, and political considerations may have had a role

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus outbreak, Jerusalem, March 8, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus outbreak, Jerusalem, March 8, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

News had been leaking out from Health Ministry officials Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s associates had pressured them to walk back any quarantine planned for Israelis returning from the three hardest-hit U.S. states. The prime minister began pivoting to the more sweeping strategy that would quarantine all overseas travelers. 

But Netanyahu pulled back from making either move, deciding, instead, not to decide.

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Bibi limps to election 'victory.' But he didn't winCredit: Haaretz Weekly Podcast

Sunday’s standstill hurt the government’s credibility as it insisted that public health, not politics, was the sole consideration when it came to fighting the outbreak of the disease. Another sign that political considerations had begun to play a role in the restrictions was the fact that the large number of Israelis returning from the AIPAC convention in Washington D.C. were not being required to self-quarantine, even after the finding that three people at the conference – which was attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and a long list of senators and congressmen – had been diagnosed with the virus.

In a morning radio interview, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin was the first official to publicly admit that politics and diplomacy played a role in such decision-making when it came to the U.S., saying that “the relationship is especially sensitive, and when we make decisions regarding the United States, it is in coordination, and we won’t take any unilateral steps.” 

Calling the U.S. “an ally, a responsible country, and any decisions regarding that country need to be careful and cooperative.”  

Netanyahu had been expected to drop a bombshell Sunday night at a much-anticipated press conference unveiling intensified measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Israel.

He began his remarks with lavish compliments on the way in which the United States was handling the coronavirus crisis and his fruitful conversations regarding technological cooperation with Pence, the White House point man on the outbreak. It seemed that at minimum, he was getting ready to soften the blow of bad news: that Israel had decided to put parts of the United States on its growing list of locations in which the virus was deemed by health officials to be spreading at a dangerous rate, and that required restrictions on those entering Israel.

But to the shock of those familiar with the opinions of health officials regarding the risks of infections from travelers returning from the U.S., Netanyahu pulled back, saying that the government was still meeting and deliberating their “difficult decision” and any new guidelines would be released the next day. He then ruled out the possibility that any country would be singled out for further restrictions, saying that “if we decide to expand [the quarantine regulations] any further, they will apply to all destinations.”

Reports had been circulating since Saturday night that the Health Ministry had determined that the same restrictions were necessary for those traveling from New York, California, and Washington – the locations of the largest U.S. outbreaks – that it has already slapped on a long list of Asian and European countries. The formal announcement of such a step was expected the next morning. 

But Sunday morning came and went. The anticipated announcements were not made, with no explanation given for the absence of an announcement, only that all would be explained at an evening press conference.  Uncharacteristic hesitation and indecision were written on the prime minister’s face as he spoke. The reason was clear – he was caught between his own health officials and their promises that the health of Israelis was the government’s utmost concern and priority – and President Donald Trump. Trump’s desire to downplay the threat of the spread of the virus in the U.S. and paint a rosy picture of his control over the situation there was no secret. There were reports in the U.S. media that Trump had overruled federal health officials who had wanted to issue guidance recommending that the elderly and ill avoid flying, stemming from the president’s fear of the economic fallout. 

Fans attend a basketball game in Jerusalem, March 2020.
Fans attend a basketball game in Jerusalem, March 2020.Credit: Nir Keidar

If Israel, America’s close ally and biggest aid recipient, were to become one of the first countries to restrict entry from the U.S., the chances that the move would be interpreted as a slap in the face were high. And as he struggles to navigate post-election coalition building and faces an impending corruption trial, Netanyahu can little afford to risk angry tweets from the volatile U.S. president. 

Levin bemoaned the toll that the coronavirus was taking in a year that he had hoped to see tourism to Israel reach new heights, as the evaporating influx of tourists continued to take a toll, with the announcement of massive cutbacks and layoffs at both El Al and the Israel Airports Authority, and the ripple effects on the economy expected when overseas tourists are forced to cancel their visits to Israel for the upcoming Passover holiday.

On Sunday the Health Ministry has announced that another 10 patients have been diagnosed with coronavirus, bringing the total of infected Israelis to 39. Five of these were diagnosed today after returning from abroad, having returned from countries with cases of the virus: Italy, Spain, Belgium and Austria.

A man in his 40s from central Israel became the 29th Israeli to test positive for the virus. The Health Ministry says it has yet to identify from where he contracted the virus.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Arye Dery announced that anyone who has been in Egypt in the past two weeks and is not an Israeli citizen or resident will be prevented from entering Israel. The ban will take effect immediately, he said.

Also, 13 Americans quarantined in a West Bank hotel for fear they caught coronavirus have tested negative, a Palestinian official said. “The American tourists will leave either later this evening or tomorrow morning,” said Ibrahim Melhem, a spokesman for the Palestinian government.

The group, from the 3Circle Church in Fairhope, Alabama, were placed in quarantine at the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, next to Bethlehem, on Wednesday.

Coronavirus also began to take a toll on the festive atmosphere in Israel as public schools prepared to usher in the holiday preceding Passover. As costumed students went to Purim parties held before the three-day vacation, students who had returned from any international destinations over the past 14 days were told to stay home, even if they were not in quarantine. The reason: School-wide festivities were gatherings of more than 100 people, which all international travelers were forbidden to attend. 

Synagogues planning their Purim observances, including the lively eadings of the Book of Esther, also sent out warnings to anyone who had returned from any overseas destination to stay at home – the place to which any Israeli returnee may be confined, as soon as Netanyahu dares to make that announcement. 

With reporting by Ido Efrati and Reuters.

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