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Military Intel's Coronavirus Warning Serves as a Wake Up Call for Netanyahu

As defense and health officials avoid taking responsibility, harsh public response to a report just as harsh puts Israelis' trust in their government to the test

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A security guard checks an elderly women's temperature at a market in Jerusalem, June 18, 2020.
A security guard checks an elderly women's temperature at a market in Jerusalem, June 18, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It’s much easier to shoot the messenger. A report from the government’s coronavirus information center that came out on Saturday set off quite a storm. The authors of the report, Israeli army intelligence officers, stated that the increased rate of infection showed that Israel is in the throes of a second coronavirus wave and recommended steps to stop its spread. The report, which joins a series of less dramatic warnings from other experts, has dominated the news cycle.

The counter response came immediately: What does military intelligence know about analyzing COVID-19? How do they know how to fight a virus? And more importantly – why is the army giving directives to people on such a clearly civilian matter?

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The report, released by the National Center for Information and Knowledge in the Battle Against the Coronavirus, which is the 127th document it has released since the beginning of the crisis, has revealed to the public the anomaly that is at the bases of the overall handling of the virus by the state. The Health Ministry lacks an effective system for collecting, analyzing and disseminating information. When the virus got here, Military Intelligence volunteered to correct this weakness. Col. N., head of the technology wing in the army’s research division, established the coronavirus information center together with his staff, and it is this body that is responsible for daily updates on the virus.

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As strange as it sounds, the health care system simply can’t put together a database of similar quality. Gradually, researchers from the Israel Defense Forces also began gathering data about developments around the world and began issuing recommendations for action from time to time.

In early June, after a steep decline in the numbers of infections in Israel, the IDF reduced its involvement. The army and the Health Ministry reached an agreement by which dozens of MI researchers would be loaned to the health minister to continue tracking the virus. But this arrangement was not fully implemented nor was it explained to the public. Thus the reports by the information center, which contain nothing secret, have been released to the public in an improvised and unofficial way. That’s how it happened that on Saturday, when the pessimistic report hit the headlines, the IDF spokesman and the Health Ministry each said the other was responsible for explaining the report, which came out without the knowledge of either body and with no coordination.

It may be assumed that the report was published because its authors, or whoever read it, concluded that a general alarm had to be sounded. What they didn’t expect was the magnitude of the counter response. Military Intelligence was presented as amateurs, exaggerators and alarmists. Epidemiologists wondered, and rightly so, what professional expertise MI had to issue such ironclad predictions.

Together with this came the harsh public response on social media. The more the government zigzags with its declarations and the information and directives it releases, the more people doubt its motives and its control of the facts. There are many groups that incurred serious economic damage from the first lockdown. Many lost faith in the way the government or its agencies were presenting the spread of the virus. Warnings by MI officers sound to these people too hysterical, as if they are issued to cover for the state and as a prelude to additional harsh steps.

Contributing to these suspicions is the government’s scandalous handling of the situation, recently demonstrated by the farcical way the school year ended. The attempt to treat teachers, students and their parents like a military unit that follows orders with perfect discipline crashed magnificently. Instead of understanding that there’s no point in a head-on clash with high school teachers, and that many of the parents are afraid in any case to send their children to school because of the risk of infection, the Education Ministry needlessly insisted on adding days to the school year for the upper grades.

In so doing, the Education Ministry got the worst of all worlds: junior and senior high school students started their summer vacation without end of the year ceremonies or report cards (which the schools are going to try to correct down the line), while the elementary school children will not have days added, and their parents will have to pay more because summer camps will start earlier, in this year of all years when money is so tight.

And there’s another disturbing matter: Because it seems that the coronavirus is here to stay, the school year probably won’t be able to open on time in September. But the authorities are still far from finding technological solutions that will allow schools to study in shifts or small groups while improving distance learning for students who stay home.

The report by MI experts had one positive impact: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally snapped out of the strange indifference that has overtaken him in recent weeks and once again began publicly talking about the virus. After his brief statement on Thursday, the government was to discuss on Sunday the fight against the coronavirus and on Monday the special coronavirus cabinet will meet. Netanyahu was warned that “if we don’t change our behavior, we will bring re-imposed lockdown on ourselves.”

Students study while wearing face masks at Ziv High School in Jerusalem, June 4, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

It’s always easier to blame the undisciplined citizenry. But photos from government meetings show how many participants were not wearing masks, or partially wearing them. Netanyahu also ignored, for his convenience, his own contribution to the situation: His premature declarations of victory over the virus, the accelerated reopening of high schools, restaurants and event halls and the complacence with which he took the resounding failure of the health care system in establishing an epidemiological response that would break the chain of infection. The wain thing was to brag about how the weekly The Economist had praised Israel based on its treatment of the pandemic during the lockdown phase, not the expedited and unmonitored emergence from it.

On the matter of testing, there finally seems to be some slight movement, with the announcement by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein of additional funding and positions. But here too, Netanyahu turns to the easy solution for him – bringing back the invasive step of cellphone location tracking by the Shin Bet security service, which the Shin Bet itself is in no hurry to do and actually managed to divest itself of the task earlier this month.

Long-term emergency routine

Israel is after all a Mediterranean country, which does not excel at strict management or a high level of public discipline. In March, when the coronavirus struck for the first time, to a limited extent, the country managed to reduce the damage thanks to a number of wise decisions, the impressive efforts by its citizens and fine medical personnel, which greatly reduced the death rate from the disease. Also in Israel’s favor is the low median age of its population, which meant that the number of senior citizens who caught the virus was not especially great.

But there’s a difference between short-term efforts in an emergency and a long-term emergency routine. The countries dealing best with the disease now are the East Asian countries, where basic discipline is very high, or European counties that were hit badly and took extreme lockdown measures.

The United States, with its weak central government and the lack of tolerance of its people to interference in their lives (not to mention their unique president), is having great difficulties. Other countries, Mexico and Brazil for example, are experiencing deadly outbreaks. The common denominator among the democratic countries whose situation is relatively good right now is connected mainly to a high level of faith of the people in their government. That’s the situation in New Zealand and Germany. That’s a very far cry from the situation in Israel.

Netanyahu is by all counts savvy and sophisticated. But when the prime minister surrounds himself with mediocre ministers whose only test is showing total loyalty to him in his last-ditch battle against the judicial system, there are repercussions. Not unconnectedly, a continual decline can be seen in recent years in the quality of the government service. This is now joined by the infuriating helplessness that Netanyahu’s new partners in Kahol Lavan are showing, for whom the establishment of the so-called reconciliation cabinet was more important than the demand to receive the Health Ministry portfolio.

In light of public skepticism, it seems that it will be more difficult to put the coronavirus genie back in its bottle for a second time. The events of the past few weeks raise another sad thought: With such a gap in faith, how will Israel deal with a future war, when the home front will have to carry a good part of the burden together with the battlefront?

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