Analysis |

Netanyahu Took a Gamble on Reopening, and the Cost of His COVID Policy Will Only Be Clear After Election

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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People wining and dining outside as Israel lifts more COVID restrictions, Tel Aviv, yesterday.
People wining and dining outside as Israel lifts more COVID restrictions, Tel Aviv, yesterday. Credit: Hadas Parush
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

“The election is a factor, I won’t be naive here,” Prof. Nachman Ash, the coronavirus czar, said in interview with Channel 13 television Sunday, being too honest a man to hide the truth. This also appears to be clear to many Israelis.

It’s impossible to separate the hasty, large-scale reopening of the economy and the schools at the start of this week, following months of lockdowns that caused major economic and psychological damage, from the Knesset election that will take place on March 23. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coronavirus policy is meant primarily to create an appearance of returning to normalcy.

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Netanyahu’s grand plan for the election hasn’t come to pass. Thanks largely to his intensive efforts to buy vaccines (in contrast to his flawed handling of all other aspects of the crisis), Israel is leading the world in its vaccination rate.

But the spread of the highly infectious British variant slowed the anticipated recovery rate. Cases of serious illness and deaths have fallen significantly, but not as quickly and dramatically as Netanyahu expected. The average number of new daily cases remains high, at about 3,000.

His plan to celebrate the Pfizer vaccines’ success with the company’s CEO, Albert Bourla, was also torpedoed after Bourla belatedly realized that Netanyahu was planning to make political use of his visit and postponed it.

Internal polls by Netanyahu’s Likud party, as Haaretz has reported, show that voters are less enthusiastic than expected about the vaccines. Netanyahu would undoubtedly have preferred a ceremony at which Israelis thanked him personally for obtaining the vaccines, but that won’t happen.

Without Bourla, Likud had to make do Monday with celebrating the five millionth Israeli to get the first dose. In addition, restaurants and cafes were allowed to serve sit-down customers and indoor gatherings with hundreds of people were approved.

Biden listens to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speak at the Pfizer Kalamazoo Manufacturing Site in Michigan, last month. Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI - AFP

In an interview with Fox News, Netanyahu even said that Israel would soon leave the coronavirus behind it. When he realized that this statement sounded tone-deaf, his staff claimed his words were taken out of context.

Israel’s coronavirus statistics show improvement, but not to the extent Netanyahu claims. More than 53 percent of Israelis have received at least one dose of the vaccine, including 40 percent who have received both doses. Another 8.5 percent have recovered from the virus, though the real figure is likely 1.5 to two times higher, since many asymptomatic patients fell sick and recovered without ever being diagnosed.

In other words, by the end of the month, if vaccinations don’t grind to a halt, close to 70 percent of Israelis will have been vaccinated or recovered.

But the threshold for herd immunity to the virus is apparently around 80 percent. To get there, Israel would have to vaccinate children aged 12 to 16. Pfizer is now doing clinical trials of its vaccine’s safety for this age group. But contrary to statements by senior Israeli officials, the results aren’t expected before this summer.

Thus the vaccinations are rapidly dividing Israelis into two groups – people 16 and older, the vast majority of whom have been vaccinated or recovered, and those under 16, who aren’t protected but who are considered to be at low risk from the virus.

Restaurants open in Tel Aviv, yesterday. Credit: Hadas Parush

Health Ministry officials still fear that once restrictions are lifted, the virus will spread swiftly among children, and from there to unvaccinated adults and adults whom the vaccine doesn’t protect (fewer than 10 percent, according to Pfizer), producing another rise in serious illness. Others, like the director of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, think Israel’s margin of safety is wide enough.

Around 700 seriously ill patients are currently hospitalized. The accepted wisdom is that more than 800 would lower the standard of care and 1,200 would put an intolerable burden on the hospitals. Israel has already been there, in late January.

The decision to open the economy and return the middle grades to school part-time is necessary and logical. Around 90 percent of the most at-risk population, people 50 and older, have already been vaccinated or recovered. It’s impossible to harass the public forever.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives his COVID-19 vaccine, three months ago.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Soon, the health and education ministries will also presumably have to reexamine their policy of mass testing in the schools and automatic quarantines of entire preschools and classes because a single carrier has been discovered.

But other steps approved by the cabinet seem dubious. The biggest problem is Ben-Gurion International Airport. Israel hasn’t managed to find a reasonable method of enforcing quarantine on most travelers, leaving a dangerous opening for the uncontrolled spread of new variants (the big fear is of a vaccine-resistant variant, though so far, none have been discovered).

Bars open in Tel Aviv, yesterday. Credit: Hadas Parush

Another problem is the decision to allow mass gatherings indoors, which was apparently added to the list to enable campaign rallies. The risk posed by these steps will become clear only in another few weeks, but that will already be after the election.

Back when European countries were negotiating with Iran to restrain its nuclear program, I asked one of the chief European negotiators whether it’s true that the Iranians approached the talks with the seriousness and sophistication of the nation that invented chess. It’s sometimes true, he replied, but other times, they act more like backgammon players – “they roll the dice and pray for double sixes.”

This, more or less, seems to be Netanyahu’s situation as he steers coronavirus policy two weeks before the election.

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