Some officials in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office reportedly attempted to convince the premier’s wife against going abroad on a family vacation this week, cognizant of the poor optics as Israel’s government slapped restrictions on foreign travel in response to a feared outbreak of the Omicron coronavirus strain.
Bennett has come under heavy criticism from across the political spectrum since news broke Wednesday that his wife and children — without the prime minister — were going on vacation overseas, just days after he urged citizens to avoid any unnecessary travel.
The prime minister has attempted to defend the decision by noting that the situation has changed since then and that the family switched its plans to go to a country the government did not forbid travel to.
According to Channel 12 news, there was at least one person in the Prime Minister’s Office who tried to get Gilat Bennett to cancel the trip, to an undisclosed location, but she refused.
The channel did not attribute the information to a source.
Bennett himself is unhappy about the trip, the report claimed, quoting him saying that “it doesn’t look good,” and “harms the public’s trust,” but to no avail.
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, the No. 2 in Bennett’s Yamina party, said Thursday that “everyone and their families should make their own decisions when they’ll fly and when they won’t.” Shaked said that the skies remain open for Israelis, and that the most important thing is that all travelers follow the rules, including mandatory quarantine upon their return.
Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, meanwhile, said that he believed the decision by Bennett’s family “set a poor personal example,” though he noted that it was not in violation of any rules or restrictions.
On Friday, as health officials worldwide scrambled to thwart the newly discovered Omicron variant by restricting or closing their borders, Bennett called for Israelis to stay in the country as new travel restrictions took effect.
“If someone asked me, at the moment I wouldn’t recommend flying abroad right now amid a level of uncertainty like this,” Bennett said during a press conference on Friday.
“Right now, we have to show particular responsibility — we as a government and you as citizens. To stand together, to take responsibility for each other, to be careful,” he said in the same address.
But on Wednesday, his office announced that the family would nonetheless be heading abroad, noting “the COVID cabinet decision to leave the skies open for Israelis to travel.”
The family will be “observing all guidelines and rules” related to COVID-19, it added. At least one member of the family is not fully vaccinated; last week the prime minister’s 9-year-old son David received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
The trip comes as Israel observes the Hanukkah holiday, when most Jewish children have time off from school.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the family initially planned to travel with the kids to a different location, but switched destinations after the original destination was marked as “red” and barred for travel for Israelis.
All the nations currently listed as “red” are in Africa, where Israel has imposed travel restrictions amid concerns over the new Omicron variant first reported by South Africa. Hebrew media reports said Gilat Bennett and the children had intended to fly to Mauritius.
Meanwhile, Channel 12 news reported that Bennett was considering scrapping a planned trip to the United Arab Emirates this month amid the uncertainty surrounding the Omicron variant.
The Kan public broadcaster reported that complaints about the Bennett family trip were heard from inside the coalition.
The report said an unnamed minister had argued that the prime minister should have set a personal example, while another said the Bennett trip could make citizens feel that the recommendation not to travel was no longer valid. A third unnamed source told the outlet that the incident was damaging for the government’s image.
In a Knesset speech last year, Bennett declared, “We don’t only have to run a state. We have to set a personal example.”
Meanwhile, an unnamed senior member of the travel industry told Channel 12 news that thousands of Israelis had canceled trips abroad in the wake of the recommendation not to travel, while the ban on foreigners visiting had caused “great damage to the tourism industry.”
Several lawmakers in former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition Likud party criticized Bennett after the announcement of the trip, which came days after the prime minister said he would recommend Israelis avoid flying abroad for nonessential travel because of Omicron.
“That’s how it is when the political lies become the norm and personal example is publicly trampled. Simply impertinent,” Likud MK Israel Katz tweeted.
Bennett later pushed back against the criticism.
“I understand the criticism, but since Friday we’ve learned a lot more about the variant and in which countries it’s spreading, and the cabinet made decisions about which countries it’s permitted to travel to and under which conditions,” the prime minister wrote on Facebook.
He said his family had chosen a new destination after learning of the new travel restrictions. “They are all going in accordance with the restrictions and, of course, will be in quarantine as is required,” he said.
He also said he did not believe there were current grounds for “hermetically” sealing Israel’s borders to air travel.
Along with barring travel to numerous African countries, the government has also banned foreigners from entering Israel and required those returning from abroad spend at least three days in quarantine.
The travel restrictions, which came into effect on Sunday night, will remain in place for at least 14 days.
Bennett has defended the new measures, which include the controversial use of phone tracking to locate suspected Omicron infections, citing the uncertainty around the new variant.