Netanyahu denies political considerations shaped lockdown exit plan

PM says decisions based solely on health experts’ advice, urges ultra-Orthodox to adhere to rules as many schools reopen despite lockdown

Screen capture from video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, October 18, 2020. (YouTube)
Screen capture from video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, October 18, 2020. (YouTube)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday rejected the notion that political considerations played a part in the drawing up of an exit plan from the national lockdown, saying the route to reopening was based solely on advice from health experts and officials.

“Contrary to what has been claimed in the media, we did not agree to any change to the outline that was submitted by the [health] experts, and I strongly reject the claims of political considerations,” Netanyahu said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting.

“There were no political considerations and all of the ministers who participated in the discussions will attest to this,” he said.

His remarks came as Israel began easing a monthlong closure that has managed to curb runaway infection rates, but in so doing it shuttered much of the economy and paralyzed many aspects of life for many people. Officials have expressed fear that pressure to swiftly reopen schools and businesses will lead to a repeat of the chaotic emergence from Israel’s first lockdown in May, widely blamed for paving the way for the spike in new COVID-19 cases in August and September.

While kindergartens and preschools reopened throughout the country in all cities and communities, schools were ordered to remain closed for the time being.

There has been criticism of a decision to reopen preschools and daycare centers in virus hotspots, which are predominantly ultra-Orthodox. Compounding concerns, hundreds of schools in ultra-Orthodox areas reopened Sunday in violation of the rules after a top rabbi called for them to restart.

“I call on the Haredi community to adhere to the rules,” Netanyahu said, using a Hebrew term for the ultra-Orthodox.

“There are many who are keeping to them, but there is also a not so small community that aren’t keeping to them,” he continued.

Police guard at a temporary checkpoint in the entrance to the neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol in Jerusalem which is a ‘restricted zone,’ in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on October 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu defended the decision to approve a gradual multi-stage plan for lifting the lockdown, which reportedly could be stretched over at least four months.

“This time we are exiting the lockdown carefully and responsibly, exactly according to the plan presented to us by the experts and the Health Ministry, including regarding red cities,” Netanyahu said.

Those so-called red cities — virus hotspots — will remain cordoned off until they all see a drop in infection rates and become green, he said. Police set up roadblocks around those locations to control travel in and out.

Netanyahu said the coronavirus cabinet will meet later this week to discuss the next stages of the exit plan and that he had asked Finance Minister Israel Katz to put together a framework for further assistance for workers and businesses that have been ordered to remain closed in red cities.

“Our goal is clear — to not leave anyone behind,” he said.

The ultra-Orthodox education institutions for grades 1-8, most of which are located in designated “red” zones with high rates of infection, reopened on Sunday in a wide-scale rebellion against the government, with some Bnei Brak residents expressing fury toward the premier and saying they’d join widespread protests calling on him to resign.

Several politicians, including two cabinet ministers, called for any institution that flouted the rules to lose its public funding.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a top rabbi in the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, had ordered boys’ schools in the Haredi Talmud Torah system to reopen Sunday, despite nationwide rules prohibiting schools from first grade and up from operating. Kanievsky, who is himself infected with the coronavirus, called for adherence to social distancing measures and a limited number of pupils per classroom, according to the Ynet news site.

Police officers at a checkpoint at the entrance to the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, October 18, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Many of the ultra-Orthodox schools that reopened on Sunday were in virus hotspots, which currently include Bnei Brak south of Jabotinsky Street, Beitar Illit, Modiin Illit, Elad, the northern town of Rechasim, and the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Eshkol, Maalot Dafna, and Kiryat Mattersdorf.

Netanyahu on Saturday night pleaded with the ultra-Orthodox not to reopen schools.

“The Torah sanctifies life, and [doing] this endangers life,” he said, while hinting that police would not enforce the closure of schools.

Health Ministry data published Sunday morning showed 395 cases were diagnosed the previous day, just three weeks after the daily figure stood at 8,000. It was the lowest number of daily cases since late June.

As of Sunday, Israelis can once again travel more than one kilometer from home and visit others’ homes so long as caps on gatherings are adhered to (10 indoors, 20 outdoors). Preschools and daycares can reopen; restaurants are allowed to serve takeout; businesses that don’t receive customers can open; people can visit beaches and national parks; and the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount compound will reopen for worship under certain restrictions.

Officials have warned that if infections go back up, restrictions could be reimposed.

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