Analysis |

How an Ongoing COVID State of Emergency Will Benefit Netanyahu

There are enough fanatics in Israel looking for an excuse to impose eternal limitations because of the pandemic panic, something Netanyahu could use to his advantage

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion International Airport to greet the arrival of a shipment of Pfizer coronavirus vaccines, January 10, 2021.
Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion International Airport to greet the arrival of a shipment of Pfizer coronavirus vaccines, January 10, 2021. Credit: Moti Milrod
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who take pains to identify with the coronavirus successes (like the vaccination campaign) but not with its failures (Ben-Gurion Airport, enforcement in the ultra-Orthodox community), Sunday marked another milestone: More than a million Israelis have gotten the second dose of the coronavirus vaccine, while more than 2.5 million citizens, including 80 percent of those aged 60 or older, have gotten at least one dose. The pace of vaccinations remains high, between 100,000 to 200,000 per day.

But the good news isn’t enough to assure that Israel can quickly overcome the spread of the virus or reopen the economy anytime soon. Netanyahu based a great deal of his campaign strategy for the March 23 election on the vaccination and morbidity statistics. He hoped to get at least 5 million Israelis vaccinated by then, reopen the economy and then highlight the difference between a resurgent Israel and Europe and the United States, which will still be under serious coronavirus restrictions.

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At this point, it’s hard to see his grand plan being realized in time. The British variant of the virus, which has already been identified in many of the recent infections and whose rate of contagion may be 50 percent higher than that of the earlier strain, is keeping Netanyahu from the achievement he seeks. While the number of new infections seems to have been contained, there are still on average over 6,000 new cases being confirmed daily. The number of seriously ill patients has stabilized, but remains high, around 1,200. The pressure on hospitals has increased accordingly. These are not statistics that will allow a quick exit from the lockdown, let alone an easing of restrictions. The name chosen for the vaccination campaign, “Return to Life,” for now seems like an overly ambitious goal that’s far from attainable.

Based on the most updated estimates, the British variant’s high rate of contagion will raise the bar required for herd immunity against COVID-19 to around 80 percent of the population. But the restrictions imposed by Pfizer, at least so far, warn against vaccinating children under 16, an age group that comprises 30 percent of Israel’s population. So to reach herd immunity, we will have to vaccinate more than 80 percent of the adults and hope that Pfizer and Moderna will eventually lower the minimum age for vaccinating to 14 or under, based on clinical trials they are conducting now. Until then, for fear of again losing control over the rate of infection, one can assume that the government will only agree to a slow and more cautious rollback of the restrictions.

At least the vaccines are being shipped to Israel at a satisfactory pace. The looming difficulty will be to persuade people who have been resistant to being vaccinated to get the shot, particularly among the most at-risk groups but also among those who are younger. The health maintenance organizations, with the help of the army, plan to make an effort to vaccinate the homebound elderly during the next few weeks. This is considered a vital effort in the attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

A coronavirus vaccination center belonging to the Leumit HMO, Tel Aviv, January 13, 2021.Credit: Hadas Parush

An old-new model

After a critical delay, Netanyahu has finally turned his attention to the ongoing anarchy at Ben-Gurion International Airport. During the entire crisis, the government has failed to properly monitor the country’s only port of entry. At first, during March of last year, masses of ultra-Orthodox travelers were permitted to enter from New York. Later, in the fall, the state promoted flights to the United Arab Emirates, blatantly ignoring the fact that Dubai had become an infection hothouse and that many of those returning from there were bringing back the virus, including the new and more infectious variants.

As usual, Netanyahu and his ministers tried to shift responsibility for the breach on clerks and jurists. When it became clear that this wouldn’t be enough, they agreed on a series of steps that will severely restrict entry to Israel. If a policy of pre-screening and effective quarantine of those returning from abroad would have been in place from the start, there may have been no need for these extreme measures. It’s not clear why the government is so eager to block Israelis from leaving the country – that won’t have any effect on the spread of the virus here. The impression is that it’s doing this for one simple reason: because it can.

For months, at the behest of the cabinet, the police ignored the lockdown violations in the ultra-Orthodox community. Now, as criticism of this policy has intensified, the police is responding in the only way it knows how – with brutal, indiscriminate violence against passersby in Haredi towns and neighborhoods. The younger Haredim are contributing by starting up with the police. Behind them stand the rabbis who, directly or indirectly, have been encouraging Talmud Torah schools to reopen when the rest of the country’s schools are closed. Photos of a policeman shooting in the air in Bnei Brak were circulating on Sunday.

At the airport and in Bnei Brak, we are seeing the failures that have resulted in increased mortality, an average of 38 daily deaths from the coronavirus over the past month. Million of vaccines and a few cute Tik-Tok videos by Netanyahu won’t make up for it.

Given the increasing frustration, the former Health Ministry director-general, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, proposed an old-new model. In a weekend interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, he recommended Israel adopt a policy of “zero infections.” He envisions Israel as if it were New Zealand, Taiwan or China: The number of infections will drop to zero as the result of a lengthy lockdown. At the same time, the state will conduct a crackdown that will include banning all entry from abroad, mass, ongoing coronavirus testing and the strict quarantining of every person who gets sick.

How this is supposed to happen in a country that cannot enforce lockdown discipline in an isolated Arab village, let alone a street in Beit Shemesh, isn’t clear. It’s also hard to understand how such a policy could be enforced given that tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers cross from the Palestinian territories into Israel every day. Can Israel, which for nearly a year has been managed like a disorganized grocery store, suddenly change its spots and become a model of effectiveness?

But the former director general’s proposal was worrisome for another major reason. It opens the door for the government to declare an ongoing state of emergency, in which achieving the goal (zero infections) would justify increasingly severe measures that would restrict individual liberty and freedom of movement. There are enough fanatics here looking for an excuse to impose eternal limitations because of the panic this deadly virus has generated. And it’s hard to forget that an ongoing state of emergency will benefit the prime minister. Netanyahu, who is fighting for his legal and political future, has never exhibited any reluctance to make decisions based on irrelevant considerations.

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