As Israel makes loose lockdown tighter, its decisions risk alienating the people

The government wants to rebuild public trust in its virus fight. But it’s done just the opposite with the chaotic and unsettling way it adopted stricter measures

Nathan Jeffay

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A person rides a bicycle on an empty street as the sun sets on the first day of a three-week lockdown in Tel Aviv, September 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A person rides a bicycle on an empty street as the sun sets on the first day of a three-week lockdown in Tel Aviv, September 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israel has intensified its lockdown, with a decision that will shut down more businesses and furlough thousands more workers.

Following a marathon of talks — or rather quarrels — by politicians, the seven-day-old coronavirus closure, widely criticized as being neither here nor there, is changing. After setting it up as a lockdown of loopholes — one that built flexibility into the rules so that much of normal life can continue — ministers have now decided to significantly tighten measures.

Businesses must close unless they are deemed essential, and nearly all public transportation will stop.

Demonstrations will be limited to 20 people, who must live a kilometer or less from the protest site. An exception will be made for up to 2,000 protesters, in 20-person “capsules,” outside the Prime Minister’s Residence.

Prayer will only take place outdoors, and will also be limited to 20 people, with the exception of the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, when synagogues will open for worshipers in small groups before shutting again Monday night.

A police officer takes a picture with his cellphone while standing in the middle of Route 1 leading to Jerusalem, as a countrywide lockdown takes effect ahead of the Jewish New Year on September 18, 2020. (Gili Yaari / Flash90 )

The tightened lockdown framework — especially the business closures, which will hit many families’ pockets — is a bitter pill for the nation to swallow, but one that has unnecessarily been made all the more unpalatable because of the shambolically managed lead-up to the new policy, the chaotic decision-making and the concern that narrow political interests played a role.

The government decided to turn the screws on the nation after talks lasting many hours that reflected some of the most dysfunctional attributes of Israeli politics. There were claims that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steamrollered the decision into the main cabinet, sidelining members of the smaller coronavirus cabinet whose views should have been heeded.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu speaks during a Health Ministry briefing on September 2, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

Instead of the nation ending up with a reassuring impression that the decision had been made on a sound basis guided by health experts, it is left with a sense that professional advice has been ignored, and that the political considerations of the prime minister may have had undue influence in guiding policy.

The coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, appointed by Netanyahu because of his medical and management expertise and his success in protecting the elderly during the first wave, was against the new measures, as were several health officials. Economic experts including Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron also objected to the final decision, saying it will cause too much damage to the economy.

Some ministers reportedly had an impression that Netanyahu’s desire to stop the ongoing protests against him played an unhealthy part in discussions. Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who ultimately supported the new measures, was quoted as discussions went on saying that Netanyahu’s “obsessive remarks on the protest issue” must stop, calling them “disproportionate.”

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, of Gantz’s Blue and White party, said on Wednesday evening that the decision shouldn’t “contradict the recommendations of the professionals because of political considerations.” He added: “A full lockdown is our last option, it’s not meant to ‘solve’ the protests.”

An Israeli protester lifts a placard during an anti-government demonstration in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, on September 20, 2020. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

When the public is asked to make a major sacrifice, and willingly complies, it needs repeated reassuring that it is based on the very soundest input, and happening for the right reasons. Wednesday night’s decision-making likely left many Israelis with the polar opposite impression.

Citizens are also left baffled by a simple question: What has changed between last week and now? What unexpected circumstances have arisen to mean that a light lockdown made sense then, but must be intensified now?

Hospitals are strained and infection rates are high, but this was expected right after Rosh Hashanah. There were violations of lockdown rules, but that will always be the case. Nothing unanticipated happened since the start of the new closure. It’s just that the government didn’t have the guts, respect for the public or resolve for pre-Rosh Hashanah backlash to impose the restrictions in one fell swoop.

Kite surfers and beachgoers are seen at a cordoned-off beach in Tel Aviv on September 19, 2020, during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

All indications are that the die was cast for this decision even before the lockdown began. Last Thursday night, on the eve of the closure, Netanyahu was already warning that there might be a need to tighten restrictions further.

On a health level, if a more hermetic measure was inevitable, it should have been applied immediately. Israel touted its fast decision-making as the basis of its first-wave successes. Delaying coronavirus steps once they have been deemed important increases infection and inevitably extends the period of severe restrictions that is imposed.

It also needlessly adds to the country’s pandemic anxiety.

A particularly difficult aspect of the coronavirus crisis for normal Israelis is the loss of control and the inability to plan for tomorrow. It’s unsettling, disorienting and upsetting. This may not be quantifiable with metrics, unlike the number of infections or how many billions of shekels are lost to the economy, but it is real.

To some extent the crushing sense of uncertainty is unavoidable, but the government can show respect for citizens by being as straight as possible regarding plans, and helping them to prepare as best they can for the reality that awaits them, rather than keeping people on an endless roller coaster with constant twists and turns.

There is supposedly a push in Israel’s leadership to rebuild public trust in the government coronavirus fight. That was one of Gamzu’s declared priorities when he was appointed. Keeping the nation on tenterhooks, and fueling its stress levels while politicians argue, is not the way.

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