Ministers vote to reopen grades 7-10 and ease other restrictions from Sunday

Restaurants, hotels, event venues to open as planned next week under Health Ministry rules; Ben Gurion Airport reportedly to reopen to Israelis

People walk on Jaffa Street, in downtown Jerusalem on March 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People walk on Jaffa Street, in downtown Jerusalem on March 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite a slight rise in coronavirus infections, ministers on Monday backed sticking to the plan to gradually reopen Israel’s economy, which will see restaurants and hotels open their doors to the vaccinated next week, and reportedly moved to reopen Ben Gurion Airport to Israeli travelers.

The next stage of the government’s reopening plan, scheduled for around March 7, includes allowing students in grades 7-10 to return to school in low-infection areas, reopening restaurants and cafes, permitting hotels and event venues to open in accordance with Health Ministry guidelines, and easing limitations on gatherings.

The Prime Minister’s Office said following a Monday night cabinet meeting that ministers had voted in favor of implementing the plan.

From next Sunday, those who are vaccinated or who have recovered from the virus will be allowed to sit inside cafes and restaurants, while those not immunized must sit outdoors. Hotels and event venues will be opened strictly to those immunized or recovered, the PMO said, adding that the general limit on gatherings will be expanded to 20 indoors and 50 outdoors.

Police officers prevent revelers from entering Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market after they shut down a street party during the Jewish holiday of Purim, February 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

While some health officials had called to halt the reopening, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and coronavirus czar Nahman Ash told ministers the easing of restrictions should go ahead as planned, according to Hebrew media reports. Channel 13 said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also backed their position.

Netanyahu had indicated Sunday he wanted schools to reopen in the coming days, but Channel 12 news reported he was persuaded by health officials to postpone the reopening until next week

Speaking at the start of Monday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu condemned illegal parties and gatherings that had taken place during Purim, calling the violations “intolerable.” Major street parties were held in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and around the country.

The prime minister also said he was seeking to reopen more schools in areas with high vaccination rates, according to leaks from the meeting.

Ministers reportedly also endorsed a Transportation Ministry plan to allow Israelis to enter the country beginning Sunday. The ministry plan would also enable Israelis to leave the country, though not to high-infection countries listed by the government, reports said.

Unvaccinated Israelis who enter the country will still be forced to self-isolate in state-run hotels or quarantine at home with an electronic bracelet, reports said.

The arrival hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, with Ben Gurion Airport shuttered for all but a few special flights by Israeli and some foreign airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad, leaving thousands unable to return. Entrance into the country requires special permission by the government that is granted on a case-by-case basis ahead of a flight.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev said Sunday that entry will be granted without requiring the permission of the controversial permits committee, which a television report last week claimed was giving preferential treatment to requests by Haredim. This led opposition politicians to accuse Netanyahu of using the committee to allow only potential right-wing voters to arrive in the country ahead of the March 23 elections. Netanyahu and Regev have strongly denied those claims.

While ministers appeared to be in general agreement about the reopening plans on Monday, Gantz briefly stormed out of the videoconference meeting, taking his Blue and White ministers with him as he complained that the session had descended into unnecessary attacks on bureaucrats.

According to audio of the incident leaked to several Hebrew media outlets, after Netanyahu said he had to leave the cabinet meeting to take a “very important” call, Finance Minister Israel Katz launched into an argument with Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit about the government’s chief legal adviser’s authority.

“This has ceased to be a cabinet meeting, but a meeting of Israel Katz clashing with officials and others,” Gantz could be heard saying angrily.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second from right, alongside Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit (right), and security cabinet members Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, May 31, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/ POOL)

Katz had berated Mandelblit for objecting to an economic stimulus plan that includes cash handouts to most citizens. The attorney general has warned that some aspects of the plan cannot be executed during an election campaign, as they could be seen as payments to voters.

“In a democracy, it doesn’t work like that,” Katz told Mandelblit Monday. “If the majority of the government thinks that there is no need to promote the plan… I will accept that. A legal adviser will not determine whether or not to assist [Israelis] in need.”

A frustrated Gantz said that he would be leaving the meeting until it returned to “a real discussion” on the Health Ministry’s plan to reopen schools and other segments of the economy after Israel’s third national lockdown.

“When you want to renew the meeting chaired by the prime minister — call,” Gantz instructed.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz, along with the Blue and White ministers, returned to the meeting after around half an hour, Hebrew media reports said.

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