Netanyahu on COVID in Israel: It’s behind us

In interview with Fox, PM says ‘we’re coming out’ of crisis, Israel a ‘model for the world,’ though health officials have warned variants could upset plans for return to normalcy

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu interviewed on Fox and Friends, March 4, 2021. (Screen capture: Twitter)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu interviewed on Fox and Friends, March 4, 2021. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Thursday that Israel was largely done with the coronavirus, saying that it was the first country in the world to put the pandemic behind it, thanks to its quick and efficient vaccination campaign.

Israel is “the first country in the world to emerge from corona. With this green passport you can go to restaurants, you can go to theaters, you can go to sports events. This is it. We’re coming out,” Netanyahu said during an interview with the US network Fox News, describing the “Green Pass” system, which allows the fully vaccinated or recovered to attend various public sites and events.

Netanyahu said, “Look, I don’t think we’re coming out completely. We’re going to have to wear a mask for some time. But we’re behind it.”

Netanyahu has said that he hopes to vaccinate the entire Israeli adult population by late March and fully reopen the country by April.

“Israel used to be known, and is known, as the startup nation. From today it’ll also be known as the vaccination nation,” he said. “We’re setting the model for the world, we’re very proud of it.”

The Health Ministry said Thursday that 4,859,948 Israelis had received a first vaccine dose, of whom 3,576,379 have also received a second. Health Ministry data shows that some 88 percent of Israelis aged 50 and up have either been vaccinated against COVID-19 or recovered from the disease, as serious illness numbers have dropped.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a certificate after having his second COVID vaccine shot, on January 09, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The prime minister’s confidence, however, is not necessarily shared by the country’s top health officials, who have warned that new variants of the coronavirus could yet throw a wrench into Israel’s plans to quickly return to normal life.

A senior health official told Channel 13 on Thursday night that the prime minister’s declaration that the coronavirus pandemic is virtually over is “dangerous.” The unnamed official said the premier’s statements could create public complacency and lead to less adherence to health regulations, thereby contributing to further sickness.

New coronavirus deaths and infections in Israel have continued to decline from highs in January, and the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients has dropped to its lowest point since last year.

But the basic reproduction number, or R0, representing the average number of people each virus carrier infects, has gone over 1, meaning the outbreak is now worsening rather than abating, which it had been doing for several weeks. The growth in infections is largely attributed to the prevalence of more infectious strains such as the UK variant.

Speaking on Fox News’s Fox and Friends, Netanyahu also addressed the decision by the International Criminal Court to launch a probe into suspected war crimes by Israel and the Palestinians, calling the move “an outrageous decision.”

Netanyahu said the decision targets “the one democracy in the Middle East” while ignoring countries such as Iran and Syria, which he contended are serial rights abusers.

“This is pure anti-Semitism,” he said, and “an affront for all democracies.”

Repeating statements he made Wednesday following the announcement of the ICC decision, Netanyahu vowed to “fight for the truth, fight against this perversion of justice until it is null and void.”

Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s announcement of the investigation, which will focus on suspected war crimes around Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, beginning on June 13, 2014, came under a month after The Hague-based court ruled it had the jurisdiction to open a probe.

Speaking Wednesday night, the US State Department spokesperson said that the Biden administration “firmly” opposes the ICC decision, but is still weighing whether to maintain sanctions against the body imposed by the Trump administration.

“We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to Israel and to its security, including by opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly,” Ned Price said, insisting that the ICC does not have jurisdiction over the matter as Israel is not party to the Rome Statute. (The Palestinians have been since 2014.)

Netanyahu told Fox that his “warm relationship” with US President Joe Biden set the tone for strong relations between Israel and the United States, even if the country’s administrations disagreed from time to time.

“I’ve known Joe Biden not for 44 days, I’ve known him for close to 40 years, when I came in as a number two in Israel’s embassy in 1982 and he was a young senator from Delaware,” Netanyahu said when asked about his relationship with the president.

“So we’ve known each other and we’ve had a warm relationship over the years. I think Joe Biden is a friend of Israel, I know he is. I know he is committed to Israel,” Netanyahu said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US Vice President Joe Biden speak in front of media prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

The prime minister added that he hoped “we see eye-to-eye on everything” but that “sometimes with the best of friends — in the family, as we say — we can have differences of opinion.”

“The most important thing that I think Joe Biden understands is that my commitment to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons is absolute,” Netanyahu continued. “But one thing I believe he understands and respects, is that as the prime minister of the one and only Jewish state, we are not going to let a bunch of ayatollahs wipe us out from the face of the earth or from the map of history.”

Netanyahu has said he will do whatever it takes to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, regardless of whether Washington reenters the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.

“I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and so far, we’ve been successful,” Netanyahu said Thursday.

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