Netanyahu: Israel wants to join travel pact for countries beating back virus

PM tells leaders of 7 nations with low infection rates that Jerusalem ‘happy to enter into safe flight agreements’ to promote tourism and trade

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes part in a video conference with leaders of countries who have had success battling the coronavirus, May 7, 2020. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes part in a video conference with leaders of countries who have had success battling the coronavirus, May 7, 2020. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday told an online meeting of world leaders that Israel would be “happy to enter into safe flight agreements” to allow international travel between countries that have had success in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, according to his office.

Netanyahu touted Israel’s high tech sector, which has weathered the pandemic relatively well, but said that technology was not sufficient for maintaining international connections.

“Regarding flights — high-tech is a big part of our economy. Two days ago, a $1 billion company was sold here in a deal that was run through Zoom. People have invested $1 billion in high-tech in Jerusalem, via Zoom!,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office quoted him saying of US tech giant Intel’s Monday acquisition of smart-transit startup Moovit for some $900 million.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu continued, “I don’t think it’s a solution because people want to travel, talk to people and get to know them.”

Netanyahu was one of eight world leaders that participated in the video conference, which was hosted by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and aimed to discuss various strategies for dealing with the virus, including ways to gradually open the countries’ economies after weeks of tight restrictions.

Other leaders on the call were Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis.

According to a Sunday Wall Street Journal report, the seven countries, whose leaders also met via video call two weeks ago, are joining together to promote tourism and trade between them as they look to rebuild economies battered by the virus.

Grounded El Al planes are seen at Ben Gurion Airport on April 6, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The initiative, proposed by Austria’s Kurz, will reportedly provide a way for the countries, many of which are heavily dependent on tourism, to begin opening borders with less risk of letting in virus carriers.

According to the PMO, the leaders agreed on Thursday that they will hold “dedicated meetings in the areas of tourism and aviation between the tourism ministers of the countries.”

The PMO said that Netanyahu “also stressed the need to renew flights to the United States.”

Israel currently bars the entry of all foreigners, and Israelis returning from overseas must quarantine for two weeks.

On Monday, announcing a dramatic easing of the social distancing restrictions and the lifting of limitations on movement and economic activity, Netanyahu said that Israel was seeking a way to “reconnect to the world,” but without exposing the country to contagion from those countries that were still grappling with far higher infection rates.

The Wall Street Journal report said before opening their borders, which could come within a few weeks, the countries would establish common protocols including masks, safe distances and testing.

Discussing “ways to return to a safe routine,” Netanyahu told the other world leaders that even countries with positive trends should prepare for a potential second outbreak.

“In fact, no one knows what will happen when we open our economies and schools. We must be ready and prepared for an accordion effect and the possibility we’ll need to close again,” he said.

According to the PMO readout, Netanyahu presented Israel’s policy of sealing off “red areas” with high rates of infection to allow for other places with a low number of COVID-19 cases to continue as normal.

“‘We isolated the groups and treated them separately. We put the IDF in these areas — the IDF provided them with food and assistance, until we lowered the spread to a reasonable level, and then we opened the area, the prime minister boasted. “Our experience is very successful.”

Illustrative: Border police officers block a main road following the government’s measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty,)

During the video conference, the leaders also agreed that Israel’s National Cyber Security Authority would lead discussions about “databases, without harming privacy,” apparently referring to the country’s tracking of citizens sensitive personal information in order to locate potential virus carriers.

Jerusalem and Vienna have reportedly closely coordinated their respective responses to the coronavirus crisis, with Israel modeling its strategies to ease restrictions on Austria, which was one of Europe’s first countries to reopen its economy.

In Israel, infection rates have dropped off significantly in recent days, with the number of new cases over 24-hour periods consistently falling below 100 since the start of the week.

The number of patients on ventilators also continues to drop and was at 68 as of Thursday evening. The sharp decrease has allowed Israel to begin opening up and considering ending a raft of restrictions.

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