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Edelstein says coronavirus czar Gamzu should stick around, as early exit mulled

Health minister refuses to be drawn on possible replacements to lead anti-pandemic efforts, with reports indicating incumbent will quit after clashes with Netanyahu

Ronni Gamzu visits the coronavirus unit at Ziv Hospital in Safed on September 27, 2020. (David Cohen/FLASH90)
Ronni Gamzu visits the coronavirus unit at Ziv Hospital in Safed on September 27, 2020. (David Cohen/FLASH90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Thursday that he had asked coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu to stay on in the position, despite reports he was planning to resign after clashes with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gamzu is set to end his tenure in November and return to his role as director of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, but reports over the last several days have pointed to an earlier exit as his relationship with the government has soured.

“I appointed the excellent Gamzu, and I will also appoint his replacement if he decides to step down,” Edelstein said. “I asked him to consider staying on and hopefully he will agree.”

Edelstein said that Gamzu has his backing, and refused to be drawn on possible replacements for him.

Gamzu’s departure would come after relentless pushback from cabinet ministers over his strategy to combat the virus and his recent clashes with Netanyahu over the country’s second national lockdown.

The former Health Ministry director general was brought into the job in July with hopes of coordinating Israel’s response to the pandemic while avoiding national lockdowns and building up public trust.

However, he has faced near constant pushback from government ministers, and last month his long-planned “traffic light” scheme meant to impose localized restrictions based on how badly each locale was affected by the virus was given only a few days to work before it was scrapped in favor of a national shutdown.

Gamzu publicly expressed opposition to a wide-ranging shutdown of business activity when ministers voted on the measure in late September, and was reported to privately complain that the measure was motivated by a desire by Netanyahu to prohibit protests against him.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein( (R) and ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov during a press conference at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)

According to Channel 13, Gamzu told associates he believed the decision was “terrible” and its motives “disgusting,” musing that he felt had to take nausea pills after it was made.

He had recommended “tightening the lockdown, and not shutting down the entire country,” he told reporters before the second lockdown went into effect.

He has also wrangled with Education Minister Yoav Gallant and ultra-Orthodox politicians over school and synagogue closures, respectively.

Gabi Barbash in November 2013. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

According to various reports, Netanyahu is said to be considering offering Gamzu’s job to one of two other former Health Ministry directors — Moshe Bar Siman-Tov or Gabi Barbash.

Barbash had been selected as virus czar earlier this year but ultimately did not take the job due to a dispute over the powers he would be granted, leaving the position to Gamzu.

Bar Siman-Tov, who headed the ministry when the pandemic began, was the face of Israel’s widely touted response during the first wave of the virus, when the country successfully managed to bring infection levels to near zero by implementing a tightly controlled national lockdown.

Coalition whip Miki Zohar has called for Edelstein to appoint Bar Siman-Tov, saying that he had “proven himself in the first wave and stood the test of time. His appointment as [coronavirus czar] could bring about positive change.”

Police set up a temporary roadblock on Menachem Begin Street in Tel Aviv to enforce a coronavirus lockdown, on September 23, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

According to a Ynet report on Wednesday, Bar Siman-Tov received the offer from Netanyahu and has said that he is seriously considering it.

Bar Siman-Tov resigned as Health Ministry director-general in May, days after the cabinet voted, against his recommendation, to significantly ease coronavirus restrictions throughout the country, a move widely seen now as a major factor in the resurgence of the virus. He was replaced by current director-general Chezy Levy.

Israel now has one of the highest morbidity and mortality rates in the world.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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