Not ruling out COVID lockdown, PM warns: ‘Storm of contagion’ moments away

In radio interviews from quarantine, Bennett also says Israel will not automatically reject a nuclear deal reached with Iran in Vienna

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting in Kibbutz Mevo Hama on December 26, 2021. (Gil Eliyahu/POOL/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting in Kibbutz Mevo Hama on December 26, 2021. (Gil Eliyahu/POOL/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday morning that Israel is just moments away from a “storm of contagion” of COVID-19 on a never-before-seen scale.

In a wide-ranging interview to the Kan public broadcaster from quarantine, Bennett discussed COVID, Iran and a variety of other topics, including opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. In a separate interview with Army Radio, Bennett said that Israel would not automatically oppose any deal forged with Iran during the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna.

On COVID, the prime minister told Kan: “We are a moment before a storm of contagion — at a rate that we haven’t seen in Israel… Omicron is different from everything else we have seen. It’s more contagious, we’re seeing that it is breaking records around the world, in almost every place.”

Bennett suggested that the government was likely to soon approve measures that would allow anyone who is fully vaccinated to skip quarantine even if they were exposed to the Omicron variant of COVID. The prime minister is currently in quarantine since his daughter tested positive for COVID on Sunday, and is suspected to be carrying Omicron.

The prime minister said he “does not believe” in the idea of Israel imposing sanctions on the unvaccinated. He added that he was working to avoid a future lockdown, but declined to fully rule it out.

“My goal from the start of the pandemic is to avoid lockdowns as much as possible,” he said, noting the heavy criticism lodged against him for not instituting a lockdown during the Delta wave in September and October, when there were more than 10,000 new cases a day.

Health care workers take test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with COVID-19, in Modi’in, on December 26, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/ Flash90)

“Here, I don’t know what the day will bring,” he added. “We will in any case be in a very challenging situation when it comes to the capacity of the hospitals… We will do what is right. I don’t want to come out and make a statement, because it’s complicated.”

Later on Tuesday morning, the Health Ministry reported close to 3,000 new COVID cases confirmed a day earlier, the highest rate seen since late September. The R reproduction rate reached 1.47 — a number last reached at the start of the Delta wave in June — although serious cases continued to remain low and relatively stable.

Turning to Iran, Bennett said Israel is “without a doubt not a party to the deal in Vienna if it will happen.” He said a recent report that the Biden administration was not taking his calls was “fake news,” but said there were still disagreements between the two countries.

“We don’t always agree with the policies of the United States and sometimes there is disagreement,” he said.

In comments to Army Radio, Bennett said Israel would not necessarily reject out of hand a deal that emerges from the Vienna talks.

“We are not automatic naysayers, we’re taking a practical approach,” said Bennett. “Unlike others, we’re not looking to fight for the sake of fighting; rather we’re trying to bring a result.”

“At the end of the day, of course there could be a good deal, we know the parameters,” he added. “But is that currently expected to happen in this dynamic? No, because you need a much stronger position [from world leaders]. Iran is holding very weak cards, but the world is acting as if it’s negotiating from a position of strength.”

Palais Coburg, where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, on December 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Gruber, File)

In response to recent public comments by IDF officials that Israel was ready to strike Iran at any moment, Bennett repeated: “I’m in favor of speaking a little and doing a lot.”

Bennett also reiterated to Kan that Israel remains opposed to the reopening of a US consulate in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians.

“I have made it very clear, but not in a confrontational way, that Israel has a capital, it’s called Jerusalem, and it’s only the capital of the State of Israel, not of any other nation,” said Bennett. “Therefore, there is no room for a Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem.”

In his comments to both radio stations, Bennett criticized Netanyahu for forcing him to appear in the Knesset on Monday evening for a hearing despite his quarantine.

“I came to the Knesset because Netanyahu dragged me there,” said Bennett, “despite knowing that I had been in contact with an Omicron case, despite knowing that this could infect other Knesset employees and other members of Knesset.”

The prime minister also criticized his predecessor for recent English-language videos attacking the current government.

“I expect that he won’t circulate videos in English that appeal to the world or appear in the foreign media, and compare Israel to Iran to North Korea,” said Bennett. “But when he does what he does, I can say what we’re doing. We took a country that was stuck in a dizzying paralysis between a fourth, fifth, sixth election, without a budget, and we put Israel on a very good path forward.”

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