In his final days as defense minister, Naftali Bennett is feverishly working to reach yet another agreement that will increase the number of coronavirus tests. At the end of March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged, under pressure from Bennett, to increase the average number to 30,000 per day. This target will not be reached any time soon.
Health Ministry chiefs are no doubt breathing a sigh of relief that Bennett will be out of the picture. At long last, they won’t need to worry about the hyperactive minister constantly undermining their decisions, doubting their excuses, asking for more powers and presenting alternative modes of operation.
Bennett’s presumptive replacement, Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz, will certainly bring to the position, and to the fight against the coronavirus, the same creativity and high level of energy he showed in the Gaza war of 2014, in three rounds of elections and in the lengthy coalition negotiations that ended Monday with his capitulation to Netanyahu. He will be the fifth defense minister in four years, just under a quarter of the number of defense minister in Israel’s previous 68 years. Under Netanyahu, the defense minister has gone from being a crucial member of the cabinet to a place holder, as insignificant as the foreign minister.
Gantz is the man who was afraid to be prime minister. His many acquaintances from his days as IDF chief of staff recall his admiration for Netanyahu to the point of self-deprecation. At the moment of truth, Gantz was afraid to take the helm, certainly in light of the venomous personal attacks from Likud and the complex alliances that were required in the effort to beat Netanyahu in March's third election.
Gantz apparently believes that a year and a half as deputy prime minister will give him the experience and stature to take over the top job, as his deal with Netanyahu envisions. But very few political analysts would bet on Netanyahu keeping to the letter of the agreement. Gantz is liable to find a prominent place on the long list of short-term partners whom Netanyahu has cheated and abandoned.
Gantz’s Kahol Lavan co-leader, lawmaker Gabi Ashkenazi, also bears some responsibility: For giving up on the annexation issue, the implications over which the two former chiefs of staff had expressed concern; for legitimizing corruption by establishing a government whose prime minister is under indictment for three serious offenses; for weakening the legal system; and for the final sin of establishing a bloated and wasteful government that retains the same failed health minister.
There was some justification for establishing an emergency government to fight the coronavirus outbreak, given Israel’s circumstances. However, the deal reflects a rare level of insensitivity toward, and disconnect from society. Try explaining a cabinet with 30 or more ministers, deputy ministers, and extra legislators brought into the Knesset to replace the newly-anointed minister (due to the so-called Norwegian law), or the provision for an alternative official residence for Mrs. Netanyahu and her family, to people who have just lost their jobs, to business owners who are about to close their enterprises or to the doctor who had to go into quarantine because of exposure to coronavirus and then discovered she has to use her sick days.
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Hope for the summer
The World Health Organization believes that widespread testing for the coronavirus, along with effectively following the chain of infection are essential preconditions to easing restrictions in any country. The Israeli government, which decided at the beginning of this week to remove some restrictions in light of the slowdown in the rate of the spread of the disease, has not met these conditions.
According to the experts, the basic rate of infection (R0) in Israel is receding. At the beginning of the crisis, the rate was nearly 2 (that is, every coronavirus patient infected on average two other people), and by the end of March it had declined to about 1.2. Now it’s less than 1, mainly as a result of the harsher quarantine rules instituted in late March. That has led to the conclusion that the virus has been stopped and the first stage of the fight against it has ended relatively successfully.
Lifting restrictions will lead to a rise in new coronavirus cases, but the Health Ministry hopes this will happen in a relatively controlled manner, without a massive new outbreak. The problem, as usual, is the time gap between infection, the appearance of symptoms, testing, diagnosis and hospitalization. Because this process takes from one to two weeks (and the first symptoms usually appear only after at least four days), the data on known patients do not reflect the true situation.
The government is set to discuss lifting more restrictions in about a week and a half. The danger is that the rise in the number of new patients will only be felt after Independence Day on April 29. So, a major burden on the health care system could emerge around mid-May. Thankfully, a possible collapse of the hospitals is growing more distant, because more respirators have been purchased and more medical knowledge has accumulated in the meantime.
The healthcare system is counting on a number of variables that might rein in a new outbreak. Social distancing (maintaining a space of two meters between people) is critical, as is most older people staying home, thereby reducing the risk of infection in this vulnerable population.
A key question is the effect of dry, hot weather ahead in the summer. The initial research has not yet provided a clear answer, but from what has transpired in developed countries in the southern hemisphere, such as Australia and New Zealand (places where the virus arrived during summer) it seems the virus spread more slowly. That observation has raised hopes in Israel.
The weak point is the clumsy testing process, which is making it difficult to break the chain of infection. Brig. Gen. (res.) Uri Zeifert, who was put in charge of improving the testing process, resigned from that post at the beginning of this week. Zeifert, who according to his friends in the Israel Air Force, is a rare case of a fighter pilot with a restrained ego, quickly realized he had been placed at the vanguard of a hopeless bureaucratic battlefield. Meanwhile, efforts are underway to persuade him to stay, by removing some of the obstacles in his path.
Expedited testing and more efficient epidemiological studies to identify people who have come into contact with newly diagnosed coronavirus patients are becoming more critical, precisely in light of the lifting of quarantine restrictions. When there is no quarantine, contact between people increases, thereby increasing the risk of infection. But lacking effective studies, too much time elapses until people infected by a newly diagnosed person are located.
Even now, the Health Ministry has done little to relieve bottlenecks. The question of how long it takes Magen David Adom between administering the test and getting the results has remained a total secret. The IDF has helped the Health Ministry upgrade its information systems and improve the flow of information between various bodies, but the road is still long. At some point, defense officials have said wryly, it would be easier and faster to hack the Health Ministry’s databases than to wait for the information to arrive in organized fashion.
Those involved in these issues say they are increasingly surprised over Netanyahu’s passivity in light of this weakness. This is a key roadblock for Israel in dealing with the virus – and it is not being properly handled.
The failure to shorten the path to locate people who have come into contact with the coronavirus has led to over-reliance on invasive measures instituted by the Shin Bet security service and the police. What has happened in recent weeks is not surprising. Extensive geotracking of cellphones has been deemed a sweeping success in the fight against the virus; now there is a desire to increase these measures. The ministerial committee discussing the matter over the past few days has lined up with Netanyahu. The committee wants to grant the Shin Bet more powers, using additional sources of information and more precise analysis.
For years the Israeli intelligence community has become used to employing technological surveillance, whose sophistication and reach have relentlessly grown, against enemies and the occupied Palestinian population. Now, the coronavirus has emerged as a new and unfamiliar enemy, while the old ways of the world are changing in the blink of an eye, providing the perfect excuse to invade the lives of Israelis.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The need to quickly stop the spread of the virus has led, in the heat of the battle, to dangerous shortcuts. This is a joint effort by the Shin Bet (which actually is more cautious because it is already familiar with this sensitive realm), Military Intelligence, the Mossad, the police and civilian technology firms. They are all involved to some extent in snooping of an unprecedented scope in Israel proper. Some insiders have already noticed a dangerous blurring of boundaries by those in uniform, who see the confusion as an obvious necessity and seek to expand their powers.
Will anyone put an end to this practice in two months, when business owners who have lost everything organize a violent protest against the renewal of restrictions, and the state prosecutor’s office explains that there is an urgent need to surveil these people to ensure public safety and prevent harm to people’s health? This is a slippery slope that should worry every Israeli.
Not for the first time, doctors have presented a sobering point of view on this matter. Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians, and Prof. Nadav Davidovitz, chairman of the Public Health Forum, wrote the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee: “It is completely clear at this point that the outbreak is not a health crisis of an extent that justifies invasive and controversial surveillance of Israeli citizens.”
According to Levine and Davidovitz, "from a professional standpoint, these steps are not at all required, considering that symptomatic illness is the tip of the iceberg in the chain of infection. There is no proof of the efficacy of these steps in limiting the spread of the virus and they might put the public’s health and confidence at risk. There are technological alternatives that do not entail an exceptional invasion of privacy, which can augment the epidemiological infrastructure of human resources and laboratories.”