In last days of campaign, Netanyahu stops shaking hands over coronavirus fears

In last days of campaign, Netanyahu stops shaking hands over coronavirus fears

PM’s decision is ‘responsible’ as he meets thousands each day, aides say; defense minister’s adviser excluded from meeting with PM after daughter returns from Thailand with cold

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on February 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on February 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stopped shaking hands on the campaign trail, in a telling signal of the growing worry among Israeli officials over the threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

At a visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs holy site in Hebron on Tuesday, the prime minister was filmed refusing to shake hands with people he met in the West Bank city. The footage was broadcast by the Kan public broadcaster, six days before the national elections.

In the clip, Netanyahu is seen visiting the holy site when someone reaches out his hand. The prime minister doesn’t extend his own hand, and an aide is heard saying, “No handshakes.”

A slightly embarrassed Netanyahu bows slightly and says “namaste,” a customary Hindu greeting delivered with a bow.

Netanyahu’s wife Sara is heard yelling in the background that the decision to refrain from shaking hands came “at the government’s instruction.”

But a source from Netanyahu’s campaign told The Times of Israel the prime minister himself made the “responsible” decision because he “meets with thousands of [campaign] activists daily” ahead of next Monday’s election.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs was one of the sites on the itinerary of a group of South Korean tourists who visited Israel earlier this month and were later discovered to have been carrying the deadly virus.

Screen capture of social media footage showing South Korean tourists at the Tomb of the Patriarchs holy site in Hebron in mid-February 2020. Another group of South Korean tourists who visited the site two days later were later discovered to be carriers of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (Twitter screen capture)

The coronavirus fears have also reached into the highest forums of Israeli decision-making.

Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, the top military adviser to the defense minister, has been kept out of top-level meetings on the violence in Gaza over the past two days after his daughter returned from Thailand last week with a cold, and was ordered to home quarantine until the strain of virus could be ascertained.

Winter’s removal appears to be a decision by Netanyahu and not part of an established policy, as he was present at meetings with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett during the same period, according to the Yedioth Aharonoth daily, which published photos of security briefings with Netanyahu and with Bennett over the past two days.

Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset, on October 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

More than 80,000 people have been infected globally from the viral outbreak that began late last year in China. More than 2,600 people have died from the virus in mainland China.

The virus has also infiltrated dozens of other nations, including in the Middle East, where dozens of cases have now been reported in Iran. Tuesday saw the first reports of the virus in Croatia, Austria and Switzerland.

Israeli health officials have severely restricted travel to and from China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Thailand and other countries in a bid to stem the spread into the country.

Also Tuesday, Netanyahu convened a high-level government meeting on dealing with the expected economic fallout from the virus.

“I ask that Israeli citizens listen to the instructions that we give — we will work together and will overcome this crisis,” Netanyahu said in a statement at the meeting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes a high-level meeting of government and industry leaders to consider the economic fallout from the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, February 25, 2020. (Haim Zach/GPO)

“Our policy is the same: Overpreparation and not underpreparation and above all, caution and not hysteria.”

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat said the relevant officials were meeting “on a daily basis to assess the situation and monitor the global trends and in relation to Israel. There is an orderly process in cooperation with all government ministries in order to allow for maximum control, synchronization and coordination between all elements. It must be said that we are careful, and certainly not hysterical. Everything is under control and rational; the risks are constantly being assessed.”

The Economy Ministry has opened a “situation room” to carefully track the damage to the Israeli economy from the outbreak, with officials already seeking funding for airlines hurt by the sudden decline in travel.

“The Finance Ministry will work to strengthen the financial system and develop procedures to enable it to continue to deal with the consequences of the situation for the Israel economy, including the compensation process,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement Tuesday.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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