AnalysisPM says 'tens of thousands" of Israeli lives at stake

Bleak and worried, Netanyahu implies virus could kill tens of millions worldwide

Closing schools, telling Israelis to stay away from each other, and urging an emergency government, PM likens coronavirus to Spanish flu of 1918, which killed up to 50 million

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Announcing nationwide school closures and urging an emergency unity government to “save the lives of tens of thousands” of Israelis from the coronavirus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night presented a profoundly stark assessment of the pandemic’s potential global consequences, indicating that it could cause tens of millions of deaths if it cannot be stopped.

Netanyahu, who has instituted some of the world’s most stringent measures to try to thwart the spread of the virus in Israel in recent days and weeks, described the pandemic as “a global and national incident the likes of which Israel has never known.”

The last threat to which the coronavirus could be likened, he said, was the Spanish flu, one of the deadliest epidemics in human history, “which raged worldwide” in 1918. “Tens of millions of people died from it,” he noted, “at a time when the world population was a quarter of today’s.”

Not a country on earth would be unaffected by the virus, it was advancing at “dizzying” speed, and a vaccine was at best months away, he warned, speaking gravely and with deliberation. It spreads slowly at first, “but then incredibly fast, suddenly, really in a day or two.” That, he said, was what had happened in Italy. That, he feared, was what now might be happening in Spain.

Noting her scientific background, Netanyahu quoted Germany’s “level-headed” and “analytical” Chancellor Angela Merkel estimating that 60-70 percent of her country’s population would be infected — some 50 million people. And given that the death rate for the virus is 2-4% of those infected, he said, “you do the math… that means very, very large numbers of dead.”

Israel, too — with over 100 confirmed cases, but possibly many times that number as yet unreported — faced “large numbers of dead,” he said. “So we have to do everything we can to avert that.”

As Netanyahu was addressing the nation, regulations announced earlier in the week came into force, requiring anyone entering Israel — Israeli nationals and foreign nationals alike — to immediately self-quarantine for 14 days. Non-citizens who cannot show that they have a place to self-quarantine are simply no longer allowed to enter. International airlines, as a consequence, have been gradually suspending their routes to and from Israel.

On Wednesday night, Netanyahu had urged Israelis not to shake hands, embrace or kiss, in order to prevent contagion. If you cough or sneeze, do it into a tissue, he ordered. He had also instituted a ban on all gatherings of over 100 people, prompting Israel’s chief rabbis on Thursday to do the almost unthinkable and tell observant Jews to stay away from the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.

On Thursday, Netanyahu repeated some of those imperatives, again taking out a tissue to illustrate his points. Some young people were saying it wasn’t cool to obsess about hygiene and to keep washing your hands. “It’s as cool as it gets,” he insisted. “It’s being responsible.”

And he now added a new instruction, explicitly telling the watching nation to “keep your distance” from each other — ideally two meters; a minimum of one. His ministerial colleagues weren’t up there on the stage alongside him, he said, because the room wasn’t large enough to meet that minimum requirement.

The prime minister concluded his bleak address with the warning that further restrictions were in prospect, since this was an escalating crisis, and fresh decisions were being taken as the need arose.

And then he issued a call for an emergency unity government, likening today’s challenges to those of 1967, when Israel faced imminent attack by the combined forces of its Arab enemies, and its rival politicians united ahead of the resonant victory of the Six Day War. Now, again, he declared, a unification of political forces, for a limited period, was essential in the battle to prevent large-scale Israeli loss of life.

The coronavirus crisis is impacting here in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s third inconclusive election in less than a year. Netanyahu is struggling to retain power against rival Benny Gantz, with each of them seeking to win over allies and somehow muster a parliamentary majority. Moreover, Netanyahu is set to appear in court on March 17, for the reading of bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges against him.

Some domestic critics have sought to present the measures Netanyahu has introduced to tackle the virus as wildly exaggerated, economically devastating — and part of a cynical effort by the prime minister to deflect attention from his political and legal struggles.

Watching much of the rest of the world belatedly recognizing that he was ahead of the curve in, first, advising Israelis against all overseas travel and, second, moving to close Israel’s borders against the contagion, such criticism has become harder to sustain.

Plainly, an emergency unity government under his leadership would be politically advantageous to Netanyahu. But, all too plainly, too, Israel and the rest of the world find themselves at a moment of genuine crisis — whose appalling potential proportions simply dwarf all other concerns.

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