Gabi Barbash walks away from virus czar post; Ronni Gamzu takes job instead
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Gabi Barbash walks away from virus czar post; Ronni Gamzu takes job instead

Former health official gives up on position after failing to reach agreement with Netanyahu and Edelstein over division of power

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

Former senior health official Gabi Barbash, who was selected by the government to lead Israel’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, on Wednesday night said he was walking away from the job.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu, a former director general of the Health Ministry who now heads the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, will assume the position instead of Barbash, with the agreement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday issued a statement saying he had spoken with Gamzu to congratulate him on his appointment, and told him the entire security establishment was on hand to help fight the pandemic. Gantz also said the two were to meet soon.

Barbash rejected the position due to disputes with the Health Ministry over how to handle the crisis, the Ynet news site reported, citing senior officials in the ministry.

The chief disagreement was over the division of authority between Edelstein and Barbash if he had been appointed to the position. Barbash was said to have told officials he would 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.

Netanyahu supported handing Barbash the powers he requested, according to the reports.

Edelstein and Netanyahu were at odds over Barbash’s appointment, with the premier wanting Barbash to work under him, even if the virus czar position was officially under the purview of the Health Ministry, Channel 13 reported.

It wasn’t immediately clear what agreement had been reached over Gamzu’s role, which was announced shortly after Barbash’s walked away from the position.

Prof. Roni Gamzu attends a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset while serving as Health Ministry director general, January 7, 2014. ( Flash90)

Barbash wrote in a message: “The coronavirus presents the State of Israel with one of the most complex challenges in its history… there is the utmost importance in concentrating all forces under a single managerial position that will focus the national effort that is required to cope with an order of such magnitude.”

“Everyone who works in the field of public health knows that time is a critical component of managing a campaign like this. In recent days I spoke with the prime minister, health minister and others on the correct ways to manage the national effort,” he said, and decided to give up on the job when it was clear the sides were not going to reach an agreement.

“I believe that it’s necessary to clear the way for decision makers to continue to discuss urgent subjects at hand, and no personal subjects,” he said, and vowed to continue to assist the national effort combating the virus outbreak anyway.

Earlier Wednesday, Barbash warned that if the details of his appointment were not approved by nighttime, he would give up on the job, according to Hebrew media reports. Edelstein was opposed to giving Barbash sweeping powers and wanted Barbash to report to his office, the reports said.

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.

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.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein in the city of Bnei Brak on June 16, 2020. (Flash90)

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 was no single figure managing the ongoing campaign before Gamzu’s appointment, The effort 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.

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.

There were 32,345 active coronavirus cases in Israel as of Wednesday night, with 273 Israelis in serious condition, including 78 on ventilators. There were another 120 people in moderate condition, while the rest had mild or no symptoms.

There were two new fatalities on Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 430, the ministry said, and 23,310 Israelis had recovered from the virus.

The Health Ministry said 30,176 COVID-19 tests were performed Tuesday.

Earlier Wednesday, Health Ministry figures showed 2,136 new cases in the previous 24 hours, the highest single day total since the start of the pandemic.

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