Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is far from the first Israeli head of state to take advantage of the international spotlight to settle scores at home.
But the cutting remarks in Bennett's speech at the United Nations General Assembly raised eyebrows in Israel because it wasn’t his political rivals he chose to attack with the whole world watching. Instead, his barbs were aimed at the top physicians on the front lines of the country’s battle against COVID-19 who had been pressuring him to impose unpopular restrictions that would take a financial and psychological toll on a population weary after a year and a half of the pandemic.
Bennett claimed proudly on the UN stage that Israel was currently “on course to escap[ing] the fourth wave without a lockdown, without further harm to our economy.”
Implying that politicians, not physicians, deserved credit for this accomplishment, he explained that “running a country during a pandemic is not only about health. It’s about carefully balancing all aspects of life that are affected by the coronavirus, especially jobs and education. While doctors are an important input, they cannot be the ones running the national initiative. The only person that has a good vantage point of all considerations is the national leader of any given country. Above all, we’re doing everything in our power to provide people with the tools needed to protect their lives.”
One doesn't have to delve too deeply into the subtext of the speech to understand that Bennett, after waxing triumphant at Israel’s pioneering role in battling the spread of COVID-19 through aggressive vaccination policies, was criticizing his own Health Ministry officials and other senior members of the medical establishment for pushing him on restrictions and lockdowns, and patting himself on the back for demonstrating leadership by resisting them.
If there was any doubt as to his message, it was eliminated at a press briefing in New York held after the speech, in which Bennett clarified even more pointedly that “with all due respect to medical experts, some of them don’t see the full picture. They won’t make the decisions on a national level, we will.”
While he said that “I very much appreciate the Health Ministry officials” he stressed that “their job is to give medical input and my job and my responsibility is to decide. In the end, the responsibility is on me, not them.”
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In the same remarks at the briefing, he took credit for insisting on forging ahead with booster vaccines, saying that in “real time,” some top Health Ministry officials had opposed the early campaign to administer the third shot, and declared he rejected the medical community’s attitude of “who cares?’ when it comes to economic considerations.
“They tell me, impose restrictions across the board – that is, stop all events with more than 300 people," Bennett recounted. He said that when he challenged the professionals to provide data-based reasons for imposing a policy that would cost the Israeli economy “billions,” they “stuttered."
Top health officials made no secret of the fact that they were wounded by Bennett’s remarks, some of which they said were factually inaccurate, specifically the claim that they had been opposed to moving ahead with boosters.
Several hit back at Bennett with sharp criticism anonymously, but Health Ministry Director General Prof. Nachman Ash took to the airwaves following the Simchat Torah holiday. While Ash acknowledged that ultimately, it was the political leaders who made the final decisions, he expressed disappointment that, in his UN speech, Bennett failed to more clearly praise for Israel’s health professionals over the course of the pandemic.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, caught between the leader of the government coalition and the disgruntled officials at his ministry, attempted damage control following the dust-up: “Let it be clear, the Health Ministry experts are doing devoted and excellent work on an international level. They are saving lives every day. They have my full backing and I have nothing but praise for them,” Horowitz tweeted.
"Their recommendations are the first consideration guiding us, even if it’s not the only one…They must express all opinions regarding our conduct, as politicians, even if we’re not comfortable with it.”
Acknowledging the controversy before boarding a plane home from New York, Bennett reiterated that “I very much respect the experts of the Health Ministry and cherish their professional work. However, imposing more and more sweeping restrictions on all citizens of the State of Israel is not the policy of this government.”
That policy, he said, was “to keep the State of Israel as open as possible, an economy as open as possible alongside focused work on the hotspots where people are unvaccinated and there are high rates of morbidity.”
Bennett noted that the 40 “reddest” and least vaccinated municipalities in Israel were all in the Arab sector and that more than 90 percent of the people hospitalized in critical condition are unvaccinated.
Therefore, he concluded “despite the pressures we will avoid sweeping restrictions on the entire population at this stage. Shutting down a Shlomo Artzi concert in Rishon Lezion or a wedding in Modi'in will not help Taibeh residents or Umm al-Fahm residents reduce their rates of morbidity.”