Thriving in a crisis, Netanyahu urges Israelis to wage ‘war on invisible enemy’

Exuding indispensability, PM in latest broadcast to nation unveils new raft of restrictions, far-reaching though less drastic than many had expected, to tackle coronavirus pandemic

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

After hours of fevered speculation, innumerable false reports flashing out across social media, and a post-Shabbat run on supermarkets nationwide, the raft of new measures to try to fight the coronavirus pandemic announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night was dramatic indeed — closing down Israel’s shopping malls, bars, restaurants, cinemas, health clubs and much more.

But it was still less drastic than had been widely anticipated.

Netanyahu and his colleagues, speaking at a delayed presentation to the nation that hinted at disagreements between various officials, did not declare a state of emergency. They did not impose a lockdown, barring Israelis from leaving their homes. They did not shut down the private sector.

But they emphatically reserved the right to do any of those things in the near future. And Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, the Health Ministry director-general who is widely believed to have been pushing for a complete private sector shutdown, stated adamantly immediately after the live broadcast that more stringent measures will indeed be imposed “in the next few days.”

With this virus infecting exponentially, Bar Siman-Tov said, “you can lose control in a second, and then there’s no going back. Look at Italy.”

As of this writing late Saturday night, Israel — its borders essentially closed, its gatherings limited, some 40,000 citizens in self-quarantine — has avoided even a single death from the coronavirus, and is aware of “only” some 200 people who are infected with it.

Had those numbers been markedly higher, Siman-Tov intimated, greater restrictions on public movement and social interaction would already be in force. If those numbers do go significantly higher, some of the mooted but thus far rejected measures will doubtless come into force.

Israelis line up outside Rami Levy supermarket in Ashdod on March 14, 2020. (Flash90)

Many of the specific new restrictions introduced last night were set out not by Netanyahu but by Shai Babad, the director-general of the Treasury, in a single breathless sentence. Not only would school closures announced last week be extended to the entire educational network, but the entire entertainment and cultural sector was shutting down from Sunday morning, Babad said, speedily specifying malls, cinemas, hotels, weddings, group trips, conferences, health clubs and more. Doubtless a more orderly presentation of what is being closed will follow, and be made available online.

What Netanyahu chose to highlight was the new reality of “social distancing” that lies at the core of Israel’s battle against the virus. Having asked Israelis last week to stop kissing, hugging and shaking hands and generally “keep your distance” from each other, the prime minister now specified a two-meter minimum to prevent contagion.

The calculation that the virus, coughed or sneezed out, won’t be able to leap that two-meter gap is central to the restrictions Israel is imposing, he said — restrictions that also now bar any gatherings of more than 10 people. The key in what he called “a war against an invisible enemy… is not to infect, and not to be infected.” But, he indicated, even all these changes to the normal social routine might not be sufficient. “We are still learning about this virus,” he stressed.

Maintain your hygiene, wash your hands, clean off surfaces, and stay those two meters apart, he stressed, and Israel will come through the worst pandemic in a century. Ignore those basics, he cautioned, “and it could get a lot worse before it gets better.”

A man being tested for fever as he arrives for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu also announced that Israel will be using highly invasive digital tech to “locate the enemy,” by which he meant track the movements of infected Israelis — in order to test and impose quarantine where necessary on those with whom they have come into contact, and avoid having to send the entire nation into isolation. He said he had refrained from utilizing this kind of technology in the civilian environment throughout his years of prime minister, but amid this crisis, the wider public interest required it, and thus he had obtained approval from the Justice Ministry.

He clarified that all essential services would continue to function, that supermarkets would stay open, so too pharmacies, banks and gas stations. In the private sector, he and his colleagues urged bosses to use their discretion — not to compel workers to come in if not absolutely necessary; to do everything to ensure that two-meter distance.

Netanyahu has been briefing the nation almost nightly of late, peppering his remarks with mentions of this and that foreign leader who has complimented his policies, praising the public for its discipline, trying to deepen the sense of his indispensability to Israel’s well-being — the crucial asset his leadership rival Benny Gantz has been trying for a year to shatter.

On Saturday, too, Netanyahu allowed himself to boast several times that the policies he has introduced these past few weeks have been “ahead of all other countries worldwide,” and thus Israel currently has “one of the best situations in the world.”

His handling of this crisis has indeed been widely praised, including from such unlikely sources as Ofer Eini, the former head of the nationwide Histadrut labor federation. A longtime foe of the prime minister’s, Eini said in a television interview Saturday afternoon that Netanyahu’s experience was self-evidently working to Israel’s advantage as it grapples with the pandemic, and urged the prime minister’s rivals to join him in a unity government.

Blue and White party leader MK Benny Gantz at an election rally in Ramat Gan on February 25, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu reiterated a similar appeal Saturday night, and the Blue and White party of his main rival, former IDF chief Gantz, responded with wary assent — provided, it said, that responsibilities are equally shared. But Gantz, who until a week ago was hoping he might somehow pull together a Knesset majority to supplant Netanyahu after March 2’s third successive election deadlock, is now in no position to issue hardball demands.

Manifestly thriving in the crisis, Netanyahu is assuring Israelis that he and they are leading much of the world in battling a deadly, invisible enemy. “King Bibi,” the “magician,” to use two of his nicknames, was on the political ropes not many weeks ago. To what must be the intense frustration of his opponents, a global pandemic has enabled him to bounce back. His corruption trial may be due to begin on Tuesday, but the veteran prime minister isn’t about to be dislodged, by Gantz or anybody else.

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