Less than one hundred’s a crowd: 6 things to know for March 12
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Less than one hundred’s a crowd: 6 things to know for March 12

As the government cracks down on public gatherings, pundits speculate that if restrictions aren’t coupled with more testing, the coronavirus outbreak will intensify

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

1. Crowd displeaser: Israel’s new coronavirus outbreak-containment guidelines barring enclosed gatherings of more than 100 people mean sporting events will take place without fans, the Knesset swear-in ceremony may have to wait, and weddings, bar mitzvahs and concerts will also have to be pared back.

  • “Only up to 100 people” reads the Israel Hayom front page headline while “The battle for containment” is plastered across the Yedioth Ahronoth front page.
  • Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov tells Army Radio that while his office has yet to order the canceling of all classes, schools are still on the chopping block. “We want to take preemptive steps, but not preemptive, preemptive steps,” he says, suggesting that it is still too early for such a drastic measure.
  • Bar Siman-Tov also urges Israelis feeling any coronavirus symptoms whatsoever to go into quarantine for two days, even if they hadn’t been abroad or been in known contact with someone who has COVID-19.
  • But Channel 13’s Nadav Eyal is not impressed with the directive. On the one hand, it makes sense given that hospitals don’t want to be flooded with people who have a low fever, he says. On the other hand, research shows that this only endangers family members who are home with the sick individual. “This is how an entire country gets sick,” Eyal writes, urging instead that hotels and other such confines be used to house those who are showing symptoms.
  • TOI’s David Horovitz writes about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging Israelis to drastically alter their lifestyle. “This is certainly not the way we want to live — thinking twice about every human contact, our horizons literally limited. It’s just, we are told, that it might be the only way, for now, to ensure that we and the people all around us can get safely through this.”

2. Everyone’s a critic: Some analysts lament what they view as insufficient precautions taken, arguing that one only need to look to China and Asian countries to see that the best measure for containing the outbreak is to increase testing exponentially — something that was only tangentially raised in yesterday’s presser announcing the new guidelines.

  • “Experts say, as long as the Health Ministry does not start testing in the community for people who are not feeling well and for those who are feeling great, the numbers will only go up,” writes Walla’s Boaz Efrat. “In Australia, for example, there are ‘drive-though’ posts where citizens can get tested in less than a minute by dedicated teams.”
  • But in the meantime, Israelis have been forced to beg to get tested. A woman named Tehiya tells Army Radio that she pleaded with the Magen David Adom emergency service for ten days to come and test her airport worker husband. Eventually, she gave up and took him to the hospital where he was kept in a bed on an open hallway for a day before being released. Still feeling severely ill, his daughter brought him back to Ichilov Hospital where an internist finally agreed to test him, discovering that he indeed carried the virus.
  • “I felt that they were really laughing at me,” Tehiya recalls to Army Radio. “They told me, lady, could you imagine if we checked every single person [that asked to be tested],” suggesting that the hospital did not have the means to do so.
  • Against this backdrop, Bar Siman-Tov says that Israel is planning to quadruple the number of tests for the novel coronavirus it can perform every day.
  • Calcalist reports that as of yesterday, Israel was conducting 401 tests per day for every one million citizens, far fewer than China (2,820) and South Korea (3,692) that appear to have succeeded in containing virus. Bar Siman-Tov tells Channel 12 that Israel is seeking to bring the number of tests up to 1,600 a day.

3. But Bibi: As usual in all things Israel, much of the analysis of Israel’s response boils down to the person providing the news: Netanyahu

  • “It’s good that Bibi is in the driver’s seat,” tweets the prime minister’s spokesman Jonathan Urich, providing no additional commentary.
  • “Regardless of politics or right and left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is managing the coronavirus crisis very wisely and responsibly. And yes, he’s also proving people with assurance and confidence as a leader is supposed to do. Bravo,” tweets Ynet Palestinian affairs correspondent Elior Levy, a frequent critic of Netanyahu.
  • Haaretz’s Noa Landau rejects the premise of the conversation. “There were good steps taken and some bad ones as well, but the [social media] feed as usual is only concerned with ‘wow Bibi/boo Bibi.’

4. It was worth it: Making rounds on just about all the news channels is a 9-year-old boy who contracted COVID-19 after flying to coronavirus hotspot Madrid for a Barcelona and Real Madrid soccer match but has no regrets.

  • “I was little stressed, but my mom and dad told me that it’s like the flu and there’s nothing to be scared [of], and I calmed down” Sa’ar Kahane tells Ynet.
  • Kahane, who began feeling sick over the weekend, said he was disappointed he was unable to wear his Lego Man costume for Purim festivities at school. The boy has since been transferred to a quarantine ward at Tel Hashomer’s Sheba Medical Center, where he remains in good condition.
  • Channel 12 reports that a Spanish basketball team is rather shockingly in town for a game against Maccabi Tel Aviv. The team has not abided by the quarantine rules and has even been roaming the streets of Tel Aviv and attending practices. The game was eventually canceled this morning, but not before the Spanish squad had the opportunity to potentially expose Israelis to the virus.
  • “It’s crazy,” Channel 12 anchor Yonit Levi says of the decision to allow the team into the country without any prior examination.

5. About that minority government… : With Labor-Gesher-Meretz MK Orly Levy-Abekasis walking back pre-election assurances that she had no problem sitting in a coalition backed from the outside by the majority-Arab Joint List party, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz’s chances at forming such a government appear as slim as ever.

  • But Zman Yisrael’s Nati Yefet writes that it may still be too early to eulogize the idea of a minority government. He points out that while Levy-Abekasis made a grand statement declaring that she wasn’t beholden to her merger deal with Meretz, Blue and White rebel MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel have yet to do the same.
  • One Blue and White MK tells Yefet that he’s still cautiously optimistic that Hauser and Hendel will come around. Regardless, they may not even have a choice given the fact that their right-wing Telem faction’s constitution requires them to fall in line with the position of their chairman Moshe Ya’alon, who supports a minority government. However, legal expert Adi Sadinsky-Levy points out that at the end of the day, it’s their Knesset seat and the two of them really can do what they please with it.
  • Apparently having talked to other sources in Blue and White, Haaretz’s Jonathan Lis reports that the centrist alliance has put aside its hopes for a minority government and is instead focusing on Gantz receiving a majority of recommendations during presidential consultations slated to begin next week.
  • Being tasked with forming a government would allow his party to ax Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and once in control of parliament, move forward with legislation to prevent an MK who is under indictment (i.e., Netanyahu) from forming a coalition. Meaning, if Blue and White is going to go down after its failed talks with the Joint List at forming a minority government, its leadership is intent on bringing Netanyahu down with it.

6. What about a unity government: Despite what some see as the most logical option still on the table to prevent a fourth election, particularly in light of the urgent need for a fully functioning government that can adequately address the coronavirus crisis, a unity coalition still appears as elusive as ever.

  • Ya’alon tells Army Radio that “any government that ensures the defendant Netanyahu does not sit in the prime minister’s chair is an important one. We will not sit in a government headed by him, under any circumstance.”
  • Ya’alon also dismisses the possibility of Hauser and Hendel defecting to Likud. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone banking on defectors from Blue and White. Hauser and Hendel do not miss the Netanyahu PMO with that ‘photographer,'” he tells Army Radio, in a reference to senior Netanyahu aide Natan Eshel who admitted to surreptitiously placing a camera to film under the skirt of a female colleague.
  • The Kan public broadcaster’s Ze’ev Kam reports that Likud actually has no issue in Gantz being tapped first to form a coalition with the logic being that after he fails to do so, Netanyahu will have an easier time convincing Labor chairman Amir Peretz and others to join his government.
  • Maariv reports that Likud officials think Blue and Whit’s stock has plummeted due to its talks with the Joint List and that Netanyahu’s party actually wants a fourth election because it’s as confident as ever that the right-wing, religious bloc will succeed in winning 61 seats.
  • For his part, Channel 12’s Amit Segal points out that “all this political talk suddenly feels totally meaningless compared to the massive wave that is about to flood our economy and health.”
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