A Likud party ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit out at the national coronavirus czar Wednesday for trying to keep Israelis from traveling to Ukraine for a Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage, and accused him of not seeking to halt mass protests against the premier because he fears the media.
The comments from coalition whip Miki Zohar drew immediate rebuke from other politicians.
Ronni Gamzu, who was appointed by the government in July to lead the response to the pandemic, has recently come under fire from Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners for attempting to prevent tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews from flying to the Ukrainian city of Uman to celebrate the new year. On Tuesday, Ukraine said it would limit the number of pilgrims allowed in the city after an appeal from Netanyahu, but the prime minister denied making any such request.
“Prof. Gamzu is sure that he has the ability to prevent Israelis from going to Uman but Prof. Gamzu meanwhile was sure he had the ability to stop the protests. He didn’t succeed in stopping the protests,” coalition whip Miki Zohar told the Kan public broadcaster.
Gamzu has expressed concern over the protests against Netanyahu, which have centered on the prime minister’s indictment on graft charges, but has never pledged to stop them and the government has consistently upheld the right to gather for protests despite the pandemic.
“It’s clear [Gamzu] wasn’t active on this because he fears the media and is scared the media will criticize him,” Zohar charged. “He works very well with the media and cooperates with it, but in the meantime he hasn’t stopped the protests despite thinking them unreasonable.”
Zohar didn’t specify how Gamzu could prevent the demonstrations, which Netanyahu himself has repeatedly denied trying to limit. While the size of most gatherings has been capped to prevent the virus from spreading, no such restriction has been placed on protests.
There haven’t been any COVID-19 outbreaks linked to the demonstrations, some of which have seen upwards of 10,000 people rally outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, though some of Netanyahu’s political allies have cast them as a vector of the virus.
“If he knows he doesn’t know how to stop the protests… he needs to know he also can’t stop travel to Uman,” Zohar said, calling the protests a danger to public health.
Zohar criticized Gamzu for sending a letter to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asking him to block the flights to Uman and said he should work to reduce the number of travelers rather than preventing them from flying.
“Instead of fearing the media and dealing with things like sending a letter to the Ukrainian president… [he] should begin to solve this matter, of the travel to Uman, which will happen if he wants it or not,” Zohar said.
The Likud lawmaker said he was developing a plan that would allow 6,000 Israelis to travel to Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah rather than the estimated 30,000 that normally take the trip. His plan would include testing pilgrims, along with the required quarantine upon returning to Israel.
Zohar faced swift pushback from opposition lawmakers for his criticism of Gamzu.
“When the coalition chairman fights with Prof. Gamzu… it doesn’t contribute to the public trust in the government,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid tweeted. “Stop fighting and start working.”
Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich said that while he didn’t agree with all of Gamzu’s decisions, he should have the government’s backing to fight the virus.
“Stop attacking him from all directions, calling on him to resign, putting spokes in his wheels and then throwing your failures on him,” Smotrich, who served as transportation minister until May, wrote on Twitter.
He added: “It was Netanyahu who opposed limiting the protests at Balfour [the Prime Minister’s Residence] the entire way!! I was there in the cabinet meetings and he was against this. Maybe he is the one who fears the media?!”
Smotrich was in the cabinet over the spring, when most protests were based in Tel Aviv and other parts of Jerusalem. The protests outside Netanyahu’s residence have only picked up steam in the last two months, after Smotrich joined the opposition.
Finance Minister Israel Katz of Likud also backed Gamzu.
“I’m in favor of giving health considerations preference on things like this. The supervisor [Gamzu] of the coronavirus needs to be allowed to work,” Katz told Army Radio.
Zohar’s criticism of Gamzu came a day after the latter vowed to “do everything” to prevent large numbers of Hasidic Jews from flying to Uman and threatened he could resign over the matter.
Gamzu’s opposition to the pilgrimage, which mostly draws ultra-Orthodox Jews, has raised hackles among Netanyahu’s Haredi partners, some of whom have reportedly sought to oust him from his post.
Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism has said the regulation of flights would be a “slap in the face to tens of thousands of Bratslav followers,” according to Channel 12.
On Tuesday, Zelensky said Ukraine would “significantly limit” the entry of Jewish pilgrims for Rosh Hashanah next month at Netanyahu’s request. Netanyahu’s office swiftly denied that the premier had made such a request, in what may have been an effort to assuage his ultra-Orthodox allies.
The statement from Zelensky’s office did not specify the degree to which the pilgrimage will be limited. Uman normally sees some 30,000 tourists, most of them from Israel, visit the grave site of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav for the Rosh Hashanah holiday, which this year begins the evening of September 18.
Ukraine is one of the few countries that are currently allowing in Israeli nationals, despite the high coronavirus infection rate in the Jewish state.
New Health Ministry figures released Wednesday morning showed 2,089 new cases were recorded over the past 24 hours, bringing the number of cases since the pandemic began to 107,341.
The ministry said the death toll from the virus had risen to 867.
Of the 20,581 active cases, there were a record 430 people in serious condition, with 118 on ventilators.
The ministry said 33,272 tests were performed Tuesday.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.