Virus knows no borders, but Israel and Arab world not cooperating to fight it

Jerusalem is not coordinating its emergency response with other Middle East countries; a planned call by Netanyahu with Middle East leaders never took place

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Muslim pilgrims wear masks at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on February 28, 2020.  (Abdel Ghani Bashir/AFP)
Muslim pilgrims wear masks at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on February 28, 2020. (Abdel Ghani Bashir/AFP)

Austria was one of the first European countries to impose draconian measures to fend off the spreading coronavirus, including a semi-lockdown identical to that implemented by the Israeli government.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz credited a recent conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his prompt action. “Hey, you in Europe are underestimating this. Wake up and take action,” he quoted the Israeli leader as telling him.

Kurz wasn’t the only foreign official Netanyahu discussed the pandemic with; two weeks ago, he convened a videoconference with the leaders of six other European countries. He also spoke to US Vice President Mike Pence and the White House coronavirus coordinator, Dr. Deborah L. Birx.

At about the same time, Netanyahu said he would also conduct a conference call “with the leaders of countries in the Middle East.”

But that call never took place.

In fact, despite the virus impacting the entire region, there is no coordination or cooperation between Israel and its neighbors to tackle the challenge together.

PM Netanyahu speaking to European leaders during a videoconference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, March 9, 2020 (Koby Gideon/GPO)

Before the epidemic broke out, Netanyahu did not make any effort to hide his disdain for Europe, but spoke enthusiastically about the deepening relationship between Israel and the Arab world. Having common foes in Shiite Iran and in Sunni fundamentalism, and common interests in Israeli innovation and technology, virtually all Arab states were eager to work together with Israel, he said time and again.

But for some reason, the current crisis has not proven to be fertile ground for strengthening these ties.

In fact, Jerusalem has not joined forces with any of the states in the region in the fight against the pandemic, not even with the two countries with which it has formal diplomatic ties — Egypt and Jordan — a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said Sunday.

There is some cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, the spokesperson said, adding that he did not want to elaborate in order not to endanger the partnership, which is not appreciated by all Palestinians.

On Sunday, health authorities in Gaza announced the first two carriers of the coronavirus in the coastal enclave. Some 60 cases are known in the West Bank, prompting the Palestinian Authority on Sunday to declare dramatic limitations to people’s freedom of movement, including a 10 p.m. curfew.

A Muslim man wearing a mask as a preventive measure against the coronavirus gives a speech during Friday prayer at the town of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 20, 2020. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

“We and the Israelis are now in a joint operations room to deal with the contagion and to prevent its spread. We and they are in danger,” PA Government Spokesman Ibrahim Milhem said at a Sunday press conference in Ramallah.

“Moreover, we are coordinating with them on a high level. There are areas where we control or don’t control. We are coordinating at a high level with the Israelis to keep the contagion away from us, them and the entire world.”

Spokespeople for the Prime Minister’s Office and the Regional Cooperation Ministries did not respond to Times of Israel queries.

Is Israel better off than other countries in the region?

Netanyahu has taken much credit for early measures he implemented to stem the spread of the coronavirus, such as closing the country’s gates to visitors from China, advising against all non-essential travel abroad, requiring returnees to self-quarantine and eventually asking everyone to not leave their homes unless they really have to.

Compared to some countries in the Far East and Europe, Israel is indeed in relatively good shape: as of Sunday evening, there were just over 1,000 known cases of people who had contracted the virus. One person has died, and a 91-year-old woman is currently hospitalized in critical condition.

So far, one case of the coronavirus has been announced in Syria.

Israel’s other neighbors have fewer people listed as having contracted the virus — 294 in Egypt, 99 in Jordan and 230 in Lebanon — but some have a higher toll of fatalities. Four people have died from the disease in Lebanon, and 10 in Egypt. No Jordanians have succumbed to the virus yet.

In the wider Middle East, the situation is somewhat similar. Iraq has 214 cases (17 deaths); Saudi Arabia 392 (no deaths); Oman 52 (no deaths), Bahrain 310 (1 dead); Qatar 481 (no deaths), and the United Arab Emirates 153 (2 deaths).

No cases of COVID-19 have been announced in Yemen.

Iranians, some wearing protective masks, gather inside the capital Tehran’s grand bazaar, during the coronavirus pandemic crisis, on March 18, 2020 (AFP)

Iran is the country with the sixth-highest number of known carriers of the coronavirus (21,638), with 1,685 fatalities.

On Sunday, Iran’s supreme leader rejected offers of US assistance to fight the pandemic in his country, citing an unfounded conspiracy theory that the virus could be man-made by America.

“Possibly your (offered) medicine is a way to spread the virus more,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said. “Or if you send therapists and doctors, maybe he wants to see the effect of the poison, since it is said that part of the virus is built for Iran.”

Iran is suffering from crushing US sanctions blocking the country from selling its crude oil and accessing international financial markets. Senior officials in Tehran have recently started to urge the international community to ignore those sanctions, saying the financial hardship makes it harder for the Islamic Republic to care for its sick.

Adam Rasgon and agencies contributed to this report.

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