Often, MKs 'don’t really want to know what you have to say'

Knesset health expert charges lawmakers ignoring professional advice

Leading academic who has briefed Knesset members says most politicians have made their minds up, on political lines, long before debates begin

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative: A Knesset committee meeting on October 14, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)
Illustrative: A Knesset committee meeting on October 14, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

Israel’s decision-makers are not listening to expert advice on the health crisis, a veteran of several Knesset sessions has charged, accusing lawmakers of using professional recommendations only to back up their own preconceived stances.

“It’s depressing to understand these are the people governing you,” said the health expert, who spoke to The Times of Israel Sunday on condition of anonymity. “They leave us feeling we’re just wasting our time.”

The respected academic, who has participated in several Knesset forums, said he feels many MKs only pay attention if his words support their preferred policy, which often has more to do with politics than health.

“They don’t really want to know what you have to say, in many cases,” he said bitterly. “They already know from the head of their party to push for this or that.”

His comments come on the heels of a document published by Military Intelligence’s coronavirus information center in which an unidentified author urges lawmakers and Health Ministry officials to take a slower approach in lifting the nationwide lockdown.

The document, titled “A Moment Before Exit From Lockdown – Alternatives and Consequences” and labeled a “personal opinion,” raises concerns that despite warnings, Israel will repeat the mistake it made after the first lockdown in the spring and, ignoring expert advice, end various restrictions too quickly.

Writing on Friday, two days before lockdown was eased, the author claimed that the current trajectory will result in 5,000 deaths over the next six months. There were also predictions that it will result in another lockdown and take a “very heavy” toll on the economy and public trust.

A worker from ‘Hevra Kadisha,’ Israel’s official Jewish burial society, prepares bodies at a special morgue for COVID-19 victims in Holon, near Tel Aviv, Oct. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The document argued that pressure for quick reopening comes from a “very dangerous” point of view in which it is perceived that “whoever managed to open early won, and whoever waited patiently lost.”

The Times of Israel interviewee, who discussed his experiences briefing politicians, described witnessing the worrying symptoms of a decision-making process that allows politics to trump scientific advice.

Israel is in the process of exiting its second coronavirus lockdown, opening preschools and many businesses as part of a phased scheme.

While preschools in high-infection areas, labeled red cities, were supposed to remain shut, ministers voted to allow them to open anyway in a move widely viewed as the result of pressure from ultra-Orthodox politicians.

The vast majority of residents of red cities are ultra-Orthodox.

Boys play in a yeshiva school in Beitar Illit that opened in violation of coronavirus regulations, October 18, 2020. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Meanwhile, many boys’ schools for older kids in those areas have also opened in violation of rules and with little evident police effort at enforcement.

“The idea of opening daycare in red zones now is political; the idea of not having a lockdown in August was political; and it’s political to have a coronavirus czar who has an army of experts not listen to him regarding his traffic light system, and at times make him seem like a scapegoat,” he said referring to the rejection of coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu’s “traffic light” plan several weeks ago. Instead, government authorities voted to put the nationwide lockdown in place.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu at a meeting of the Knesset’s Labor and Welfare Committee, in Jerusalem, October 19, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday rejected the notion that political considerations played a part in the drawing up of the exit plan from the national lockdown, saying the route to reopening was based solely on advice from health experts and officials. “We did not agree to any change to the outline that the [health] experts submitted,” he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

The researcher said that minds are so closed in Knesset discussions that, from his experience, “in a forum of 10 MKs you can have a serious discussion with three of them, but the majority are just there to voice their position, and already know ahead of time what they will say, regardless of what you say as an expert.

“If what you have to say doesn’t suit their political standpoint, they just won’t listen,” he said.

“Recently, those from Likud were pushing for the lockdown and Blue and White MKs were pushing to have businesses open,” he said. “And experts can have a feeling that no matter what you say you’ll be attacked for not supporting one side or the other.”

Reports on Thursday’s coronavirus cabinet session, which the academic stresses he did not attend, were particularly “shocking.” During that meeting, ministers voted to begin easing the lockdown. Among the measures rejected was a plan by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to allow weddings of up to 200 people.

A couple celebrates their wedding at a public park in Efrat, March 15, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Numerous experts have told politicians that large weddings are prone to be superspreader events that start many infection chains. Deri reportedly felt so wronged by the rejection that he voted to leave the lockdown in place and left the Zoom call in anger.

“The fact you’re requesting this, whether or not it happens, shows you’re not listening and not understanding the gravity of the situation,” said the researcher.

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