In retrospect, it is unfortunately all too clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cheerful advice to Israelis six weeks ago to “go out and get life back to normal, have a cup of coffee… drink a beer… have fun,” was, to put it mildly, premature.
The country’s new infection figures have risen higher in recent days than at any previous point in the battle against COVID-19. A key senior health official on Tuesday warned that Israel is now on a “dangerous path,” and quit. A top adviser to the government on Sunday lamented that Israel has “lost control of the pandemic.” We don’t appear to have a clear strategy for testing. We don’t even have nationally agreed-upon criteria for when to classify patients as in serious condition, a lacuna that renders core statistics somewhat unreliable.
Our politicians, typically, are blaming each other.
Police officers, in a mounting toll of incidents, are intermittently tasing, beating up and even jailing people for the crime of not wearing their masks. In one notorious case, they terrified a young Jerusalem girl who was wearing her mask, but who had committed the sin of moving it to the side so she could sip a drink.
In another, a Holon man, David Biton, told a Knesset committee he was beaten and jailed for four days for ostensibly resisting arrest; police have acknowledged this was “a bad incident” that is now being investigated.
The economy, as per Netanyahu’s May 26 “back to normal” advice, had begun to reopen, and businesses that had struggled through the first wave of the virus — but survived despite inadequate, incompetently administered and often misdirected grant and loan assistance — hoped the worst was over. Now, the economy is being gradually shuttered again, unemployment is at 21% and rising again, and still government assistance is lacking.
In the most notorious proof of wrongheaded policy, the Fox fashion chain last month shamefacedly returned millions of shekels it had been allocated in government compensation — allocated presumably because its CEO led an aggressive campaign against officials — after it emerged that the self-same CEO is paying himself and his fellow shareholders a colossal dividend, so robust is the company’s financial health.
Meantime, dozens of small business owners, in a Zoom call initiated by Netanyahu on Tuesday, told him in tones ranging from fury to outrage to despair, that their companies are collapsing, they don’t know what to tell their workers, they aren’t sleeping, they can’t go on.
On Wednesday, singer Hemi Rudner declared that he is no longer prepared to pay taxes to a “tyrannical government” that is ignoring the plight of so many Israelis and urged others to join his boycott. Some restaurants and cafes have taken to defying the oft-changing and often confusing restrictions; the Holmes Place chain of fitness centers redesignated itself as a chain of “studios” — since gyms must close but “studios” can stay open — in what is likely a doomed bid to continue to operate. A major demonstration has been scheduled for Saturday night in Tel Aviv to protest the government’s abysmal handling of the economic fallout from the pandemic.
A government out of touch with the people
In a sign of how utterly out of touch our leaders have become, one of Netanyahu’s closest Likud colleagues, MK Tzachi Hanegbi, haughtily declared in a Friday night television interview for which he has since apologized, “This nonsense that people have nothing to eat is bullshit. Bullshit. There are a million people who, most of them, until now, have received unemployment payments… There are businesses that were hurt and they’re in serious distress. [But] saying ‘there’s nothing to eat’ is populism.”
Hanegbi is one of the three dozen ministers in the largest, most bloated government in the history of Israel. His title? Minister without portfolio. As in, he has an office, a staff, a car. But no actual job — except, evidently, to go on television and insult the people who pay his salary by telling them they’re a bunch of liars and complainers.
For hours in the Knesset plenum and behind the scenes, Netanyahu, Gantz, their allies and their rivals, schemed and bickered, threatened and postured, and even warned that they would resort to new elections, over an issue of precisely zero immediate significance to a populace that is enduring acute, direct personal hardship and is crying out in vain to its elected representatives for help
On Wednesday — yet another day with over 1,000 new infections reported — our coalition politicians, rather than tackling what is now manifestly a failure of governance in the battle against COVID-19, saw fit to spend hours shouting at each other over a proposal (by the right-wing Yamina party) to set up a committee that would probe Supreme Court justices for alleged conflicts of interest. For hours in the Knesset plenum and behind the scenes, Netanyahu, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, their allies and their rivals, schemed and bickered, threatened and postured, and even warned that they would resort to new elections, over an issue of precisely zero immediate significance to a populace that is enduring acute, direct personal hardship and is crying out in vain to its elected representatives for help.
When President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday afternoon protested the lack of “a clear and coherent doctrine to combat the virus,” and urged the establishment of a central state body to handle it, Likud coalition chairman Miki Zohar claimed shamefully that Rivlin’s critique was presidential punishment for Likud’s bid to investigate the judges, and further asserted that Rivlin had intervened to ensure that the proposal was stymied. The president’s office dismissed the assertion as “outrageous” and demanded an apology, which had not been forthcoming as of this writing.
Still no strategy
Netanyahu was rightly praised, emphatically so by this writer, for the speed with which he recognized the dangers posed by COVID-19, for the alacrity with which he moved to seal Israel’s borders, for the wisdom of his early advice to focus on keeping the elderly and vulnerable away from infection, and for quickly instituting the tracking systems to send Israelis into quarantine if it turned out they had been in close, protracted proximity to a virus carrier.
But plainly, Israel reopened too rapidly in late May, without the necessary strategic plan to prevent this unprecedented surge in contagion. Three key blunders, as cited by former Health Ministry director general Gabi Barbash in a Times of Israel interview, were the decision to allow a resumption of large, high-density gatherings where the virus spreads most rapidly, the failure to put in place the necessary testing mechanisms, and the premature full return to school, in a country notorious for packed classrooms of 30 kids and more.
What’s most troubling as I write these lines is the concern that even amid this worsening crisis, there is still no clear strategy — not for reducing the spread of contagion which, unlike in April and May, is not centered on particular hot-spots but nationwide; not for testing, with the systems said to be overwhelmed; and not for economic relief, with endless buck-passing between the Treasury and the Prime Minister’s Office.
A self-imposed deadline for the presentation of a new assistance plan for small business and the self-employed came and went on Wednesday night. Officials dithered into Thursday on whether and where to lock down various towns and neighborhoods nationwide, as mayors and municipal officials protested that doing so would merely turn their areas into virus incubators.
A challenge — of symbolic and practical significance
Almost two months ago, the Knesset swore in an “emergency” coalition — more ministers than ever before, with a single overriding mission: tackling COVID-19.
How about a third to a half of those ministers do the decent thing: Give up their ministerial jobs, go back to being ordinary Knesset members, and get on with that important work? How about the extra dozen-plus MKs who entered parliament in recent days at still further public expense, under the so-called Norwegian Law, give up their seats and go back to the useful work they were doubtless hitherto doing outside parliament? And how about the remaining ministers stop bickering, get their heads down, and focus on bringing the virus back under control and ensuring the electorate has the tools to recover?
This is an entirely serious three-part suggestion that, I submit, nobody could credibly deny would be beneficial.
I challenge you, Prime Minister Netanyahu and newly quarantined Alternate Prime Minister Gantz, to implement it, for the good of the people you battled — so tenaciously, through endless election campaigns — to lead. The people you swore so solemnly to serve.
An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.