Opinion |

Netanyahu Exempted U.S. From Coronavirus Travel Ban for Fear of Trump

The U.S. president’s diminution of the disease makes its potential spread a time bomb that could scuttle his chances of reelection

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, March 8, 2020
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, March 8, 2020Credit: POOL New/ REUTERS
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

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On March 4, the Israeli Health Ministry issued a travel ban on incoming tourists from Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland and Austria and ordered all Israelis returning from them to quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Haaretz reported on Monday that the timing was influenced by political pressures to postpone publication of the travel ban until after the March 2 election. If the travel ban had been in place on Election Day, 70,000 Israelis would have been in isolation instead of the 5500 that were quarantined in practice.

On the day the new warning was published, Germany had 196 recorded cases of coronavirus, Spain 151, Switzerland 37 and Austria 24 - all with no deaths attributed to the disease. France had 212 cases, with four deaths. The United States on March 4 had 108 cases of confirmed coronavirus, but with 6 deaths, a higher figure than in any of the countries included in ministry’s blacklist.

Since then, the number of recorded cases in the U.S. has surpassed 500, with 22 deaths. The disease has spread from Washington State to California, New York and Florida, the three main hubs of air travel to and from Israel. Nonetheless, thousands of America tourists, Jews and Israelis continued to enter Israel without undergoing even a cursory examination or being ordered to stay in isolation.

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The risk of keeping the gates open to the U.S. is exacerbated by the sad state of its public health system, which excludes millions of poorer Americans; by its inability to conduct mass tests for coronavirus; and by three years of deep Trump administration budget cuts in agencies meant to deal with outbreaks of epidemics and pandemics. In all five European countries barred on March 4, the efficiency of their public health systems is inestimably higher than in the U.S.

Various explanations have been floated for the exemption. Among them are allegations similar to those reported by Haaretz on Monday: Just as the ultra-Orthodox community of Antwerp exerted pressure to exclude Belgium from the March 4 ban, the ultra-Orthodox community in New York, along with Israeli expats in Florida and California successfully exempted the U.S. from the Israeli list.

But the main reason for the government’s curious - and dangerous - hands-off policy towards the U.S. isn’t internal pressures or any valid concern that including the U.S. would damage ties between the two countries. Rather, it is Benjamin Netanyahu’s apprehension that such a move would damage the reputation and electoral prospects of his friend and ally Donald Trump.

Trump’s ongoing diminution of the coronavirus risk - on Monday he again accused Democrats of hyping up a “hoax" - along with what is seen as the U.S. health system’s woeful lack of preparedness to deal with a mass outbreak of the disease is a time bomb that that threatens Trump and his chances of being reelected in November. A widespread and deadly outbreak of coronavirus in the U.S. in the coming months could turn Trump into a lame duck with no hopes of redemption and pave the way for Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders or even Bozo the Clown to win the elections and occupy the White House.

Netanyahu’s relations with Trump are the crowning glory of his recent years in office. It is a source of pride but also shows his complete dependence on the U.S. president. Netanyahu is terrified by Trump’s potential wrath if he dared classify the U.S. as potential source of coronavirus and, far more, by the thought that such a move might make his nightmare of a Democratic win in November come true.

Which is why he and his government now prefer to issue a blanket travel ban on all travel in and out of Israel rather than single out Trump’s America, although by now such a move might prove too little too late. Israeli citizens could be made to pay the price, including, god forbid, the highest price of all.

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