Analysis |

Israel Is Forming an 'Emergency' Government, but Not to Fight the Coronavirus

Kahol Lavan didn't even fight for a suitable appointment to the Health Ministry, which was given to weary politico Yuli Edelstein

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Netanyahu, center, and Edelstein, second from left, at a Likud convention in March
Netanyahu, center, and Edelstein, second from left, at a Likud convention in MarchCredit: Moti Milrod
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

As it fills its last slots, the “emergency government to combat the coronavirus” turns out to be something completely different, as we might have expected: it’s an emergency government to save Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s not just that 36 ministerial positions and several new deputy minister positions were approved at a time of crushing unemployment. It’s the fact that the position of health minister was ultimately filled as something of an afterthought, as though it was the most trivial of coalition bargaining chips.

Benny Gantz’s party Kahol Lavan, which had stated that it was joining the government in order to tackle the virus crisis, didn't even put up a fight over the Health Ministry. Gabi Ashkenazi, a former Israeli army chief of staff with proven managerial capability, preferred the Foreign Ministry, even though very few state visits can be expected in the year to come. Kahol Lavan even had an apparently fitting candidate for health minister on its roster, Professor Yitzhak Kreis, the director of Tel Hashomer Hospital, but did not insist on his appointment.

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Gantz himself seemed more concerned with obtaining ministerial positions for women in his party and ignored the health portfolio, though it may be the most crucial one in the new government. The predictable outcome came to pass: The Health Ministry became the child whose custody neither parent wants.

The prime minister wouldn’t even contemplate giving the health portfolio to Naftali Bennett, the only minister who showed genuine energy and initiative in addressing the coronavirus crisis. So the portfolio returned to the Likud and was ultimately given to Yuli Edelstein, a weary politico who was forced to accept it as a consolation prize after his scandalous conduct two months ago toward the High Court of Justice blocked his path to another term as Knesset Speaker. We may still hope that Edelstein will be more involved and show more vision than his predecessor in the position, Yaakov Litzman, who had been a controversial minister long before the pandemic erupted, but the virus did him in as a public figure. First he ignored the coronavirus and even publicly struggled to remember its name. Then he failed his own community when he secured exemptions for it rather than insist that it follow the health directives. Then he came down with the virus himself. Finally he fled the job as fast as he could.  

Israel's 35th government

We will also soon be bidding farewell to Moshe Bar Siman Tov, the Health Ministry director-general. When a new government forms after three rounds of elections that wasted more than a year of the country’s time, a changing of the guard among the directors-general is natural, especially given that Bar Siman Tov served nearly five years in the position. But the coronavirus crisis is raging and we have not only the wholesale replacement of ministers, but are losing the key person who led the response to the disease. The inescapable conclusion is that Netanyahu thinks he is the only one who matters in managing this crisis. Apparently we won’t be seeing a central coronavirus task force taking shape; nor will an official with broader powers than Bar Siman Tov be named to coordinate system-wide preparations for a possible second wave of the virus that could hit Israel in early winter.

How does the prime minister intend to simultaneously ensure the country is ready for the next wave of the coronavirus, pass the annexation plan that is likely to reignite the Palestinian front (early signs of which were seen this week), and manage his defense in his trial in Jerusalem District Court? Only Netanyahu knows. Perhaps, as indicated by the orchestrated campaign he generated against the attorney general and state prosecutor, he is still hoping for some big bang that will halt the proceedings against him.

Patience is a virtue, children

Meanwhile, chaos continues to reign. Shmuel Abuav, the director-general of the Education Ministry, appears on the television news every evening and with a condescending smile, explains to the furious presenters that schools won’t return to the full schedule anytime soon and that parents just have to be patient. The partial, stuttering return to preschools and schools leaves hundreds of thousands of people unable to go back to full time work. In fact, many local governments are bucking the Education Ministry and are barely cooperating with it.

The government’s gingerness is understandable. Nowhere in the world is there firm data on how contagious the virus is, let alone among children, though they are evidently less susceptible than adults. But confusion about the directives – such as the idea that children in grades four through six will only go to school once a week – is not limited to the schools. The situation is similar with regard to restaurants, the resumption of professional soccer and basketball, of cultural events, and even going to the beach.

A woman holds a poster of Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Benny Gantz that reads "a government with 36 ministers? Where is the shame?" during a protest at Rabin square, in Tel Aviv, May 2, 2020.Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP

Hovering above all is a deep dread of protracted, unavoidable economic catastrophe whose full implications we are only just starting to grasp. Even with its much lower infection and mortality rates compared to Western European countries and the United States, Israel will not be able to escape the economic crisis. Its international trade and the very survival of the aviation and tourism industries depend on fundamental improvement of the situation in Western countries. And with the way the American administration is behaving right now, it looks like the only way out of the crisis for the U.S. is for a vaccine to be found and for the entire population to be inoculated.

Coronavirus scofflaws

As a relentless stream of highly specific and often contradictory directives rains down on Israelis during the pandemic, the government continues to be ineffectual in confronting defiant and organized rule-breaking.

The police spent many days on serious preparations to prevent masses of people from traveling to Mount Meron on Lag Ba’Omer. The plan even worked somehow, despite an overabundance of functionaries and celebrities at the site. But as soon as some of the roadblocks were removed on Tuesday evening as the end of the holiday approached, the faithful began to descend on the site en masse and the police had to arrest about 300 of them. Earlier, on the night of Lag Ba’Omer itself, bonfires attended by large gatherings took place in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, in blatant violation of the government directives, which for the most part were well-heeded elsewhere in the country.

Large gatherings have also been seen, albeit on a lesser scale, in some Arab communities: first in the Bedouin town of Hura, where a wedding led to numerous infections, and this week at a funeral in the Galilee village of Tur’an.

Outside the Yigal Alon school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim, May 3, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Earlier this week, we reported the incredible story of Rabbi Yehezkel Rata, a leading figure in the Satmar community in New York, who was permitted to make aliya through an accelerated process at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. On Sunday, according to a report on the Behadrei Haredim website, Rata was filmed visiting the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai at Meron, though he was still supposed to be undergoing a two-week isolation in a home in nearby Moshav Meron.

The government is basically signaling to the ordinary citizen that obeying the rules is for fools and not for the well-connected folks above him, even if they belong to a Hassidic sect with an extreme anti-Zionist ideology. The flawed policy in relation to the extremist Haredim was evident throughout the recent holiday. The police thought that if they allowed ultra-Orthodox officials to conduct a bonfire under strict supervision in Jerusalem, their rules would be followed. Quite the opposite happened: the permit was interpreted as the turning of a blind eye to other heavily attended bonfires by the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem and elsewhere, in many more places.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate the festival of Lag Ba'Omer by lighting a bonfire, Jerusalem, May 11, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

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