There is no reason to delay the coming national elections due to concerns over an outbreak of the deadly coronavirus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday.
Israelis head to the polls next week as health authorities strive to prevent the virus from spreading among the local population. So far, there have only been two confirmed cases in the country — both of whom were already in quarantine when diagnosed. However, over the weekend South Korea informed Israel that several members of a group of pilgrims who returned from a recent visit to the country were found to have the disease.
“The coronavirus is a great challenge,” Netanyahu told Radio Jerusalem. “Right from the start I instructed over-preparation that is more rigorous than any country in the world. At the moment I don’t see any reason to delay the elections.”
At the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said the police and the Shin Bet security agency must be prepared to deal with possible attempts to influence the March 2 elections through false news about the threat of the coronavirus, which could repel voters from visiting polling stations.
Neither Netanyahu nor Erdan identified any potential culprits. US officials said Saturday that there was a Russia-linked social media campaign to spread panic about the virus.
Israel has responded severely to the threat posed by the disease, banning the entry of any foreigners who have been to China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand Singapore, South Korea and Japan in the past 14 days. In addition, the Tel Aviv municipality said that in accordance with instructions from the Health Ministry it would not allow athletes from abroad to participate in the city’s marathon on Friday over fears of a coronavirus outbreak at the event.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman further announced Monday that he is considering implementing a quarantine on travelers returning from Italy and Australia amid outbreaks of coronavirus in both those countries.
It was unclear whether that would translate into a ban on non-Israeli nationals and residents from those countries.
El Al has said that although it has had to suspend multiple lines to the the Far East, it still plans to inaugurate its new Tokyo route next month, according to a statement on the airline’s website.
However, according to the Globes daily, it still may scotch the planned opening of the route.
On Saturday authorities instructed some 200 Israeli students and teachers to self-quarantine due to their contact with the group of South Korean pilgrims who were found to have contracted the disease after returning home. It is not clear whether the Korean tourists were already infected while in Israel.
The Foreign Ministry is reportedly concerned about diplomatic fallout from the measures Israel has taken to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Kan public broadcaster, as well as Channel 12, last week quoted unnamed officials as fearing “revenge” steps by East Asian countries, given the extreme measures — more than those announced by any other country — that Israel has taken.
The Foreign Ministry officials are said to fear that those countries would now issue more frequent travel warnings to Israel after terror attacks or lower the level of economic cooperation, and even that Hong Kong’s national airline, Cathay Pacific, would suspend all its flights to the Jewish state.
The only two confirmed case of coronavirus in Israel are passengers who were quarantined on a cruise ship in Japan before being flown home, after a test showed them both to be clear of the pathogen. All 11 Israelis who returned to Israel from the Diamond Princess, where hundreds fell ill from the virus, are currently under quarantine.
Another four Israelis are being treated in Japan, where they were diagnosed as having the virus while still on the ship. They are said to be doing well.
The coronavirus, known officially as COVID-19, began in China in December.
The number of fatalities in China has continued to soar, with 150 more confirmed deaths taking the official death toll to nearly 2,600 Monday.