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Gov’t appears poised to extend lockdown as vote on raising fines set for Sunday

Factions agree to vote on boosted enforcement, seemingly halting infighting that was complicating closure; health minister warns Israel will be ‘virus incubator’ if lockdown lifted

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference at Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 17, 2020. (Flash90)
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference at Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 17, 2020. (Flash90)

The government on Friday appeared set to extend the national lockdown, with Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin announcing the Knesset would convene on Sunday afternoon to vote on a bill that will raise fines for rule violators — an issue that threatened to derail an extension to the closure.

Levin said all coalition factions had agreed to vote on the bill to raise fines for those who violate virus restrictions. The Knesset plenum will convene at 2 p.m. Sunday.

The lockdown is currently set to end overnight Sunday-Monday. Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party has said it will not approve extending the lockdown until the bill on raising fines is passed into law. The party argues the measure is necessary as part of a general increase in enforcement of lockdown regulations to effectively curb the virus.

Earlier Friday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein excoriated “reckless politicians” as he warned Israel’s lockdown could end due to “political games,” in an apparent attack on the Blue and White party.

“Something dangerous may happen here at midnight on Sunday,” Edelstein said in a statement. “The lockdown will end due to political games, restrictions will be removed and recklessness will reign. Israel will become an uncontrollable coronavirus incubator.”

He appealed to the public to “be responsible, and continue to take the restrictions upon yourselves, even if you are not forced to. Keep yourselves, your families and your friends safe. Reckless politicians do not obligate you to be reckless.”

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin at the Kfar Maccabiah Hotel in Ramat Gan, on October 27, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Should the Knesset fail to pass the legislation and a lockdown extension on Sunday, there will be a period during which there will be no restrictions at all until the cabinet can meet to order a new lockdown.

Gantz had demanded that the Knesset be quickly convened Thursday to pass the bill on raising fines ahead of a planned cabinet meeting later in the evening. Appearing to accept that demand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a visit to a vaccine center in the Bedouin town of Arara that he supports passing the legislation “as written” as soon as possible and that the Knesset should convene Thursday to vote on it. No Knesset session was held, however, and as a result, no cabinet meeting either.

Netanyahu and Gantz, although theoretically aligned on the need for the lockdown to continue, are divided over the issue of raising fines for those who violate the closure.

Gantz has vowed that Blue and White will not agree to extend the lockdown unless fines are raised and enforcement is applied evenly to all communities. However, the move to raise the fines is opposed by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies as many institutions in Haredi society have continued to operate throughout the lockdown, angering critics who say that the current level of enforcement isn’t enough.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Knesset on December 1, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90)

When the cabinet does convene, opinions are divided on how many days to add to the closure, which has shuttered all non-essential businesses and the education system, with the exception of special education institutes.

While the Health Ministry reportedly wants to add another week, ending the closure after the weekend to take advantage of two days when much of the country would not be at work anyway, some ministers prefer an extension of just a few days.

In addition, the Health Ministry is reportedly opposed to suggestions that some aspects of the lockdown be eased, in particular by reopening parts of the education system and certain commercial activities.

The lockdown, now in its third week, has not produced a significant drop in infection numbers. Thousands of Israelis are being diagnosed with the virus every day and the positive test rate has remained at around nine percent, compared with lows of around just 1% reached in previous lockdowns.

The infection numbers remain high despite Israel’s successful vaccination campaign. Israel leads the world by far per capita in inoculations, with over a quarter of the population having received its first shot.

A health worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine to a pregnant woman at the Clalit Health Services, in Tel Aviv on January 23, 2021(AFP)

Officials, including Netanyahu, have blamed the raging outbreak on new variants of the virus that are believed to be more infectious. The so-called British strain is believed to account for over 50% of all new cases in Israel.

The Health Ministry is considering adopting a recommendation by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, that the public wear two masks to better defend themselves against the new mutations. Tomer Lotan, a senior official in the Health Ministry, told Channel 12 that idea is being discussed by the professional teams that issue the guidelines on behalf of the ministry.

Though there are violations in all areas of the country there have been repeated reports of Haredi communities flouting the rules. Wednesday and Thursday saw more reports of behind-closed-doors celebrations in ultra-Orthodox communities to mark the Tu Bishvat holiday.

The Health Ministry said Friday that 7,079 Israelis were diagnosed with the virus the previous day, bringing the total number of active cases to 74,566 and the number of infections since the start of the pandemic to 631,226.

There are 1,135 patients in serious condition, including 321 on ventilators. The death toll was at 4,671.

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