New virus czar wants entire contact tracing job given to IDF

Coronavirus cabinet reduced from 16 members to 10, all of them men

‘Why no women?’ asks Meirav Cohen. ‘Why are traffic lights red?’ retorts PM. Also excluded: education minister Gallant and ex-health minister Litzman, who storms out of meeting

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a face mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry, in Jerusalem, July 5, 2020. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a face mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, at the foreign ministry, in Jerusalem, July 5, 2020. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)

Israel’s 34-strong cabinet voted Sunday to reduce the number of members in the so-called coronavirus cabinet, a smaller forum of ministers whose portfolios touch on the virus outbreak, from 16 to 10 members, prompting anger from some of those left out and criticism that none of the remaining 10 are women. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said last week the measure would be taken to streamline decision-making.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that the coronavirus cabinet will now comprise Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Finance Minister Israel Katz, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, Economy Minister Amir Peretz, Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri.

Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, who exited the Health Ministry earlier this year, stormed out of the room in protest that he was not included on the panel.

“I am not prepared to accept that. I am the head of a party and a former health minister,” said Litzman, who leads the United Torah Judaism party and switched ministries in May. His conduct during the first wave of the pandemic was strongly criticized at the time.

Newly appointed housing minister and former health minister Yaakov Litzman, at his installation ceremony at the Housing Ministry in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Olivier FitoussiFlash90)

Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen, Welfare Minister Itzhak Smuli, Tourism Minister Assaf Zamir were all left out, as was Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who was reportedly also furious.

Cohen pointed out that there were no women in the reduced forum. “There are no women in the [coronavirus] cabinet; I’m not talking about me personally,” she was quoted saying. “I understand the desire for efficiency, but it makes no sense for there to be no women among 10 representatives.”

Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen at the Ministry of Social Equality in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Flash90)

“I sometimes wonder in the middle of the night why traffic lights are red,” Netanyahu was said to respond. “There are a lot of things that don’t make sense.”

He added that a major consideration was keeping the committee split evenly between his bloc in the government and Gantz’s. Each received five ministers in the newly reduced panel.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted in response to the lack of women that the cabinet was composed of “out-of-touch chauvinists.”

Netanyahu also announced at the cabinet meeting that the army will be given a greater role in the national campaign to bring the coronavirus outbreak under control and will become more involved in epidemiological investigations, which include tracing the distribution of the disease through patients’ contacts.

Speaking at the start of the weekly session, Netanyahu said the country’s newly appointed virus czar, Ronni Gamzu, would present a plan “for severing the chain of infection, and the IDF will have a significant role in this important mission.”

Netanyahu said he’d asked Gamzu to also present “a long-term national action plan for day-to-day life in the time of coronavirus.”

The Ynet website reported that Gamzu wants the entire epidemiological system transferred from the Health to the Defense Ministry, with the matter raised during Friday talks at the Health Ministry, which currently handles the epidemiological probes. It was discussed again at a meeting between Gamzu and Gantz on Saturday, the report said.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the government’s new coronavirus czar, during a press conference at the Health Ministry on July 23, 2020. (YouTube screenshot)

However, Health Ministry officials are against the idea, with one senior official telling Ynet “the [epidemiological] system needs to be improved with additional elements under the responsibility of the ministry.

“The epidemiological investigations will stay with the ministry,” the official stressed but conceded the ministry may relinquish the process of identifying contacts with virus patients. “That is only a specific element of the investigation.”

At the meeting, Gamzu and Gantz discussed the Defense Ministry quickly establishing an epidemiological system manned by 1,000 investigators, Ynet reported, with investigations handled by recently released soldiers who would be employed full time, drawn from those who served in military police, military intelligence or the air force and had gained experience in data analysis during their service.

Gantz later said the defense system and army were ready to immediately expand their role in the virus campaign and added that he would give Gamzu his full backing.

Gamzu was appointed to lead the national response in dealing with the virus last week and, during a press conference on Thursday, said he would place great importance on the epidemiological system. Netanyahu said during the briefing that Gamzu would have full authority over testing, epidemiological investigations and quarantines.

Israel’s epidemiological system has been overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of new cases diagnosed each day, which have recently broken 2,000 patients a day and had previously been at over 1,000 cases a day for weeks. The country initially had just 27 fully trained epidemiological nurses to handle the load and the Health Ministry has since sought to bolster the workforce.

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