As Bennett blasts government’s virus policy, PM tells him to stay in his lane

Defense minister repeats demand that he be put in charge of national response to the pandemic, denounces general lockdowns

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-defense minister Naftali Bennett (2nd L) visit an army base on the Golan Heights overlooking Syrian territory, on November 24, 2019. (Atef Safadi/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-defense minister Naftali Bennett (2nd L) visit an army base on the Golan Heights overlooking Syrian territory, on November 24, 2019. (Atef Safadi/Pool/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett traded verbal blows on Thursday night over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

In recent weeks, Bennett has emerged as a staunch and public critic of the government’s response to the pandemic, calling repeatedly for a massive ramp-up in the number of tests performed each day and a reopening of parts of the country where few cases of the virus are found, as the Health Ministry has instead recommended harsher lockdowns to confront the disease.

On Thursday evening, media reported once again that Bennett was opposed to an ongoing national lockdown, arguing that it was unjustified, and motivated by a desire not to single out ultra-Orthodox areas most affected by the virus.

In a statement, Bennett also doubled down on his positions and again called for his ministry and the Israel Defense Forces to take over the response to the coronavirus pandemic, specifically the testing.

A source close to Netanyahu denounced Bennett’s comments, saying he should focus on his ministry, not public criticism of the government.

“A defense minister ought to focus on fulfilling the missions that the prime minister has given him, which he has yet to perform, instead of constantly going to the media to attack the prime minister and the government, which he is a part of,” the source said, on condition of anonymity.

A lab technician at Barzilai Medical Center in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, wears protective gear as he handles a coronavirus test sample on March 29, 2020. (Flash90)

In Bennett’s statement, the defense minister said the government’s failure to set up a robust testing system necessitated the nationwide closures, “which caused massive damage to the economy of Israel and to the salaries of millions of workers and owners in the private sector.”

Bennett accused the Health Ministry of dismissing the importance of coronavirus testing, saying it was “like a brigade commander in war not wanting to receive intelligence on enemy territory before an operation.”

In recent days, health authorities have been unable to perform large numbers of tests due to a shortage in the chemical reagents needed. Health Ministry officials have said that while these tests are helpful, closures and lockdowns are more effective means of curbing the spread of the disease.

Bennett, however, maintains that wide-scale testing would allow the government to gradually reopen parts of the country and businesses.

“The total closure on Israel was correct in the early days, but it cannot continue to be a central tool in the long term because of its disastrous effects on businesses and workplaces in Israel,” he said.

Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Last week, Bennett made a similar call for his ministry to take over the response to the pandemic, which was dismissed by the Health Ministry, with its director-general, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, telling Channel 12 that his office is managing the crisis in cooperation with the Defense Ministry and there’s no need to create a different hierarchy.

The exchange between Bennett and Netanyahu was the second public spat within the government on Thursday night.

Earlier in the evening, Health Ministry officials were quoted by multiple media outlets calling for an extension to the national lockdown of Israeli cities set to end Friday morning — only for the idea to be shot down by officials in the Finance Ministry soon afterwards.

Reports on major networks Channel 12 and Channel 13 news, as well as the Ynet news site, said top officials in the Health Ministry were seeking to extend the severe lockdown barring intercity travel until after the Passover holiday ends on April 15.

Officials were said to fear Israelis would not resist the temptation to venture out during the holiday, potentially leading to a new wave of infections as the country seeks to curb the virus’s spread, similar to the one that occurred after the Purim festival last month.

Police at a temporary checkpoint on Route 1 outside Jerusalem on April 9, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But the Finance Ministry quickly issued a statement rejecting any such extension.

“Clarification: The limitations placed before the holiday on workplaces will be removed tomorrow as planned,” a ministry spokesman said in a statement. “The situation will return to restrictions in place before Passover Eve.

“As for the reports of continuing the current closure: the head of the National Security Council has updated the Finance Ministry director general that as of now, tomorrow will see a return to the status that was in place before Passover Eve, as planned.”

As of Thursday night, the Health Ministry said Israel’s death toll stood at 86. There have been 9,968 people diagnosed with the virus; 166 people in serious condition and 121 of whom are on ventilators. Another 171 were in moderate condition, with the rest having mild symptoms or having recovered from the disease.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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