While Israel's Coronavirus Czar Enchants the Public, a More Sinister Crisis Brews

Ronni Gamzu has managed to finally enact the measures Israel knew it needed months ago; but however smart the band-aid, it is not going to fix the increasingly violent confrontation around the anti-Netanyahu protests

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A masked anti-Netanyahu protester in Jerusalem, July 29 2020
A masked anti-Netanyahu protester in Jerusalem, July 29 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Twitter is in love. Prof. Ronni Gamzu’s first press conference as Israel’s coronavirus czar Tuesday evening thrilled journalists and the Twitterverse. Unlike the retired generals and a different physician who preceded him as candidates for the post, Gamzu eschewed protracted negotiations over the scope of his authority. It appears that he judged, with some justification, that through vim and vigor, self-confidence and determination he could win his place at the helm and steer the country safely through the pandemic. That was certainly the impression he gave Tuesday.

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It was obvious that the professor of gynecology, who also has a master’s degree in health care administration and a master’s in business administration, prepared thoroughly for his first public appearance in his new position. He laid out clear principles for policy, albeit without going into detail. Gamzu expressed reservations about a return to a full lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, promised complete transparency in setting policy and in presenting data to the public and said he will put an end to the frequent imposition of nonsensical, draconian restrictions aimed at slowing infection. He did not paint pessimistic scenarios, did not employ scare tactics and did not return to the dark days of the Middle Ages for a nostalgic recollection of past plagues.

Also notable in his address, as in his television interviews that followed, was the frequent use of the first person singular. I, I, I. Gamzu left no room for doubt about who will be making the decisions. In doing so, he swept aside Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who appeared less relevant – and that was nothing compared to the very brief showing by Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who sounded like somebody who had wandered in by chance and was asked to give his blessing.

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pushed to the sidelines somewhat. For the first time in years, he sat in the audience (observing social distancing plus an extra margin of safety) and listened at length to a speech by someone other than himself. Perhaps he sees this new appointment as a boon to him. Gamzu succeeds in the job? We’ll take the credit. Gamzu fails? We’ll sic the right-wing political commentator Yaakov Bardugo & Co. on him, as we have lately with several public servants, from Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to Shaul Meridor, director of budgets in the Finance Ministry.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu presents his coronavirus program for nursing homes, Tel Aviv, April 20, 2020.
Prof. Ronni Gamzu presents his coronavirus program for nursing homes, Tel Aviv, April 20, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

Gamzu said many things Tuesday that made sense. But at the same time, it’s infuriating to consider how much time was wasted. Many of the principles he set out, and even the practical measures, were proposed previously by the various teams of experts, by former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, head of far-right party Yamina, and in a report issued by the temporary coronavirus committee, headed by Ofer Shelah, a lawmaker from the opposition's Yesh Atid party in the short-lived previous Knesset. Gamzu and the other speakers acted as if the coronavirus were a new phenomenon. As if it hasn’t been five months since it arrived in Israel. And above all, as if there wasn’t a period of two months, May and June, during which Netanyahu, Gantz and Edelstein took their time and dozed off instead of using the lull in the pandemic to get the health system ready for the next wave.

The news conference was convened during a downturn in the rate of infection in Israel. There was no change in the number of new confirmed cases of the virus (mainly in young adults without symptoms of COVID-19), and the number of new patients in severe condition is also stable. There has been an increase in the daily death count, however, which is a reflection of the previous rise in the infection rate.

But the infection rate is still high, at around 2,000 new cases a day. It was reported Tuesday that Israel even passes the United States in the number of new patients per million inhabitants. Some of that can be attributed to the large number of tests in Israel (over 25,000 a day on weekdays), but it’s far from being a source of pride. The new brand – ambassador of the coronavirus in Israel; sorry, the pandemic resource coordinator – still has a great deal of work waiting for him.

The right’s false symmetry

In the background, meanwhile, a social, economic and political crisis that could be more harmful than the coronavirus is worsening. Alongside the plagues of unemployment and the loss of income, the first signs of anarchy are visible in the streets, with the police adding to the violence instead of constraining it. On Tuesday night in Tel Aviv, demonstrators who came to protest outside the home of Public Security Minister Amir Ohana were assaulted and beaten bloody with bats and broken bottles.

The assailants were right-wing thugs, and at first glance it appears they have something in common with extremist soccer fan clubs. In terms of ideology, it’s the same racist and repulsive breeding ground that gave rise to the hunt against Arab laborers in the center of Jerusalem in summer 2014, after the bodies of Israeli teens murdered by a Hamas cell in the Etzion Bloc – Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel – were discovered. (Later that night a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was abducted and murdered by Jewish extremists.)

Beitar Jerusalem soccer supporters watching a match against Maccabi Umm al-Fahm at the Teddy Stadium in 2013. Its La Familia members are a notoriously extremist group.
Beitar Jerusalem supporters watching a soccer match against Maccabi Umm al-Fahm at the Teddy Stadium in 2013. Its La Familia members are known for virulently far-right, racist views. Credit: Bernat Armangue / AP / יס דו

The incident in Tel Aviv Tuesday night was not the first of its kind. It was preceded in the past two weeks by assaults, some of them organized, targeting protesters in Jerusalem, in the western Negev and in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan. It is the direct result of the conduct of Netanyahu and his flunkies in Likud, from Ohana to the very last of the party’s inarticulate backbenchers in the Knesset. Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.

The violence came after constant flirting by Likud leaders with messages of incitement. It was accompanied by exaggerated shock in response to trifling shows of violence and provocations by anti-Netanyahu protesters and, as usual, sanctimony and evasion in the face of more-brutal violence from the right. To this simmering stew add an indifferent police force, which doesn’t shy away from beating up demonstrators itself, and whose highest-ranking officers are engaged in a prolonged audition with the Netanyahu family for the post of national police commissioner.

No one who follows soccer hooliganism in Israel can be surprised by the group assault in Tel Aviv Tuesday night. At its center are violent gangs that prepare for and search out confrontations with the opposing camp, often initiating organized attacks on surprised rivals who are outnumbered. Someone there assigned roles, issued orders and saw to a rapid retreat from the scene. Videos of the incident shared online clearly show a planned ambush of nonviolent protesters; they also smack of willful blindness, at the least, by plainclothes detectives in the area.

The right’s efforts to create a false symmetry of violence on both sides will not succeed. When the prime minister accuses protesters of spreading disease and relieving themselves in the street, when he knowingly shares false information, in coordination with his son Yair, he legitimizes and even indirectly encourages violence against them.

These incidents could, however, lead to street battles in which the left also employs violence. It will start, justifiably under the circumstances, as self-defense squads, but the situation could deteriorate because the anti-Netanyahu camp has hotheads of its own. Members of La Familia, the extremist Beitar Jerusalem soccer fan club, have already called on their supporters to disrupt the next demonstration against Netanyahu, which is scheduled for Thursday outside his home on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street. Regrettably, the blood that was spilled in the attack on Ha’arba’ah Street in Tel Aviv Tuesday night will not be the last.

It is not surprising that senior Likud politicians didn’t bother to comment this morning on the incident. Ohana, who has been diligently working to force the police to halt the protests outside the prime minister’s residence, issued a bland, vague response calling for unity. Transportation Minister Miri Regev and lawmaker Osnat Mark were too busy denouncing a toothless protest art installation in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, which Mark insisted on calling by its previous name, Malchei Yisrael Square (since who knows exactly what happened there when that guy who is no longer mentioned by name died).