Health, Not Politics

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press on March 8, 2020.
Emil Salman

The number of Israelis infected by the new coronavirus rose to 39 Sunday. The Health Ministry has adopted a stringent quarantine policy that has put tens of thousands of Israelis into isolation. Nevertheless, over the past few days medical officials have accused politicians, primarily Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of interfering in the Health Ministry’s directives as well as in the timing of their release. Netanyahu’s staff has been pressing to thwart an order to quarantine people returning from the United States, out of fear of undermining Israel’s relations with America and particularly with President Donald Trump.

Bibi limps to election 'victory.' But he didn't winHaaretz Weekly Podcast

The PMO denies these accusations and insists that the decisions are being made strictly out of professional considerations. Nevertheless, when it comes to directives relating to the United States, it’s hard to ignore the gap between the Health Ministry’s position and that of the Prime Minister’s Office. The Health Ministry decides which countries to place on the quarantine list based on various parameters, including the number of coronavirus patients in each, the rate at which the disease is spreading, ties between different countries and the steps each country has taken against the virus. In the United States, 477 people have already been diagnosed with the coronavirus, so in line with its parameters, the Health Ministry had planned to order people returning from America into quarantine as well.

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov said Saturday night the ministry planned to require quarantine for people returning from New York, California and Washington state, places where incidence of the disease has been high. On Sunday, Netanyahu convened an unnecessary press conference just to get screen time, at which he announced that the decision on whether to quarantine people returning from the United States had been postponed. “We’ll discuss it tonight,” he said. “We’re considering quarantine for everyone returning from abroad.”

It wasn’t the first time the PMO intervened in U.S.-related health directives. When Health Ministry professionals wanted to order home quarantine for people who returned to Israel after attending the AIPAC conference in Washington, after three people attendees tested positive, Netanyahu aides blocked the move. Consequently, hundreds of Israelis who were at the conference aren’t in quarantine. In another case, the government postponed the implementation of ministry directives until after the March 2 election.

Medical officials say the professionals don’t get enough support vis-a-vis the politicians and that insufficient use has been made of the information gathered by a special task force on epidemics. As COVID-19 spreads, medical professionals are growing increasingly worried about political intervention that isn’t necessarily for the public’s benefit.

The coronavirus is spreading rapidly, but not enough is known about it. The decision-making process must be more transparent and led by professionals based on medical considerations, not political ones. Public health must be paramount.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.