Defense Ministry Undermining Health Ministry in Coronavirus Battle, Sources Say

Health Ministry officials have been sensing that the Defense Ministry is trying to take control of managing the coronavirus crisis and involve itself in health policy that falls outside its authority

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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Israel's Defense Minister Naftali Bennet
Israel's Defense Minister Naftali BennetCredit: Emil Salman
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

The Health Ministry and Defense Ministry are engaged in a nasty fight over authority in handling the coronavirus crisis. The conflict, which was hinted at in a recent State Comptroller’s Report, has been going on for more than a week.

“The ministries need to draft a plan to limit the gaps that arose in an exercise,” the report stated, referring to a 2018 exercise in dealing with a pandemic. “This includes the need for settling the issue of authority over bodies, the lack of medications and vaccines, and how to distribute them,” said the report, issued earlier this week.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 71Credit: Haaretz

This conflict has played out in strange ways. Last week the Home Front Command’s research institute surveyed 655 people, asking them questions such as to what extent they felt themselves to be in an emergency atmosphere, to what extent the coronavirus pandemic had influenced their routine, and how they felt.

That’s all to be expected. But then came a question that the Health Ministry found to be subversive: “On Tuesday the Health Ministry and state authorities recommended that all citizens leave home only if they need to get crucial things. Do you believe this is too relaxed / appropriate and belated / appropriate and timely / too strict?” Another question stated, “Do you believe this should be made mandatory and enforced?” Another question was, “Do you believe the Health Ministry instructions are clear?”

Health Ministry officials were incensed. “It’s insane that Home Front Command soldiers, who have no medical background, would be checking what the public thinks of the Health Ministry’s professional health recommendations,” said a ministry official. “Just like it’s unreasonable that during a missile attack the Health Ministry would run a survey on what the public thinks about the instructions from the army. The Home Front Command should back the professionals’ policy, not undermine it.”

For more than a week, Health Ministry officials have been sensing that the Defense Ministry is trying to take control of managing the coronavirus crisis and involve itself in health policy that falls outside its authority, as well as in public advocacy, including Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s daily video broadcasts.

The Defense Ministry, for its part, is frustrated that the Health Ministry is insisting on managing the crisis even in areas where the defense establishment and Home Front Command have more experience, and where these authorities think they’d do a better job.

The conflict has involved professional issues such as how many coronavirus tests need to be conducted a day, where patients should be hospitalized and who is most efficient at procuring medical equipment.

Bennett tried to lower the flames earlier this week, stating on Channel 12 News that the Health Ministry was responsible for handling the medical aspects of the crisis while the Israel Defense Forces was carrying out instructions. But the bad blood continues.

Some of the fronts are incredibly petty. A few days ago, for example, Health Ministry officials found out by chance that the Home Front Command had contacted Google via the Government Press Office in a bid to advance the ranking of the Home Front Command’s own website for terms such as “coronavirus” and “coronavirus and health.” The initiative did not bear fruit.

“Bennett is trying to take control of the event,” a senior Health Ministry official said. “He’s conducting surveys and giving endless instructions against the Health Ministry. This is very aggressive behavior.” The defense establishment is welcome to help, but the nature of the issue is civilian, said the official, adding, “They should first make sure their soldiers don’t contract coronavirus while working in close proximity, as we see them doing repeatedly in photos.”

The Defense Ministry stated in response that Bennett has been pushing to increase the number of tests for several weeks.

The IDF stated, “The army, via Home Front Command, is working in complete cooperation with the Health Ministry and is assisting the government ministries and the authorities.”

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