Netanyahu, Mossad chief, top finance officials test negative for virus
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Netanyahu, Mossad chief, top finance officials test negative for virus

Many top Israeli officials are in quarantine after Health Minister Litzman was diagnosed with coronavirus; PM to remain in isolation, working from residence

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Ministers office in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Ministers office in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been tested and found not to have the coronavirus, his office announced late Thursday after he was again forced to enter quarantine after Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was confirmed to have contracted COVID-19.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and ministry Director General Shai Babad also tested negative for the virus, the ministry said. Channel 12 reported that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen had also been tested and found negative.

Despite the results, Netanyahu will continue work from his Jerusalem residence until Wednesday in accordance with Health Ministry instructions and the advice of his personal physician, Dr. Tzvi Berkowitz.

Litzman’s diagnoses sent a whole raft of top Israeli officials into a precautionary quarantine.

Health Ministry head Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, who has become the face of Israel’s management of the crisis with near daily briefings and media appearances, announced on Thursday morning that he would self-quarantine, due to the contact he had with Litzman in recent days.

Sigal Sadetzki, head of public health at the Health Ministry, will also enter a two-week period of home isolation, since she recently met with Litzman.

Cohen, whose spy agency has been instrumental in obtaining medical equipment for Israel, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who has been coordinating the government’s response to the pandemic, have also be sent into isolation. IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi is already working from quarantine, due to exposure to an infected officer, but has tested negative for the virus.

From left: Prof. Sigal Sadetsky, head of the Public Health Services in the Ministry of Health, Ministry CEO Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman outside the Central Laboratory of the Health Ministry at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, February 4, 2020. (Flash90)

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 number of COVID-19 deaths in Israel rose Thursday to 36, and the number of people diagnosed with the coronavirus increased to 6,857.

Last week, Litzman attended a Knesset session, and staff at the parliament are said to be checking the footage of security cameras to see who came in direct contact with the minister. It is expected that several lawmakers, and possibly some ministers as well, will have to self-quarantine.

Netanyahu had just emerged from self-quarantine on Wednesday evening, 14 days after he last met with one of his advisers, who also contracted the virus. He, his family and several close advisers were tested on Monday and were found to not be carriers.

Both Litzman and Bar Siman-Tov will continue to manage the country’s fight against the disease while in isolation, according to the Health Ministry.

“Bar Siman-Tov will remain in quarantine in a specialized facility that includes a work space and the relevant communication equipment,” the ministry said in a statement issued Thursday morning.

“We planned for a possibility like this and prepared accordingly,” the ministry’s director-general said. “I will continue to manage this event together with my managerial colleagues with digital tools.

“Needing to go into quarantine can happen to anyone, and we must abide by the orders. I continue to call for citizens of Israel to abide by the Health Ministry’s directives,” Bar Siman-Tov added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Litzman, 71, and his wife Chava were both found to have contracted the disease, which is especially dangerous to people above the age of 65.

Litzman, the head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, has played a prominent role in handling the pandemic crisis alongside Netanyahu, attending key meetings with him, though the prime minister has been careful to maintain social distancing regulations.

Litzman has been frequently criticized for his handling of the virus outbreak in Israel.

Some have alleged he put the interests of the ultra-Orthodox community ahead of the general public in his handling of the fight against the pandemic. He reportedly pushed to delay stringent restrictions on public gatherings that would have affected observance of the Purim festival last month, and fought bitterly against last week’s closing of synagogues.

TV reports Thursday, quoted witnesses saying that Litzman had flouted his own ministry orders and attended public prayers services. The minister denied this.

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