Netanyahu defends quarantine-breaking aides, chiding ‘selective enforcement’

Premier’s social media adviser, spotted filming protest, says he’s sorry to ‘become a tool for attacks on the prime minister,’ will pay fine

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, May 25, 2020. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, May 25, 2020. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday resisted calls to fire or punish two of his senior aides who were accused of breaking quarantine imposed on them after flying to the US with the premier last week, and claimed the public attention they have been receiving is politically motivated.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu reportedly bristled at the harsh criticism directed at his social media adviser, Topaz Luk, who was spotted Sunday evening scoping out a protest against the premier in Jerusalem, as well that directed at his foreign policy adviser and deputy head of the National Security Council, Reuven Azar, who was seen at a supermarket in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion on Friday.

“Now, suddenly, everyone wakes up in the case of one man,” he said during a cabinet meeting, according to Channel 12 news.

“Everyone who breaks quarantine should pay a fine, but there mustn’t be selective enforcement. Jews, Arabs, left, right — I think everyone should follow the Health Ministry instructions and they should be kept and enforced equally,” he reportedly said.

Topaz Luk, social media adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives with the premier at the Knesset, September 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Announcing that the so-called coronavirus cabinet will meet on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of tightening an ongoing nationwide lockdown, due to a steep rise in serious cases, Netanyahu also reportedly took a jibe at the head of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee, MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, saying: “All those who disregarded the instructions or, worse, watered them down in the Knesset, should not ask how infections have risen.”

The cabinet also discussed cuts to the salaries of ministers and Knesset members, due to the economic difficulties created by the pandemic. Ministers were said to be looking at a temporary reduction of 10-20 percent.

Several Likud ministers — Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, and Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis — suggested the salaries of top justice officials should also be cut, according to the report.

After presenting the latest coronavirus figures, Netanyahu reportedly abruptly left the cabinet meeting, telling ministers it was for “a call of national importance.” A similar scene occurred in August, shortly before the announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates. It was later revealed he had held a phone call with de facto UAE leader Mohammed Bin Zayed.

Luk and Azar were part of the Israeli delegation that traveled to Washington last week to sign the normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. While Israelis returning from countries with high COVID-19 infection rates must quarantine for 14 days, members of the delegation only had to self-isolate for five days, despite reportedly breaking agreed-upon health guidelines during the trip.

The delegation returned to Israel on Wednesday, and was supposed to be in quarantine until Monday, after taking coronavirus tests Sunday night.

Video filmed by a protester showed Luk and Ofer Golan, the Netanyahu family’s spokesman, walking away from the demonstration near the Prime Minister’s Residence on Sunday night. The weekly protests, normally held Saturday night, drew some 5,000 people Sunday, despite a new national lockdown that began Friday.

One of the groups leading the ongoing anti-Netanyahu protests accused Luk and Golan of coming to the rally to film an alleged group of coronavirus deniers as part of efforts to discredit the demonstrations.

Channel 12 quoted Luk as telling “close associates”: “The instructions I received changed several times, but I should have been more careful. I am sorry that I have become a tool for attacks on the prime minister, and in any case I will pay the fine on my own initiative.”

Netanyahu and his supporters have claimed the protests are a major vector of infections, though health officials have said no new infections have been traced back to the rallies so far.

“Topaz Luk arrived to perform a coronavirus test in Jerusalem in accordance with the instructions he received from the Health Ministry, upon his return from the delegation to Washington and afterwards returned to his home,” Netanyahu’s Likud party said in a statement.

It also said Golan was not required to be in quarantine, but did not explain why he was with Luk and did not directly address the fact that he had been filming the protest.

Despite Likud’s assertion that Luk was going to take a COVID-19 test, the Kan public broadcaster said he was tested at 9:30 p.m., an hour before he was seen with a camera at the protest.

Media outlets also noted the testing site was at the Prime Minister’s Office, about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from Paris Square.

Photos on social media showed Luk filming several maskless protesters as he stood at the demonstration.

Senior adviser to the prime minister and deputy head of the national security council Reuven Azar. (Screengrab: YouTube)

Following separate reports of Azar’s breach of quarantine, Netanyahu’s office said a “clarification” was held with the senior aide. It asserted he was not updated about the Health Ministry’s determination that the premier and his aides were required to quarantine, after the Prime Minister’s Office said they would instead begin adhering to the countrywide lockdown rules before they took effect on Friday.

“Azar was called to order by his superiors so such incidents are not repeated,” the PMO said in a statement.

While in Washington, Azar also violated the coronavirus regulations of the Prime Minister’s Office by leaving the hotel where the Israeli delegation was staying in Washington.

The Israeli delegation was under strict rules that included maintaining small groups, called capsules, and not leaving the premises of the hotel so that they would not be required to self-quarantine upon their return from the United States.

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