Israeli Arab Leaders Slam Netanyahu's Last-minute Decision Against Coronavirus Lockdown

Some Arab towns had already decided to shut their schools when the prime minister suddenly changed his mind about locking down communities with high rates of infection

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East Jerusalem, July 2020.
East Jerusalem, July 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Israeli Arab mayors and public figures, as well as opposition members, lashed out on Monday at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s delay of a final decision on which communities with high coronavirus infection rates would be subject to renewed lockdowns.

The rate of infection in a number of Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities has been particularly high, and it had been expected that a lockdown would be imposed in a number of them. But under political pressure from mayors of ultra-Orthodox communities, it was decided to broaden the number of locations subject to restrictions to about 40, but to limit most of the restrictions to the evening and nighttime.

As the mayors waited for a final list of communities subject to the restrictions, Mudar Younes, who chairs the forum of Arab local councils, said the delay has increased Arab citizens’ lack of trust in the government. “We waited for the decision and prepared for it and then all of a sudden, it was postponed,” he said. “The message to the public is that decisions are made under political pressure and not professionally.”

LISTEN: Kosovo, COVID and Bibi's brilliant bravadoCredit: Haaretz Weekly Podcast

“From the beginning, we asked for restrictions mainly in the evening rather than a general lockdown, and they insisted on a lockdown, and now they’ve changed it. Some of the communities had already decided to shut schools in anticipation of the decision and now everything is stalled,” he said.

Rafik Halabi, the mayor of the Druze Arab town of Daliat al-Carmel, where infection rates are among the highest in the country, said the decision highlights the huge disparity in the degree of influence the ultra-Orthodox have on the cabinet compared to Israel’s Arab population. He said he supports restrictions, particularly restrictions in the evening.

“The problem is with weddings and it’s a considerable issue in Arab and Druze society,” he noted, adding that it’s not possible to maintain social distancing at such events. But, he added, imposing a lockdown on a community “imposes a stigma. Soldiers and students working or living outside the community have been like lepers in the view of many because of where they live.”

The mayor of the Arab town of Taibeh, Shua’a Masarweh Mansour, had at first objected to a lockdown but in an interview with Haaretz, he said postponing a decision “only worsens the sense of uncertainty felt by residents.”

“I’ve seen with my own eyes how decisions quickly change due to political pressure,” he said. “Arab society doesn’t have representation that can exert influence to that extent on decision-makers, so we need to focus on the main thing – the need to act reasonably to flatten the curve” of infection.

Speaking on Sunday, Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, the parliamentary faction chairman of the primarily Arab Joint List, said Netanyahu “has always been motivated by political considerations for his personal survival and not by a genuine and professional fight against the pandemic, and therefore the second wave [of the virus] and major unemployment are evidence of his resounding failure and the lack of public confidence in his actions.”

“The government is not only isolated. It’s dangerous,” the leader of the Knesset opposition, Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) said. “Teams of experts sit and put together work plans, and then the politicians start engaging in politics and everything completely changes in a second,” he claimed. “The country needs leaders it can count on. We aren’t prepared to pay the price of the pathetic political maneuvering that this government is engaging in.”

The Arab town of Taibeh, July 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

For his part, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman tweeted “we are all hostages” in a message following Sunday’s decision to defer a lockdown. “As a result of the anger of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu’s alternative will be a nationwide lockdown on Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot. It isn’t God that Netanyahu is afraid of but his representatives in the Knesset,” Lieberman quipped.

“The citizens’ lack of confidence in the government is a disaster,” Knesset member Moshe Ya’alon of Yesh Atid-Telem wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday. “The fact that citizens don’t believe in the government and its policies in handling the coronavirus crisis is due to a failure of management in general and a failure to tell the truth in particular.”

Referring to the pending corruption trial against the prime minister, Ya’alon added that “In the war on the virus, we are also paying a heavy price due to Netanyahu’s personal war of survival, and his attempts to flee the [defendant’s] dock.”

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