No more falafel stands?! In transcript, ministers plead for virus exemptions

Late night discussions over lockdown rules see pet priorities come to the fore, with sniping about where to jog, synagogue closures, and how the Steinitz family does its shopping

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) holds the weekly cabinet meeting via videoconference call from the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem due to coronavirus regulations, March 15, 2020. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) holds the weekly cabinet meeting via videoconference call from the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem due to coronavirus regulations, March 15, 2020. (Haim Zach/GPO)

One minister lobbied for felafel vendors to be spared. Another wanted to be sure that it wouldn’t only be synagogues shuttered, but mosques too.

As the cabinet met through the night and into the early hours of Wednesday morning to finalize a raft of new restrictions on the public amid attempts to gain control over the coronavirus pandemic, many sparred over what exactly construes a vital necessity.

A transcript of the deliberations, leaked to Channel 12 TV, showed how they lobbied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to spare their favorite causes — some predictable, others less so, from the restrictions.

For Diaspora Affairs Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who is currently in quarantine, it was felafel stands.

Tzipi Hotovely (Shmulik Almany/MFA)

“There are no lines or anything,” she claimed, trying to persuade her colleagues to exempt the stands from the general restaurant closures (now tightened to outlaw takeouts though not deliveries).

Both Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, responded curtly, saying “the people can do without felafel.”

Netanyahu shut her down. “Tzipi, the answer is no. Let five (felafel) stands join together for deliveries. The restaurants know that if they want to continue to survive, they have to organize deliveries,” Netanyahu said.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri arrives at the Knesset for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deri, meanwhile, wanted to limit grocery shopping trips.

“People are going to the store 10 times a day; they have turned it into a ritual. I’m in quarantine, but I see them from my window, they are congregating,” he said.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz agreed, calling for people to be limited “two concentrated shopping trips a week.”

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel was having none of that. “Maybe  in the Steinitz family it will work with two concentrated shopping trips,” she sniped. “Most families can’t do that; they are shopping for (the Passover) holiday and are stocking up slowly,” she said.

Sport and Culture Minister Miri Regev railed against restrictions on people only being allowed 100 meters from their homes, calling for permitting the public out to play sport and jog.

Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

“We have to allow people to continue to exercise. It’s important for the immune system. The young people are all at home because of the situation; eating, smoking and drinking alcohol. We have to let them do sport,” she said.

But Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar-Siman Tov said people were taking advantage of the situation. “It sends a confused message to the public. We have seen that under the guise of exercise, people are at the beach, playing Padel ball (matkot).”

Israelis visit the beach in Tel Aviv despite government orders to avoid public gatherings due to the spread of the new coronavirus, March 21, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Gamliel, however, warned the 100-meter rule would have the opposite effect, and cause apartment dwellers to congregate together outside the buildings.

Netanyahu at this point got nostalgic for his days in the elite Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, noting they used to exercise in urban areas. Today, too, Israelis can do like the elite troops do: “They can run around the house,” he said.

Deri, meanwhile was upset that so much time was being devoted to exercise, when synagogues had been summarily shut. “You banned praying with a quorum at synagogues, but you insist on jogging?” he asked.

To which Erdan countered: “Up to 10 people praying outside is allowed, so why not sport?”

“Look how long you’re spending discussing sport, yet you closed the synagogues with a wave of your hand,” Deri complained.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman joined his fellow ultra-Orthodox colleague to campaign to allow synagogues to stay open.

Jewish men pray outside a synagogue at the Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“As long as you have less than 10 people and keep more than 2 meters apart, I don’t see a need to change the instructions,” Litzman said.

But Netanyahu was adamant.

“There is a need. There is no choice. Synagogues have been the largest sources of infection, together with clubs and shops. It’s a huge source of infection,” he said. “There is no choice. If you need someone to take responsibility, I will take responsibility.”

Regev wanted to be sure: “Is the limit the same for mosques?”

“Yes,” Netanyahu reassured her.

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