Netanyahu tests negative for virus, but will remain in quarantine

Prime minister to remain in isolation until told otherwise by Health Ministry, after aide comes down with COVID-19; tests of his close aides and family also come back clean

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

A billboard shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Avigdor Liberman, center, and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, wearing masks in the Israeli city of Ramat Gan on March 29, 2020. The text urges them to take off the masks, because "the people want unity." (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
A billboard shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Avigdor Liberman, center, and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, wearing masks in the Israeli city of Ramat Gan on March 29, 2020. The text urges them to take off the masks, because "the people want unity." (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tested negative for the novel coronavirus Monday after an adviser and her husband came down with the disease a day earlier, but the premier said he would remain in quarantine as a cautionary measure.

Netanyahu’s family and other close advisers also tested negative for the virus, the prime minister’s spokesperson said Monday evening, hours after the premier entered self-quarantine as a precaution, until Health Ministry officials finished their epidemiological investigation into whether he had contracted COVID-19 from an aide found to be a carrier.

Netanyahu will remain in isolation at his official residence in Jerusalem until being instructed otherwise by the Health Ministry, the spokeswoman added.

The premier entered quarantine earlier in the day as a precaution, even though his office initially said he was not in close contact with ultra-Orthodox affairs adviser Rivka Paluch in the last two weeks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a televised statement at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 30, 2020. (Screen capture/ YouTube)

In an address to the nation from self-quarantine shortly before receiving his tests results, Netanyahu said he was voluntarily isolating as a “personal example” to Israelis. “The cameraman is six meters away, and I did my own make-up and hair, which is why it looks like this,” he said.

In an earlier statement announcing the prime minister’s decision to quarantine, his office said, “in accordance with the [epidemiological] findings, the Health Ministry and the personal physician of the prime minister will set a day to end the isolation.”

Rivka Paluch, left, walks alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on March 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, Hebrew-language media reports said Netanyahu had in fact met with Paluch.

Channel 12 news reported that Netanyahu was expected to self-quarantine for a week after meeting with Paluch on Thursday. Paluch tested positive on Sunday, hours after her husband was hospitalized with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

For Netanyahu, the prospect of following Health Ministry guidelines requiring all those suspected of exposure the virus to self-quarantine for 14 days would come as he is in the midst of marathon negotiations to form a unity government with Blue and White leader MK Benny Gantz, in the wake of elections at the beginning of the month. Netanyahu has also been holding intense talks with health officials and his ministers on how to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)

Under Health Ministry orders, tens of thousands of Israelis are in self-quarantine due to possible exposure to the virus and the entire country is in an almost total lockdown that has seen most of the population confined to their homes, only allowed out for essential needs.

The Knesset Guard has examined security camera footage from the parliament building to determine whom Paluch was in contact with at the Israeli parliament on March 16, 23 and 26. Letters were sent to lawmakers and staff telling them they must immediately entire isolation if they were in contact with the aide, Ynet reported.

No further details were given on the identities of those who may be required to enter quarantine. Paluch reportedly met with several lawmakers on Thursday amid frenzied negotiations as the Knesset voted Gantz in as its new speaker, signaling a unity government deal was being hammered out.

Netanyahu was previously tested for the virus two weeks ago and found to not be infected.

Paluch told Hebrew media Monday that she was feeling “good” and experiencing no symptoms. Her husband was also said to be in good condition.

Most people who contract COVID-19 have mild or moderate symptoms, which can include fever and cough, but also milder cases of pneumonia, sometimes requiring hospitalization. The risk of death is greater for older adults and people with other health problems. Netanyahu, 70, would be considered a high-risk patient. Paluch is 64.

There have been 4,695 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, the Health Ministry said Monday evening, including 79 people in serious condition and 66 on ventilators. Sixteen Israelis have died of the disease.

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