A Cabinet Within a Cabinet: Where Israel Really Sets Its COVID Policies

Prime Minister Bennett works with his own panel of experts that shapes COVID policy – usually without the involvement of other politicians

Nati Toker
Nati Tucker
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Travelers wait for a security check in Ben-Gurion International Airport on Sunday.
Travelers wait for a security check in Ben-Gurion International Airport on Sunday. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Nati Toker
Nati Tucker

The official panel authorized to make decisions on how Israel deals with the COVID-19 pandemic is the coronavirus cabinet, which was established by the previous Netanyahu government. It continues to function to this day and recently government ministers, including Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avidgor Lieberman, have come under criticism for being absent from its meetings.

It’s doubtful, however, that the coronavirus cabinet is actually where policy is developed to deal with the pandemic. As It turns out, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has another panel – of professionals – which meets more frequently, and where, sources say, Israeli policy on the pandemic is actually made. Other than the prime minister, no other politician usually attends its meetings.

So, for example, when the omicron variant from Southern Africa first burst into our lives two weeks ago, this panel of experts convened on Zoom for a special two-hour session, which was also unusual in that it was held on Shabbat. On this occasion, several other cabinet ministers were brought into the discussion on issues within the areas of their ministries’ responsibility.

One of the decisions made then was to close Ben-Gurion International Airport to arriving foreign passengers for two weeks – a decision that was later approved by the coronavirus cabinet.

The professional panel, which did not exist under the Netanyahu government, is called “Hituch Matzav Leumi,” in Hebrew, which roughly translates as “national situation assessment.” It holds hour-long meetings on Zoom on a regular basis, sometimes even without Bennett. It convenes at least once every two days – and sometimes daily, depending upon the rate of infection in the country or other developments related to the pandemic.

Prime Minister Bennett at a Corona cabinet press conference Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Zoom calls, participated by about 50 people, all professionals of various kinds, are generally chaired by the prime minister. The participants include the director generals of relevant government ministries, advisers and people with responsibilities in specific fields. But what sets the panel apart is that the only politician regularly participating is the prime minister.

On rare occasions, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz has also participated, and when specific restrictions have come up that relate to the work of other government ministries, other cabinet members have joined the discussion.

The decision to convene the panel at the professional level was taken with the approval of the relevant cabinet ministers, sources at the Prime Minister’s Office said. One person who has participated said the intensive nature of the deliberations is an indication of the importance that Bennett places to dealing with COVID and of his deep personal involvement in managing how the pandemic is dealt with in Israel.

Data at fine resolution

Although the panel makes operational decisions, it has no official standing. However, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit does have a representative participating in its sessions; usually it’s Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri. On occasion the panel has developed policy on a specific issue only to be told by Mendelblit’s representative that the issue would have to be taken up by the coronavirus cabinet. Officially, the panel is considered an entity that monitors the implementation of decisions made by the coronavirus cabinet.

A record of the panel’s deliberations is made by a stenographer in accordance with procedure in the Prime Minister’s Office itself, a source from the office said. But there is a lack of transparency in its work. Its deliberations, the data presented to it and its decisions are not made public in any formal way. It’s managed through the office of the director of civil defense at the Defense Ministry, Brig. Gen. (res.) Moshe Edri, who is responsible for managing the pandemic.

Line for COVID testing at Ben-Gurion International Airport in OctoberCredit: Emil Salman

Regular participants in the Zoom panel discussions include the director generals of the ministries of health, finance, education and transportation. Also in regular attendance are the head of the Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Ori Gordon; the coronavirus policy czar, Prof. Salman Zarka; the official responsible for pandemic policy at Ben-Gurion airport, Roni Numa; and Ran Ahituv, a high-tech executive. Ahituv, who is an adviser to the prime minister in a volunteer capacity on the pandemic, is the managing partner at the Entrée Capital venture capital firm.

Every meeting of the panel includes a presentation of data. “The prime minister is a freak when it comes to coronavirus figures,” said one senior member of the group. “He wants to know what they are at any given moment.” The meetings feature a round of short presentations of statistics by government officials, who also briefly comment on the data.

The official Corona cabinet, let to right: Corona czar Prof. Salman Zarka, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, Prof. Nachman Ash and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz Credit: Moti Milrod

Bennett hones his attention to the data down to the finest resolution, participants at the meetings said, involving even too much detail. On one occasion, for instance, he reportedly sought to discuss a shortage of antigen testing kits in one specific area of the country. He is said to have gotten angry that his repeated requests to carry out a pilot program to filter the air in school classrooms had been delayed – and as a result the person responsible for installing the ventilation systems was summoned to a subsequent meeting to report on the project’s progress.

“This forum is very important in the ongoing management of the coronavirus,” said one source who participates in the sessions. He compared its unofficial capacity to instances in which government ministers don’t consider every military decision made in Israel, saying: “There are steps that the forum of the [IDF] General Staff can take on its own,” he quipped.

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