Gabi Barbash threatens to walk away from virus czar post amid disputes

Gabi Barbash threatens to walk away from virus czar post amid disputes

Yuli Edelstein demanding that former Health Ministry director report to him; latter warns that if no deal is reached by day’s end he won’t take job

Prof. Gabi Barbash. (Weizmann Institute screenshot)
Prof. Gabi Barbash. (Weizmann Institute screenshot)

Former senior health official Gabi Barbash, selected by the government to lead Israel’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, has warned that if the details of his appointment are not approved by Wednesday night, he will walk away from the job, according to reports by several media outlets.

The Prime Minister’s Office is fighting with the Health Ministry over the amount of authority to be given to the former Health Ministry director, with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein opposed to giving him sweeping powers, according to Channel 12 and Haaretz, who said that Edelstein wants Barbash to report to his office.

Barbash was said to have told officials he will not be able to lead the fight against the pandemic effectively without powers over the health system, the Health Ministry, and other ministries as well.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supports handing Barbash the powers being requested, according to the reports.

Barbash’s appointment was supposed to be announced via press conference on Tuesday evening, with numerous outlets reporting hours earlier that the matter was a done deal.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem on July 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Edelstein announced earlier this month he would appoint someone to lead the country’s handling of the pandemic, amid growing criticism of the Health Ministry’s ability to contain the outbreak. On Sunday, the Health Ministry dismissed a report that Barbash was tapped for the post as “gossip,” saying Edelstein was still vetting several candidates for the job.

Barbash, 70, was CEO of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital from 1993 to 2015, with a stint as director-general of the Health Ministry between 1996 and 1999. Over the past few months, he has become a familiar public figure as a commentator on Channel 12 news’s main evening broadcast, mostly in regard to the pandemic.

There is no single figure currently managing the ongoing campaign, which is being led by the National Security Council and overseen by the government and a special so-called coronavirus cabinet of relevant ministers, as well as the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee.

Since Israel lifted a lockdown that had brought daily detected infections down to the low double digits, the country has been struggling to contain a second wave of the virus that has driven that figure to around 2,000. There has been increasing public criticism and anger over the government’s handling of the crisis, with cabinet ministers divided over how to handle the outbreak, and what restrictions to impose on the public, in an effort to curb the spread.

A woman is tested for coronavirus at a site in south Tel Aviv, on July 16, 2020. (Flash90)

Barbash has publicly criticized the government for failing to contain the resurgence of the virus, saying actions could have been taken to prevent the current situation, in which more than 30,000 people are infected.

Earlier this month, he told The Times of Israel that the government had both failed to take preventative measures and went too far in easing restrictions in late April and early May, because it did not stand firm in the face of pressure from the public.

Besides Barbash, several other figures were reported as possible candidates, among them Maj. Gen. Amir Abulafia, former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, and Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, who was Health Ministry director-general during the initial phase of the pandemic.

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