Analysis |

How the Israeli Army Plans to Tackle the Coronavirus Outbreak

With resources and capabilities that the health services lack, army could bring much-needed efficiency to the process ■ Why Israel could find itself in a collision course with the U.S.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Defense Minister Benny Gantz visiting the army's command center to battle the coronavirus, August 4, 2020.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz visiting the army's command center to battle the coronavirus, August 4, 2020.Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

This week the Israeli army was finally assigned a made-to-measure mission in the country’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic. It followed the appointment of the new coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, finally setting in motion a move that has long been called for, and for which the army had been prepared back in late March or early April.

It involved the transfer of wider powers to the army’s civil defense arm, the Home Front Command, and entrusting critical responsibility for COVID-19 testing, quarantine and the breaking of the chain of infection to a command headquarters that will report to Gamzu. These are steps that most of the relevant advisers recommended at the very start of the health crisis.

LISTEN: Seth Rogen sets the record straightCredit: Haaretz

There’s no escaping the conclusion that the only reason they were delayed was the stubborn insistence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue holding onto specific powers even though he showed no real interest in how they were used.

At the same time, Netanyahu wanted to head off letting a political rival, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, to be in the limelight. It was Bennett who was defense minister at the time of the outbreak of the pandemic.

Netanyahu is correct in saying that other countries are also now encountering a second wave of the virus. But decisions that he made (the rapid reopening of the economy and the lack of oversight in reopening the schools) and that he did not make (transferring some of the authority to the army) exacted its price in human life and economic damage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, August 6, 2020.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

The Home Front Command was working hard this week to establish its new command headquarters to deal with the pandemic, which is to be dubbed “Alon.” About 3,000 reservists will be called up for the effort, and in the first stage, the army will assign about 1,000 staffers, including some civilians, to beef up the workforce involved in epidemiological tracing. On a visit to the Home Front Command on Wednesday, one had the impression that the tasks that had already been entrusted to the army, notably providing transportation to Israelis returning from abroad and to thousands of mildly ill coronavirus patients to isolation hotels, was proceeding for the most part in an orderly, efficient manner.

The army has resources, personnel and capabilities that the health care system, which is busy dealing with the individual patients themselves, cannot budget for. If the testing and tracing is managed in the same way, it will make it possible to considerably streamline how the country handles COVID-19.

The new contact tracing setup is slated to begin work in about another week and to be ready to deal with several hundred investigations a day towards the end of the month. In the meantime, it looks like the country’s R rate, the rate at which a single patient infects others on average, has fallen to about 1. That means that the virus is being contained, but is not disappearing.

The daily number of newly infected patients is still too high. It’s now about 1,700, down from more than 2,000 in mid-July. Under such circumstances, even when the new tracing system is up and running, the effort will be considered effective if half the chains of infection can be stopped, since then the R rate will start to fall significantly.

The time involved is also important. At the moment, the entire process – in the case of newly diagnosed patients, from the time they ask to be tested until those whom they have been in contact with are notified – can take five days or more. The army hopes to cut that to 24 to 36 hours.

But for that to happen, the daily number of newly infected people will have to decline to a pace that the tracing system can cope with. The goal is to lower the rate of new cases to 400 a day within less than a month. Gamzu hopes this can be done while still imposing relatively few restrictions on movement and commerce, by isolating “red cities” where the incidence of COVID-19 is particularly high.

By contrast, some cabinet ministers favor imposing a full lockdown for several weeks, despite the enormous economic harm it would entail. This week, I wrote that Netanyahu is seeking to reimpose a temporary lockdown. The prime minister is concerned about the high rate of infection and is hearing puzzled comments from other world leaders who are witnessing the resurgence of the virus in Israel and are asking why he isn’t taking immediate drastic steps.

This week, the New York Times devoted a front-page article to the failed Israeli attempt to reopen the schools at the end of the first wave of the pandemic. Prof. Eli Waxman, who heads the team advising Israel’s National Security Council on the coronavirus crisis, was asked what the United States should learn from Israel’s experience, given that the Trump administration is seeking to reopen schools in September despite severe criticism of the move. “They definitely should not do what we have done,” Waxman replied. “It was a major failure.”

Participants in the deliberations of the coronavirus cabinet raised another suspicion: that behind consideration that Netanyahu is giving to a lockdown is his desire to rein in the scale of the protests against him. Protests demanding his dismissal, which are being held at highway interchanges and on bridges (on Saturday nights) and opposite his official residence in Jerusalem (several times a week) have become an obsession for him.

School children wearing face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus as they walk in Tel Aviv, July 6, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / AP

He mentions the demonstrators on an almost daily basis, as if they, rather than the acute economic and health crisis, were the problem. The efforts by Public Security Minister Amir Ohana to coax the police into putting a stop to the demonstrations across from the Prime Minister’s Residence mainly reflect the wishes of those who got him appointed to his position, and who also happen to live there.

But a reverse argument is also being heard in the political arena, which holds that Netanyahu has detected a potential advantage for himself from the demonstrators, whom his son dubbed “aliens.” The prime minister hopes to label them strange, crazy leftists and in the process, reunite many of his supporters around himself, particularly if he opts to call another election.

That would be why on Wednesday in the his speech to the Knesset, he openly took the demonstrators on. And therefore, the argument goes, he will not impose another full lockdown.

An attempt to silence the protest movement could reignite it – and even worse, from his standpoint, spark mass disobedience when it comes to the health directives, given the public’s loss of trust in the government’s shifting policies.

In the meantime, the problem arising from the Shin Bet security service’s involvement in contact tracing through cellphone location technology is becoming more acute. According to data provided to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in July alone 415,000 Israelis were ordered into quarantine. Of them, about 40,000 were diagnosed with COVID-19. Another 50,000 or so were singled out by mistake and had not come in contact with a confirmed carrier. At the end of July, the Health Ministry revised its guidelines, reducing the period during which it traces those whom a confirmed carrier has been in contact with – from 14 days previously to 10 days prior to the onset of symptoms.

The change was made as additional information has been amassed about the virus, indicating that the period of the risk of infection is shorter than was originally thought. But the ministry has not shortened the quarantine period required of those who have come into contact with an infected person.

The chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Zvi Hauser, asked Prof. Gamzu and the Health Ministry to reduce the required quarantine period by two days, given the understanding that the risk at the end of the period is minimal. Hauser told Haaretz that what he views as overly lengthy periods of quarantine are harming the public and damaging the economy, and that it is now clear that the final days are unnecessary. Hauser has yet to receive a response.

The State Comptroller’s report

The report released this week by the State Comproller’s Office includes an important chapter dealing with the lack of oversight in Israel over the involvement of foreign firms in sensitive, resource-intensive infrastructure projects. Israel’s business dealings with China have stirred increasing opposition in the United States. As reported by Haaretz, the Americans were furious when, late in the game, they understood the part being played by China in the construction of the new Haifa port.

Chinese workers at the construction site for a new tunnel in northern Israel, April 2014.Credit: Albatross

In May, a Chinese company lost a bid on a large project involving the construction of a water desalination plant at a sensitive location next to the Palmahim beach south of Tel Aviv. The Israeli decision followed blatant pressure from the Trump administration over the project, and warnings against Chinese firms bidding to establish infrastructure for 5G, fifth generation, cellular networks in the country.

In the report, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman noted that even though the issue has been scrutinized since 2016, and despite a security cabinet resolution on the subject last year, no mechanism has as been established to investigate foreign investment in national infrastructure projects. In addition, the ministries involved are under no obligation to consult with any entity specializing in understanding the consequences of such decisions.

Englman warned that “the control by foreign players of strategic assets could harm a range of national interests, national security and competitive capabilities in the international arena.”

The U.S. Rand Corporation, which regularly monitors Israel-China relations, recently published an up-to-date study on Chinese investment in Israel. The authors of the report, notably the Israeli researcher Dr. Shira Efron, portray the Chinese investment as a potential security risk to Israel and to the United States, in that it could lead to the leaking of sensitive technology information and permit the Chinese to engage in cyberespionage against both countries.

According to the Rand team, Israel and China have conflicting interests in the Middle East, and Israel is liable to find itself on the wrong side of the U.S.-China confrontation. Efron and her colleagues in the study note that there is no systematic collection in Israel of information about Chinese investment in technology and infrastructure. In their view, the security cabinet’s decision last year reflects a step in the right direction but falls far short of meeting the expectations of the U.S. administration.

President Donald Trump is constantly ratcheting up his anti-China rhetoric and makes a point of calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Last June, the Pentagon published a list of 10 Chinese conglomerates that are under the control of the Chinese army and maintain business operations in the United States. That’s a preliminary legal step ahead of imposing possible sanctions on the companies.

The American-Chinese arena is gradually heating up, against the backdrop of competition between the two countries and the trading of accusations over responsibility for the coronavirus. In the long term, this will also have implications for Israel that will probably require Israel to temper it romance with China. That extends well beyond decisions about any particular infrastructure project.

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