Often spurned by cabinet that hired him, ex-virus czar lashes COVID leadership

Channel 12’s ‘Uvda’ followed Ronni Gamzu as he fought to build coherent national virus policy. He now says Israel’s politicians are ‘cowards’ who often chose optics over substance

Prof. Ronni Gamzu speaks during an interview with the Associated Press at his office near the central Israeli city of Lod, September 24, 2020 (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Prof. Ronni Gamzu speaks during an interview with the Associated Press at his office near the central Israeli city of Lod, September 24, 2020 (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Former coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, who became the public face of the government’s efforts to beat back the pandemic over the summer and fall, has lambasted the conduct of the country’s political leadership during the crisis, characterizing Israel’s political leadership as “cowards” who were far more concerned with optics than substance.

An episode of Channel 12 investigative program “Uvda” that aired Thursday followed Gamzu during his time in the post and interviewed him after he stepped down. It painted a picture of a man who went into the job with earnest zeal, but who quickly became disillusioned, and deeply frustrated, by the political machinations and narrow interests that appeared to dictate every government decision.

Then Health Ministry director general Manager Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Ministers office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Gamzu was appointed by Netanyahu in July, amid intense public criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis, and in particular its indecision, seemingly capricious directives and a sense that too many cooks were trying to run the show. To a degree, Gamzu replaced the man who had previously served as the face of the national response during the first tumultuous few months of the pandemic — former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, who himself often clashed with government members over the appropriate steps to be taken.

Gamzu was championed as the professional overseer who would bring order to the chaos and navigate the waters of Israel’s pandemic response with a steady hand.

Alas, it was not to be.

The program documented the many obstacles Gamzu — a veteran doctor, former Health Ministry director-general and current manager of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital — faced while spearheading the national response to COVID-19, as well as his conflicts with various politicians who repeatedly pushed back against professional positions and plans.

Then-coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu speaks during a Health Ministry briefing on September 3, 2020. (Screen capture/Health Ministry livestream)

Gamzu took the post at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request, with the promise that he would have full authority over much of the nation’s response to the crisis. However, he quickly found out that few of his recommendations were being accepted.

Almost immediately after he entered the position, anonymous ministers began assailing him and his plans in the media. A harried Gamzu was at one point seen telling an aide to relay to the prime minister: “Tell them to stop briefing [reporters] against me.”

One official Gamzu particularly sparred with was Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who continuously pushed to completely open the education system amid rising infections.

When Gallant publicly announced that the cabinet had agreed schools would open on September 1, despite there being no such agreement, Gamzu was caught on Uvda’s camera angrily telling someone on the phone: “It’s bullying… It will crap on all of my efforts.

Education Minister Yoav Gallant holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, August 6, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“Gallant’s lying… There’s no such decision! He put that out to make himself a hero,” he said. “Such foolishness. What [is he] playing at? It’s ego before brains.”

A particular point of conflict was Gamzu’s so-called traffic light program, which would have isolated high-infection localities while allowing others to carry on. The plan was rejected by the government in September, reportedly due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers whose constituents would have been chiefly affected by such closures. Many of the areas on the draft roster of “red” cities were majority ultra-Orthodox, and local leaders and others had threatened to disregard the new guidelines and pull their political support from Netanyahu if the traffic light plan was widely implemented.

“They branded me the big enemy. There was pressure from every direction,” Gamzu said of the battle over the matter. Throughout his tenure, Gamzu repeatedly clashed with the ultra-Orthodox, who called for his ouster due to his policies.

Israel eventually was forced to enter a nationwide lockdown in mid-September, as rising infections stopped being focused largely in Haredi and Arab towns and spread throughout the population.

Gamzu said he at one point began drafting a resignation letter, before changing his mind. “It would have been running away, and I can’t stand running away,” he told Uvda.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gamzu also said he felt unease when Netanyahu sought ahead of the September lockdown to impose restrictions on protesters against himself and his government. A report by Channel 13 News at the time claimed Gamzu had privately decried the decision and expressed disgust at Netanyahu’s conduct.

“I felt uncomfortable with it,” Gamzu admitted to Uvda. “That it was being managed by the person whom the protests were against.” He added that he thought Netanyhau made a “bad statement,” that he wished the premier had not made, when he referred to the protesters as “virus-spreaders.”

Gamzu eventually decided to leave the post at the height of the second lockdown, amid reported ongoing clashes with Netanyahu, and eventually departed in early November. He told Uvda that between two and five people were asked to replace him at the end of his tenure, and that he ended up finding out he would be succeeded by Nachman Ash via the media, without anyone notifying him ahead of the announcement.

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