Analysis |

COVID Herd Immunity With No Shepherd: Israel Risks a Misadventure

Focus on hot spots was doomed the minute zig-zags and disobedience began ■ Netanyahu looked tired and distracted this week, but there was one topic that energized him

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Police officers at a checkpoint during a lockdown in a Jerusalem neighborhood, September 9, 2020.
Police officers at a checkpoint during a lockdown in a Jerusalem neighborhood, September 9, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

These are the numbers that were presented to the small forum of the coronavirus cabinet on Wednesday, ahead of the decisions about ratcheting up the means of lockdown in Israel starting next week. The rate of positive tests among ultra-Orthodox citizens stands at 16 percent in the past few days; among Arab citizens, 11 percent; and among the rest of the population, at just 6 percent. The national average of positive tests is currently running at 8.9 percent.

These data would seem to point to a need to focus first and foremost on the so-called “red cities” – some 40 places, most of them Arab locales, a minority of them Haredi and an even smaller minority with a mixed population.

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

But that is not what will happen in practice – and the reason lies not only in the fact that the morbidity has already spread across the country, with the red cities representing only a quarter of the cases. The rules of the game became clear at the beginning of the week, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did a rapid U-turn and foiled the intention of the national coordinator of the struggle against the coronavirus, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, to impose a relatively stringent lockdown on the dozens of locales that are high up on the coronavirus incidence chart.

Once the Haredim refused to play ball – with four Haredi mayors firing off a message to Netanyahu in which they threatened electoral revenge – the outcome was a foregone conclusion. In the first stage, the strict restrictions that had been planned gave way to a “lockdown lite” in the 40 red venues, in which schools would ostensibly be shut down and a night curfew would prevail. In reality, some of the educational institutions continued to operate.

The night curfew, meanwhile, is a bad joke. In Ashdod, for example, a curfew was imposed in two Haredi neighborhoods where rampant morbidity was recorded. People there say the police barriers were set up at side entrances, for some reason; that the police officers at the barriers were indifferent to their mission; and that travel into and out of the neighborhoods continued without interruption. Other red locales report a similar picture.

The vacillating in the coronavirus cabinet has to do with the severity of the lockdown measures, their starting date and their duration. Netanyahu, who has reverted to a pessimistic approach, is said by participants in the discussions to be angling for as full a lockdown as possible, probably for a month, from the eve of Rosh Hashana (September 18) or shortly afterward. And indeed, on Thursday, the cabinet approved such a measure – pending government approval.

However, the Kahol Lavan ministers want to examine the effect of the measures that have already been taken (albeit, quite feebly) before applying such an extreme measure again. The proposal put forward by the Health Ministry and the national coordinator, under the newspeak name “Tight Restraint,” speaks of closing down schools from fourth grade and up and shifting to remote learning, along with the closure of malls and restaurants, beginning on Rosh Hashana eve.

However, an unexpected problem arose from the prime minister’s point of view. On September 15 he is scheduled to take part in the signing of the normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates in Washington. If Netanyahu goes to the United States after a lockdown has been imposed in Israel – in fact, even if he flies while the morbidity rate is so high – the political gains he planned to reap from the agreement will prove elusive. If the start of the lockdown is postponed, he will be accused again of exacerbating the health crisis. And if he doesn’t accede to the invitation of U.S. President Donald Trump, who is in need of a diplomatic achievement himself, he risks the president’s wrath.

The national morbidity rate presents a gloomy picture, but it’s worth looking at it in closer detail. Israel is indeed atop the world chart in terms of the number of new cases per million people. On Wednesday, the number of confirmed new daily carriers approached an unbelievable 4,000. But Israel is also third in the world, after the Emirates and Denmark (not counting a number of tiny countries), in number of tests per million souls. Those who test more, find more. The mortality rate here remains relatively low. In European countries that are now experiencing a second wave, mortality is falling for the first time to less than 1 percent of the total confirmed carriers of the disease. Israel has been below that bar from the very start of the pandemic.

The majority of the newly confirmed ill are young people who are asymptomatic or only mildly sick. About 12 percent of the carriers now are in the age groups that are more vulnerable to the virus – 60 and up. In the first wave, they represented 17 percent of the total. The critical index for analyzing the level of the burden being borne by the hospitals – namely, the number of seriously ill patients – continues to climb slowly. In the past two weeks the number in this category has risen by about 12 percent, to 477. Hospital directors are talking about an increasing burden, and some of them anticipate a situation of overload within a few weeks, if a lockdown is not imposed.

A shopper and vendors at a market in Tiberias, September 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The root of the difficulty lies in the years-long budgetary discrimination against the health system. The number of intensive-care beds in Israel is one of the lowest in the West and leaves little room for maneuver, as has been demonstrated in the serious flu outbreaks every winter for the past decade.

The most urgent problem is being felt by the hospitals in the north of the country, because of the high morbidity rate among the Arab population. Now the idea of moving coronavirus patients to the center is being examined, in contrast to the first wave, when the hospitals in the north were almost empty.

At the same time, the burden in most of the coronavirus wards in the center, though it has increased, remains tolerable. Prof. Nimrod Maimon, who heads the program dealing with assisted living facilities, is warning of a steep rise in the number of the ill among the caregivers and the residents in those institutions, particularly in the nursing units. This is a particularly high-risk population, in which the spread of the disease will ratchet up sharply the number of those who die or are in serious condition. And, of course, treatment of coronavirus patients requires much protective gear and brings about professional burnout. The situation is compounded by the fact that about 3,000 employees in the health system are currently in quarantine.

It’s important to note that in the background are constant crass, large-scale violations of the directives that are already on the books, which bar gatherings. This week, too, the unholy equality, crossing population groups, was apparent: packed weddings among Haredim and Arabs, huge parties among secular young people and, topping it off, public figures violating the directives and responding with feeble excuses when they’re documented.

The past few days have seen a fierce debate between Israeli scientists and physicians about the possible adoption here of the so-called “Swedish model.” The dispute spawned a petition and a counter-petition. In practice, given the absence of a policy and without a formal declaration, Israel is sliding into a controversial, risk-fraught experiment in achieving herd immunity. In this case, it’s herd immunity without a shepherd.

Taking no prisoners

At the beginning of the week, in public appearances in which he was compelled to address the coronavirus crisis, Netanyahu looked tired, languid, unfocused. Some observers thought they saw on his face recognition of an unavoidable defeat under the impossible burden of pressures he’s coping with. The color returned to the prime minister’s cheeks following the series of revelations by reporter Amit Segal on Channel 12, which uncovered inappropriate behavior in the ranks of the state prosecution and the police. In a press conference he convened in Beit Shemesh, with Mayor Aliza Bloch as an extra, it became apparent once more what’s really important for Netanyahu: The judicial jihad has priority over concern for the wellbeing of the country’s citizens. If only he could muster a fraction of the emotion he displays in talking about the wrongs supposedly done him, in favor of expressing empathy for those affected by the virus and by the vast economic crisis it has generated.

Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the press, September 7, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The former police commissioner, Roni Alsheich, well deserved the assault he sustained this week in the Umm al-Hiran episode, which peaked in the belated (and purely instrumental) apology by Netanyahu for accusations the authorities leveled at the driver of the car who was shot and killed, Yakub Abu al-Kiyan. As he did in the 2017 crisis of the metal detectors at the Temple Mount, Alsheich painted himself into a corner, hunkered down in his righteousness and refused to compromise. In both cases, Netanyahu backed him. In the Temple Mount events, the prime minister retracted only after the crisis was aggravated and posed a threat to the peace treaty with Jordan. With regard to Umm al-Hiran, when a slain Bedouin is being libeled, neither Alsheich not Netanyahu nor the public security minister at the time, Gilad Erdan, bothered to revise their position – until the prime minister discovered this week that the event could somehow serve his purposes.

In the meantime, the Balfour Street mouthpiece, Israel Hayom, blasted the head of the Shin Bet security service, Nadav Argaman, in a headline. As part of the sacrosanct campaign against the “deep state,” Argaman was added to the hit list and accused of “giving the order” to whitewash the investigation. Argaman is only a secondary target, but the attacks on him are likely to continue as the question of his successor – his term ends in May 2021 – becomes more relevant. Argaman’s bureau issued a denial, as sweeping as it was rare, to the Israel Hayom report. That evening, the state prosecution also issued a statement rejecting Netanyahu’s allegations.

It doesn’t really matter. The family and its supporters are already deep into the war and are taking no prisoners. Minister David Amsalem (Likud) this week took advantage of the Knesset podium to launch a virulent, no-holds-barred attack on MK Ram Ben Barak (Yesh Atid). Ben Barak, a former deputy chief of the Mossad, simply sat stunned in his chair. The video of the incident was passed, amid shock, among former senior figures in the defense establishment. It was also probably circulated, with the opposite sentiments, among groups of Likud supporters.

The prime minister’s alter ego – his son Yair’s Twitter account – has recently been demanding the exoneration of Roman Zadorov (convicted of murdering 13-year-old Tair Rada) and of the murderer of the Dawabshe family in the village of Duma. He has protested the injustice done to Meir Kahane in the 1980s and is accusing the Shin Bet and Health Ministry of conspiring to conceal the scale of coronavirus infections resulting from the demonstrations against his father. The mouthpieces and the trolls this week eagerly circulated a fake report about mass infections supposedly suffered by the police in the demonstrations. The protests are in fact taking place in the open and with relatively strict care to wearing masks, but they are densely packed, with plenty of shouting and singing, and occasional physical confrontations with police officers. At the moment, the Health Ministry has no information about an unusual rate of infections in the protest campaign. On the other hand, it also lacks sufficient reliable data about other sources of infection.

The facts are no longer really of any interest. In the battle for survival that the Netanyahu family is waging against conviction in the trial and removal from its historically rightful place on Balfour Street, it’s determined to “burn down the clubhouse,” as the saying goes. The mindset is: “Let me die with the Philistines.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid Is the Most Israeli of All

An El Al jet sits on the tarmac at John C. Munro International Airport in Hamilton, Thursday, in 2003.

El Al to Stop Flying to Toronto, Warsaw and Brussels

A young Zeschke during down time, while serving with the Wehrmacht in Scandinavia.

How a Spanish Beach Town Became a Haven for Nazis

Ayelet Shaked.

What's Ayelet Shaked's Next Move?

A Palestinian flag is taken down from a building by Israeli authorities after being put up by an advocacy group that promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, in Ramat Gan, Israel earlier this month

Israel-Palestine Confederation: A Response to Eric Yoffie

United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas in the Knesset on Monday.

Arab Voters Will Decide if Israel's Far-right Wins Power