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Netanyahu, Gantz said close to agreement to extend lockdown into next week

Blue and White party has been objecting to Health Ministry plan to add 3 more days of closure followed by gradual easing of restrictions; ministers approve doubling fines

Israelis wearing face masks walk in Jerusalem on February 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israelis wearing face masks walk in Jerusalem on February 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz were reportedly closing in on an agreement Thursday evening to extend the weeks-long national lockdown until Sunday or Monday.

After several delays, the cabinet was meeting Thursday to discuss when and how to end the lockdown, as virus infections remained high throughout the country, with ministers in disagreement.

Gantz’s Blue and White party has demanded a clear exit plan outline to present to the public, while Netanyahu and the Health Ministry have been much more reluctant to set anything in stone.

According to Channel 13 news, Gantz was on the verge of agreeing to an extension in exchange for a pilot program to reopen businesses around the country.

The lockdown, now in its fourth week, is set to expire at 7 a.m. on Friday. Gantz demanded during the meeting that the cabinet allow for the economy to begin reopening on Friday, while Health Ministry officials were pushing to have it extended until Sunday at midnight, at which point the lockdown would be lifted gradually in three separate stages.

But according to Hebrew media, the ministry’s plan faced pushback from Ran Balicer, the chairman of the national advisory team of experts counseling the government on its COVID-19 response.

He argued that too many Israelis have been violating the current lockdown and that the country would not be able to meet the proposed benchmarks for reaching the second stage of reopening the economy. Balicer proposed that the lockdown be allowed to expire at midnight on Friday, saying the only effective tactic to contain the pandemic was to push forward with the country’s vaccination drive.

Tempers flared during the meeting, with Gantz blasting Netanyahu for delaying the session several times after it was supposed to have taken place on Monday.

The Blue and White chairman also lamented cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman’s failure to update ministers in advance as to what would be discussed at the meeting, according to Army Radio. The prime minister retorted that Gantz was seeking to manufacture headlines and was motivated by petty politics.

“When there’s no choice, you close things down, but when you can, you should open. I believe it is now possible and necessary to open,” Gantz was quoted by Hebrew media as having told ministers. “Lockdowns have stopped being an effective work plan and solution.”

A medical worker prepares a vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Kiryat Ye’arim, on January 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The defense minister said the government should immediately remove the current ban on traveling more than a kilometer from one’s home, allow businesses with in-person service to reopen, and other limited steps. Next week, Gantz said, schools should start reopening, as should stores and businesses adhering to COVID-19 regulations.

For its part, Health Ministry officials have recommended reopening kindergartens and grades 1-2 and 11-12 in low-infection cities and towns starting next week, according to Army Radio.

Balicer’s panel of experts advising the government recommended that only vaccinated teachers be allowed to teach in person when the lockdown is lifted, according to reports.

As of Wednesday, just 53 percent of teachers have received the first dose of the vaccine, and 27% have gotten both doses, despite being prioritized for eligibility.

The experts further recommended opening kindergarten to second grade in low-infection areas, as well as resuming classes for 11th and 12th graders, but only if the teenage students are vaccinated.

They recommended keeping schools in high-infection towns and cities closed for the time being.

Israelis exercise on the Tel Aviv beach boardwalk, during a nationwide lockdown. February 3, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

However, if the government chooses to reopen some school grades next week exclusively in low-infection areas per the reported Health Ministry plan, most of Israel’s major cities won’t make the cut, according to data from earlier Wednesday.

At the beginning of the meeting, ministers approved a proposal to double fines for lockdown violators. A business smaller than 100 square meters caught violating the lockdown will receive an NIS 5,000 ($1,519) fine. A site up to 500 square meters caught violating the lockdown will receive an NIS 7,000 ($2,126) fine. A site larger than 500 square meters caught violating the lockdown will receive an NIS 10,000 ($3,038) fine.

A school with up to 35 students caught open in violation of the lockdown will be fined NIS 5,000 ($1,519), and institutions larger than that will be fined double the amount.

The updated fines will go into effect on Friday.

Meanwhile, after the inoculation effort had slowed down, the Health Ministry began allowing all citizens above the age of 16 to vaccinate starting Thursday.

During the cabinet meeting, ministers proposed ways to encourage the public to vaccinate. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz asserted that those who do not inoculate be “punished,” according to Hebrew media. The idea was shut down by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and others, who said it would not be legal.

Instead, other ministers proposed that Israelis be incentivized to vaccinate. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri suggested that municipalities with a 90% vaccination rate or higher be automatically labeled “green cities” whose lockdown restrictions would be the least severe.

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