Despite self-quarantine, for Netanyahu it’s mostly business as usual

Despite self-quarantine, for Netanyahu it’s mostly business as usual

Few limits on PM’s work, except perhaps having to do his own hair and needing to avoid top secret matters in video conferences; octogenarian president, too, continues with routine

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday delivered another one of his near-nightly updates on the government’s steps to fight the spread of the coronavirus. But this time, something was different: While he usually addresses the nation from the briefing room in the Prime Minister’s Office, on Monday he was speaking from his official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street.

“The cameraman is six meters away, and I did my own make-up and hair, which is why it looks like this,” he said, after first going live a few seconds early by accident. “I continue to work from home.”

Earlier on Monday, news emerged that one of his advisers, Rivka Paluch, had contracted the novel coronavirus, sending the prime minister and some of his staff into precautionary self-quarantine. Netanyahu, his family and close co-workers were immediately tested, and found not to carry the virus, but he said he voluntarily isolated himself “in order to set a personal example.”

They joined nearly 150,000 Israelis who have self-quarantined since the COVID-19 pandemic started earlier this year.

The prime minister’s spokesperson, Shir Cohen, later on Monday evening clarified that Netanyahu would stay in self-quarantine for now, according to Health Ministry directives. (Even people whose tests come back negative are required to remain isolated if they’ve come into contact with sick individuals, as false negatives can occur, and the virus can be missed during the incubation period.)

According to Health Ministry instructions, a person in home isolation must stay the entire time in a “separate, well-ventilated room with a closed door,” which he or she is only allowed to leave if necessary, and only “for very short periods.” (Strictly speaking, the cameraman, even if he stood far away, should not have been in the same room as the prime minister).

While it is currently unclear how long Netanyahu — who at age 70 is considered a member of a high-risk group should he catch the coronavirus — will remain in quarantine, a situation in which a prime minister is unable to leave his own house is evidently unprecedented in Israeli history.

But as Monday’s broadcast demonstrated, it’s more or less business as usual for Netanyahu (besides, perhaps, his acknowledged self-applied makeup and hair styling).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a televised statement at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 30, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Thanks to modern technology, Netanyahu continues to be in touch with all relevant interlocutors. During the statement, he said that he’d just concluded video conferences with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. It must be assumed that these conversations are well-encrypted, lest Israel’s enemies eavesdrop. Still, Netanyahu will likely be less open to discuss top secret material than he would in face-to-face conversations in his office.

Since Israeli authorities are always reluctant to discuss the prime minister’s security arrangements, it also remains unclear how the Shin Bet is ensuring that Netanyahu remains safe and protected, with the gaggle of body guards who usually keep a close watch over him now expected to stay a little further away.

Is the prime minister incapacitated?

According to Basic Law: The Government, an acting prime minister needs to be appointed if the serving premier is “temporarily unable” to exercise his or her duties. This is known in Israeli political parlance as the incapacity clause.

But experts said that Netanyahu’s current voluntary isolation cannot be considered an impairment to which this law would apply.

“This is not incapacity,” said Amir Fuchs, a political scientist and the head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Defending Democratic Values Program. “The last time an Israeli prime minister was incapacitated was when Arik Sharon had a stroke [in 2006]. Self-quarantine is not at all comparable this is: Netanyahu can communicate, he can make decisions, and so on.”

President Reuven Rivlin (R) tasks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government, during a press conference at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Even if Netanyahu’s isolation does not hamper intense coalition talks currently ongoing with Blue and White and its leader Benny Gantz, it could change the way the government is formed. Should a deal be reached in which he remains prime minister — as is reportedly being hammered out — he would first need to be given the mandate to form a government by President Reuven Rivlin, an act usually accompanied by pomp and the physical handing of a letter while flashbulbs pop.

The ceremony is tradition, but by no means a deal-breaker, according to Suzie Navot, a leading expert on constitutional law.

“The mandate is not a torch or something that is to be granted physically, so a letter is perfectly fine in my opinion,” she said.

President Reuven Rivlin hosts Foreign Minister Israel Katz at his official Jerusalem residence, March 30, 2020 (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Like Netanyahu and his staff, the octogenarian Rivlin and about 10 close advisers were recently tested for coronavirus. The tests all came back negative, but Rivlin has in recent days rarely if ever left his Jerusalem home (which, like the Prime Minister’s Office and other important government facilities, visitors can only enter after they’ve had their temperature taken).

At the same time, Rivlin continues to hold many face-to-face meetings there — in his office and sometimes in the President’s Residence’s garden, his spokeswoman, Naomi Kandel, told The Times of Israel on Monday.

“Of course we’re doing everything according to Health Ministry regulations,” she stressed. “We keep two meters distance and constantly wash our hands.”

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