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Netanyahu Is Too Busy for Coronavirus, and Israel Is the Butt of the Joke

Coronavirus czar nominee rescinding candidacy over authority squabble should cast shame on Israel’s executive

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Yuli Edelstein, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 9, 2020.
Yuli Edelstein, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 9, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The letter that Professor Gaby Barbash sent in the dead of night between Wednesday and Thursday, declining the role of national coronavirus czar, is a blatant badge of shame for Israel’s handling of the crisis. He is the third candidate to give up the role in recent weeks. It only took an hour for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein to name the director of the central Tel Aviv hospital of Ichilov, Prof. Roni Gamzu, to the post, but it’s doubtful the statement will manage to overcome the poor impression left by what happened.

LISTEN: Protests, pandemics and Netanyahu's day of reckoningCredit: Haaretz

It took Netanyahu nearly five months to reach the obvious conclusion that the coronavirus outbreak is so unprecedented that an official had to be appointed to direct the issue on a full time basis. But even then, Netanyahu was too busy with his own issues, and Edelstein too preoccupied with attempting to justify his own authority, to give the right person the job. Although Gamzu is a man of many talents, his nomination was clearly a last minute attempt to cover up their embarrassment over Barbash’s rejection.

The whole thing is a farce; but there’s nothing funny about it, because it’s all happening at our expense. Israelis will die, simply because the government isn’t capable of getting a hold of itself and dealing with the pandemic with the seriousness that its grave ramifications for the nation’s health and economy requires.

Barbash and Edelstein disagreed on the scope of the intended chief’s authority. Edelstein wanted the professor to report to his ministry; Netanyahu apparently suggested something different to Barbash but didn’t bother to go through with it. It is only after a few days of intense negotiations that Barbash decided to give up the job.

In the letter published by Channel 12, the channel where Barbash has served as an analyst on health issues in recent months, he wrote that “anyone involved in the realm of public health knows that time is a critical element in handling this type of issue… from the moment it appeared we were at a deadlock, I decided I should clear the way for decision makers to discuss urgent rather than personal issues.”

Gaby Barbash in Tel Aviv, 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod

On Wednesday, even before Barbash's letter, Edelstein attempted in interviews with the Globes business daily and the Kipa website to downplay the importance of the post and the appointment.

“Maybe the appointment is being held up due to my perfectionism,” Edelstein said. “There are several good candidates, but I don’t want to be unfair to them. Some kind of expectation has been created that the [coronavirus czar] will be the Messiah. A good and proper person will [take the job, but] he won’t invent new methods compared to what we are doing. … It needs to be made clear that everything is working. We’ve simply been looking for a partner who will tighten things up.”

On the assumption that Edelstein was choosing his words carefully, the comments almost sounded like an effort to dissuade Barbash from taking the job

Before Barbash was selected, the job had been offered to two senior army officers, Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa and Maj. Gen. Amir Abulafia, both of whom turned it down after it became clear they would report to Edelstein rather than to the coronavirus cabinet. In Abulafia’s case, he was also offered the chance to share the position with Barbash, but he came to the conclusion that as long as the position reports to the Health Ministry rather than having powers that supersede those of government ministries, he wouldn’t have a genuine impact.

From Abulafia’s standpoint, he acted wisely. As long as the country’s political leadership is preoccupied with squabbles and power struggles, there is no way an officer in uniform without the relevant experience in handling such confrontations could impose order in such a national effort.

Like Barbash, Gamzu held two senior roles in Israel's healthcare system, as director-general of Ichilov and director-general of the health ministry. We must hope that he will manage to ensure he has the authority necessary to do the job. Gamzu takes the role under difficult and extraordinary circumstances, under the supervision of a barely functioning government, torn apart by a political rift between both sides of the governing coalition, and facing a substantial crisis of public confidence.

Throughout the outbreak, the experts at Ichilov, and particularly its coronavirus affairs chief, Prof. Idit Matot, have held a more skeptical line regarding the extent of the spread of the virus in Israel and the degree of risk that it poses. Gamzu has spoken out similarly during the lull between the two waves of infection. It isn’t clear whether this will influence his approach in his role as the nation’s coronavirus czar.

Frighteningly high

Over the past several days, the pace of the spread of the coronavirus in Israel has slowed somewhat. The number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 on a daily basis (most of whom are asymptomatic) has been nearly stable, and the number of seriously ill patients is no longer increasing at such a rapid pace. But the numbers are still frighteningly high.

There are nearly 2,000 new patients a day in Israel and the number in serious condition remains in excess of 250.

The slower rate of increase provides the government with some room to maneuver, albeit of a relatively narrow scope. Since the beginning of July, a number of limitations have gradually been imposed on the economy, and it might be argued that we need to wait to gauge their full effect, rather than reimposing a complete lockdown. But the heads of the health care system support a lockdown, and based on his recent comments on television, Barbash might agree with them.

The deliberation will be over imposing additional limitations on leisure activities, which by themselves could deal a death blow to restaurants and other businesses, or whether a comprehensive lockdown should be put in place for several weeks.

All this is comes against the backdrop of Netanyahu’s political situation and his concern that a total lockdown could prompt widespread civil disobedience. The prime minister’s associates have not refrained from leaking to journalists about a possible announcement of early Knesset elections in November – over the dispute with his Kahol Lavan coalition partners about the passage of a one-year or two-year budget, or some other pretext.

On Wednesday, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz responded with a move of his own. His faction linked up with the opposition and foiled a government effort to defeat a bill sponsored by Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz on the first of three votes The bill would outlaw sexual-orientation conversion therapy.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which is ostensibly why the current coalition was established, there is already a whiff of election fever in the air. That might explain the relatively quick surrender by Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yisrael Katz to a considerable portion of the demands by striking nurses and social workers to end their walkouts and bring them back to their essential work.

The recent, regular, nighttime demonstrations nearby are increasing the pressure on the Prime Minister’s Residence and affecting the mood of the Netanyahu family. In the meantime, the press is preoccupied with the daily scandal at each protest – at one demonstration over the flying of a Palestinian flag, and at another over a young woman exposing her breasts. These are minor incidents that the chorus of Netanyahu’s supporters are trying to exaggerate in an effort to shift public attention from the protesters’ demands and their possible political impact.

Another argument against the protesters is that they are endangering their own health and that the demonstrations have turned into potential petri dishes of infection. The issue has also been raised in the United States in connection with the massive protests there in support of the Black community and to protest police violence.

There has in fact been a sharp increase in the incidence of the virus since mid-June but there have been no published studies directly linking them to the protests in the United States. (And at the same time, a large number of U.S. states opened up their economies and lifted most of the health restrictions.)

President Reuben Rivlin perfectly expressed the spirit of the past few days when he scathingly attacked Netanyahu's testing the waters and bringing up another round of elections in November, despite the coronavirus crisis. "Cease the conversation on promoting elections," he told the government Monday. "Let go of the possibility of this threat at this time, and avoid it. The State of Israel is not a ragdoll to be dragged around behind you while you feud endlessly."

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