Analysis |

Israel Is Paying the Price for Netanyahu Refusing to Appoint a 'Corona Czar'

Sharing information, sharing power could have helped to stem the renewed coronavirus outbreak, which will likely have even longer-lasting consequences

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israelis shopping at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, June 29, 2020
Israelis shopping at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, June 29, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The warnings are piling up. The expert panel advising the National Security Council, the Military Intelligence’s coronavirus information center and the Israeli Society for Infectious Diseases have all warned the government that we will fall into the abyss if our apathetic attitude toward the coronavirus continues.

But the issue isn’t just the rising number of people infected or the delay in setting up an effective system to break the chain of infection. Something bigger is happening here. At the current stage of the battle against the coronavirus, Israel is suffering from a complete absence of leadership. Its leaders have demonstrated not only a lack of direction, but even a lack of concern.

LISTEN: Bibi's bonanza, arresting activists and the death of God TVCredit: Haaretz

Just a month ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Israel victorious over the coronavirus. He urged people to go out, have fun and visit their grandparents, even boasting that “the entire world” was seeking to learn how to fight the virus from us. But since then, such statements have been replaced by a gloomy, confused tone.

Conversations with senior officials in the health system, the political system and the defense establishment paint a picture of chaos. This chaos stems first and foremost from the lack of systematic management by any centralized agency.

The major defense agencies – the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad – took advantage of the temporary decline in the incidence of the illness in late May to reduce their involvement in the crisis. Their decision apparently stemmed in part from Netanyahu’s refusal to appoint any single agency to preside over managing the crisis.

The prime minister prefers to keep all the cards in his hand. He apparently fears that transferring authority to another agency would constitute an admission of failure.

President Reuven Rivlin hinted at this dispute in his speech at a pilots’ graduation ceremony last week, when he urged that all the agencies fighting the virus be united into “a single iron fist.” Former Defence Minister and Yamina lawmaker Naftali Bennett is driving Netanyahu crazy with his constant demand for a transfer of authority, based on his familiarity with the views of those within the system. But so far, nothing has moved.

The Health Ministry has a new minister and a new director general, but all its other senior officials remain in place. And the new minister, Yuli Edelstein, is visibly asking himself every morning why he agreed to enter this sickbed.

The crisis is an orphan; it even lacks anyone responsible for communicating information. The IDF’s Home Front Command, which has experience in explaining emergency situations to the public, has been kept far from any informational activity due to the Health Ministry’s sweeping opposition.

Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz belatedly identified the coronavirus as Netanyahu’s weak point. He is now trying to leverage its spread to argue for slow-walking plans to annex part of the West Bank.

On Sunday, the two had a public spat at the cabinet meeting after Netanyahu deliberately decided to skip over Gantz, who had also hoped to spout a few empty coronavirus clichés for the microphone at the start of the meeting. Nor was this the first time. Netanyahu played a similar trick once during a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, when he forgot to let Gantz sum up.

Gantz took his revenge the following day by making it clear, both at a meeting with the Trump administration’s peace team and at a meeting of his Kahol Lavan party’s Knesset members, that battling the virus takes precedence over annexation dreams. But Gantz knows Netanyahu is right about one thing: Their coalition agreement does not give him the right to veto annexation; it merely says annexation will be coordinated with the United States. Thus Gantz is hoping the administration will condition any such move on the consent of both coalition partners.

Benny Gantz during a cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, June 28, 2020.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi / Flash90

Alongside Gantz’s stifled fury during his argument with Netanyahu, the physical distance between the two men also stood out in photographs of the meeting. Netanyahu generally keeps more than two meters away from everyone else, as recommended by the Health Ministry. In some meetings, his aides even wore gloves.

He has also reduced the number of meetings he holds with people outside his inner circle. And his aides see few visitors from the outside.

Netanyahu, whose age puts him in a high-risk category for the virus, has a long history of health-related anxieties as well as an inbuilt pessimism about the future. In public appearances at the start of the crisis, he cited the medieval black plague and indirectly compared the coronavirus to the Holocaust.

In a private meeting with Likud members, he even warned that “the end of the human species” was possible. This happened following a report, which turned out to be erroneous, that recovered patients in South Korea had become infected again. And in conversations with his aides, the possibility was raised that some of his political opponents might deliberately try to infect him.

Since the the virus began spreading again, Netanyahu has almost completely eschewed speaking with the media; instead, he has released brief video clips filmed and edited by his office. Because there have been no press conferences, he hasn’t been asked about the discrepancy between his boasts about past achievements and the situation that has developed in recent weeks.

He also hasn’t been confronted about his decisions to reopen the economy rapidly and reopen high schools with no restrictions, both of which evidently contributed to the new outbreak. His behavior has seemed bizarrely apathetic.

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Benny Gantz, right, posing for a photo while respecting social distancing during a visit by the Greek prime minister, June 16, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The expert panel advising the National Security Council, headed by Prof. Eli Waxman, warned back in early May about the urgent need to improve contact tracing and the sharing of information about the virus. But the Health Ministry presented obstacles, the cabinet wasn’t interested and nothing that needed to be done actually got done. Such neglect is hair-raising, and it’s in complete contrast to Netanyahu’s tense, alert behavior throughout March.

His social media accounts contain fewer and fewer mentions of the coronavirus. Instead, they are still waging war against the legal system and the media with a shrillness that, in his son’s tweets, verges on insanity.

Meanwhile, the number of people infected is swelling. But the significance of this isn’t yet completely clear, because the virus is spreading in a slightly different fashion than it did in March.

Most of the new patients are relatively young, and a large portion of them are asymptomatic. Only two percent are seriously ill, down from three percent this spring. And the number of people on ventilators has been almost static, since the hospitals have changed their treatment protocol and now use ventilators only if there’s no other choice.

Serological studies around the world, including by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, have found many more infected people in the population than the number initially located through diagnostic tests. Thus the mortality rate may well prove to be between 0.5 and 1.0 percent of patients, lower than originally thought.

The accumulated knowledge in treating patients is apparently helping to save more of the seriously ill. Israel’s relatively low death rate has also presumably been influenced by the low average age of its population, the fact that high-risk groups have been relatively disciplined about wearing masks and the fact that so far, there have been no major new outbreaks in nursing homes.

Israeli police officers enforcing coronavirus restrictions, Jerusalem, June 25, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Another bright spot is that the hospitals prepared well, buying ventilators (which so far have been virtually unneeded) and securing protective equipment for medical staffers.

But the constant growth in the number of new patients doesn’t stem solely from the increase in the number of daily tests. The percentage of tests coming back positive has risen from one percent to almost four percent in just a month. Moreover, the high number of diagnosed patients produces an enormous number of people quarantined due to contact with them, even if the patients have no symptoms (since it turns out that even asymptomatic patients can be infectious). The contact tracers can’t keep up with the workload, while the Health Ministry admits that quarantines aren’t enforced and many people don’t obey orders to isolate themselves.

All these problems are closely related to the absence of any centralized management of the battle. This job should have been assigned to a “coronavirus czar” months ago.

Meanwhile, the economic crisis is worsening. And its impact will only intensify in the coming months.

This may be the real reason for Netanyahu’s low profile. He faces an impossible dilemma. The more the number of patients rises, the more experts will call for reinstating lockdowns. But that would be an extreme step that would increase the economic damage.

It would also likely be widely disobeyed, due to lack of confidence in the government’s decisions and growing skepticism about the lethality of the virus. Protests by the self-employed and people who work in the entertainment industry look like the first harbingers of a broader protest movement.

A demonstrator rests during a protest by unemployed artists against coronavirus restrictions, Jerusalem, June 29, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In the absence of any centralized policy, Israel appears likely to adopt the Swedish model by default. This model imposes relatively few restrictions on the economy, in the hopes of reaching herd immunity, while accepting a high number of infected people and deaths.

No country has a complete and comprehensive solution for dealing with the virus. But given the low incidence of the illness just over a month ago, it’s clear that Israel could have been in a completely different situation today – one similar to that achieved not only by New Zealand, but even by neighboring (and poorer) countries like Greece, which managed its fight against the virus with considerable success.

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