Less than eight weeks after he warned that the coronavirus pandemic could kill tens of thousands of Israelis, and intimated that tens of millions might die worldwide, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the nation on Monday night that Israel has brought the virus under control, at least for now, with its death toll at a strikingly low 235.
“Every death is a great loss… it’s heartrending,” he said. But overall, he declared, Israel’s battle against COVID-19 has been “a great success story.”
Throughout the past eight weeks, Netanyahu has frequently held evening broadcasts: to tell the citizens of the latest restrictions being imposed on their lives in the first weeks of the crisis, and, more recently, to tell them of limitations being gradually eased. On Monday night, during an unprecedentedly lengthy appearance summed up by TV commentators as a kind of “victory over coronavirus” event, Netanyahu announced that the State of Israel was now gradually reopening — for business, and for something akin to normal life.
Taking questions, sharing the forum with ministers and experts, a strikingly upbeat Netanyahu announced that citizens are now free to travel as far as they like from their homes; families can visit their elderly relatives; gatherings of up to 100 will be permitted by the end of the month, and unlimited gatherings by mid-June; the whole school system will be open by the end of the month; sports and leisure will be unlimited by mid-June; and Israel is looking for ways to work toward a resumption of international flights without risking new waves of infection from countries that have handled the pandemic less effectively. “We want to reconnect to the world,” he said, but without importing a new wave of contagion.
Every effort would now be made to get the economy back on track, he said, and to get compensation more effectively distributed to battered companies, freelancers and small business owners than has been the case to date. “We’ve made mistakes too,” he allowed. “Not everything is perfect.”
With all due respect to the cliche about lies, damned lies and statistics, Netanyahu was able to showcase stats that emphatically endorsed his claim that a combination of three factors — the early preventative steps he introduced (closing the borders, ordering folks to say home, and instituting digital tracking of carriers), the performance of the healthcare system, and Israelis’ general compliance with the restrictions — had placed Israel near the top of the developed world in facing COVID-19.
Israel is down to a few dozen new cases of infection per day from a high of over 700, he noted; it has fewer than 100 serious cases; there are far more recoveries than new cases daily.
That toll of fewer than 250 dead, he pointed out, compares to 29,000 dead in Italy; over 28,000 in the UK; 25,000 in Spain and France. In what he called approximately Israel-sized New York, the toll was at 18,000. In Sweden and Belgium, countries with population numbers not dissimilar to Israel, the tolls were at almost 3,000 and almost 8,000, respectively.
Israel’s success, he stressed, was not a function of climate, or of the relative young age of its populace, or of its geographic location. “If we hadn’t taken the steps we did, that’s what we would have gotten,” he said in answer to a question on whether he’d exaggerated the danger, and pointing to a graph showing the worst-affected nations. “We weren’t scaring people; we’ve been saving people… Israel’s achievements are a model for many other countries.”
Netanyahu offered an interesting insight into why he reacted so speedily to the advent of the pandemic and advised other world leaders — notably Austria’s Sebastian Kurz — to treat it with the utmost seriousness. When he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s, he recalled, the first lesson in a statistics course he took focused on the exponential spread of viruses. That class “is etched in my memory,” he said. When he first heard about COVID-19, “I remembered the course” — a course, he said, that had now saved a great many lives.
But he also stressed that much about the virus was still unknown; that it might yet come back, stronger and deadlier; and that Israel would have to batten down again if infection rates start to soar, or if the number of serious cases rises above 250. “Nobody knows what will happen next,” he said — not his fellow world leaders, and not the world experts with whom he also consults. As with a pilot checking the vital gauges, he said, “if a red light comes on, we’ll have to change the policy.”
Toward the end of his remarks, Netanyahu, as he has done throughout the past few weeks, spoke briefly of the need for a “unity government” and said he was working to get it established in the next few days. But Israel’s High Court has been hearing petitions against his coalition deal with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, and on Monday, the justices intimated that some of its clauses seemed problematic.
Questioned about the court’s potential intervention, Netanyahu argued that his planned new government is the clear reflection of the people’s will, backed by a majority of the electorate and a majority of the Knesset. “It’s what the people want; it’s what the people need,” he said. Court intervention, he said, would “not be appropriate,” and would risk a descent into Israel’s fourth elections in a year-and-a-half. “The coalition deal was formulated with great caution and responsibility… I hope the court won’t intervene,” he said. “It should not intervene.”
The truth is that Netanyahu, who came close to losing power over the course of those three closely fought election battles against Gantz, today has no particular fear of the High Court justices, and no particular fear of a return to the electorate, though he may want to spare Israel yet another campaign.
His deal with Gantz keeps him safely installed as prime minister for the next 18 months. His popularity is high, and Gantz, in partnering with him, has decimated the opposition. So Netanyahu could safely expect to fare exceptionally well at the polls, if necessary, with a campaign at least partly focused on promises to rein in the powers of the High Court.
And for now, more effectively than much of the developed world, he has got COVID-19 on the ropes as well.
“We’ll roll up our sleeves and get the economy back on track,” he promised in his prepared remarks. “And we’ll continue to take care of you, the people of Israel — for the sake of our country, our economy, our health, our lives.”
For much of Israel, watching Netanyahu and taking in the statistics, that assurance has attained significant additional credibility over the course of the past few weeks.