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Opposition leaders fume at ‘insane’ virus lockdown

Cabinet ministers trying to cover for their failed management of crisis, charges Bennett; ‘What’s the plan’ to prevent a third lockdown, demands Lapid

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett during a visit in downtown Jerusalem on August 5, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett during a visit in downtown Jerusalem on August 5, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The heads of several opposition parties lashed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government for what they described as the policy failures that led to the harsh new lockdown restrictions set to go into effect on Friday.

The full cabinet voted early Thursday to dramatically tighten the lockdown amid fears that the infection rate was spiraling out of control. The new restrictions come a week after the current lockdown began and as new daily confirmed infections neared 7,000 on Wednesday for the second day in a row.

“The cabinet ministers and the prime minister tell us ‘the second wave is hitting all over the world.’ But that’s factually not true. They’re trying to shirk their responsibility for failing to manage [the crisis],” said Yamina leader Naftali Bennett shortly after the cabinet’s decision to add dramatic new restrictions.

“They’re trying to convince us this is just how it is, that it’s a decree from heaven. But Israel is unquestionably the world leader in morbidity per capita, and that’s not a function of the coronavirus itself but of the government’s management failure,” charged Bennett, whose Yamina party’s recent surge in polls has been driven partly by disillusion on the right with the government’s handling of the pandemic.

A Wednesday survey published by Channel 12 indicated that if elections were held now, Netanyahu’s Likud would win 29 seats, seven fewer than it currently holds and 11 fewer than it got in polls in June. Yamina, meanwhile, would get 21 seats, up 16 from the party’s current showing of just five seats in the Knesset.

Police set up a temporary roadblock on Menachem Begin Street in Tel Aviv, on September 23, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Bennett cited Taiwan, Vietnam, Estonia, Norway, Greece, South Korea, Australia and Ireland as countries that had imposed better policies and seen their infection rates reduced without having to resort to new closures on the scale of Israel’s.

“These are democratic nations that established a system for disrupting infection chains, that conduct coronavirus checks for incoming travelers, that are good at quarantining, that question [carriers] about their contacts, that communicate well with the public and build trust,” he said.

None of those things are happening in Israel, Bennett charged.

Opposition leader MK Yair Lapid concurred.

“To all the cabinet ministers — you’re partners in Netanyahu’s failure,” he said.

“To all the cabinet ministers, and mainly to our friends in Blue and White, you must ask yourselves this morning what you’re doing in a government that abandons the public like this. What are you doing in a government whose prime minister is wholly consumed by petty politics? I believe you that you didn’t think this was how it would be. But now you know.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid-Telem at his office in the Knesset, Jerusalem, on September 14, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Added Lapid: “The government just voted for a second lockdown. Now it should explain how we avoid a third. What’s the plan?”

Yisrael Beytenu chief MK Avigdor Liberman lashed the government’s “lack of leadership and policy.”

“This insane decision of a complete lockdown, which goes against the views of the experts, is the result of the criminal conduct of this government in recent months, which because of a lack of leadership and policy has brought us to this bad place. It’s time to move on from the ‘Bibisteria’ of despair to solutions that give hope,” he said, using a portmanteau combining Netanyahu’s nickname “Bibi” and the word “hysteria.”

Under the new guidelines, beginning Friday at 2 p.m., nearly all businesses will be closed, with the exception of specific companies and factories specifically designated as “vital” by the Defense Ministry’s National Emergency Authority. The cabinet exempted supermarkets and pharmacies from the closure, but little else.

Yom Kippur prayers that begin Sunday will take place almost entirely outdoors, with groups of up to 10 worshipers permitted to pray inside synagogues. The shutdown will also cover the entirety of the Sukkot holiday.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews during morning prayer in a synagogue during a nationwide three-week lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, Sept 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The holiday season is part of the reason the government is imposing the lockdown now, Netanyahu said Wednesday. Since most Israelis in any case don’t work during the holidays, the economic damage of the shutdown would be reduced as fewer workdays will be lost.

“We’re going to a shutdown anyway because of the morbidity rate,” Netanyahu said in a video released Wednesday evening. “So it’s better to do it in now, during the holidays, at a low economic cost, and not after the holidays when the economic cost will be higher.”

Nearly all public transportation will be closed, as will the last educational institutions still open — mainly special education programs and private preschools.

Israelis still won’t be allowed to travel more than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes. Police will be deployed on highways and at the entrances to cities and towns to ensure residents don’t attempt to travel during the lockdown.

The lockdown has seen criticism from within the government as well. On Thursday morning, Finance Minister Israel Katz lambasted the shuttering of nearly all economic activity for two weeks, a decision that contradicted the recommendations of the Finance Ministry last week. Katz was one of the very few ministers who voted against the shutdown in the cabinet.

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“It’s possible to take steps to rein in the disease without critically wounding the factories and businesses of the private sector, the ones that aren’t open to the public and are careful to obey Health Ministry guidelines,” he said after the cabinet vote. “Israel’s economic resilience is part of its national resilience; it must be protected too.”

Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron also protested the final decision as causing too much damage to the economy, as did the government coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, who reportedly told ministers he had recommended a 50 percent reduction in economic activity, not the comprehensive lockdown eventually voted on by ministers.

Some senior members of the government accused Netanyahu of seeking a full economic shutdown as a means of ending the protests against him, after Blue and White had said it would only support ending protests if the situation required that all other public activities cease as well.

The decision “can’t contradict the recommendations of the professional because of political considerations,” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, of Blue and White, protested on Wednesday evening. “A full lockdown is our last option, it’s not meant to ‘solve’ the protests.”

The Black Flag protest group that has organized some of the anti-government protests released a statement saying it would acquiesce to the new restrictions, but blaming Netanyahu for the “never-ending failures” that led to the new shutdown.

“This is a difficult hour for the people of Israel. The country is diving into an abyss because of Netanyahu’s never-ending failures,” the group said. “He alone is responsible for the greatest failure in the country’s history.”

Protesters demonstrate against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, on September 12, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Officials defended the closure by explaining that previous measures failed to contain the virus’s spread, in part because of low levels of adherence to government rules.

The IDF’s Homefront Command, which is building the national contact-tracing and epidemiological investigation system expected to be deployed in a few weeks to help stem infections without repeated shutdowns, said Wednesday that it estimates that as many as 41% of Israelis required under the existing rules to self-quarantine have failed to do so.

Similarly, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas defended the decision in the face of Haredi criticism over the curtailing of synagogue gatherings, explaining that “many sick people who didn’t know they were sick came to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah [last weekend], and infected many of those who are now sick.”

Speaking to the Haredi radio station Radio Kol Hai, Deri said the cabinet had seen “very difficult figures and heard the most frightening predictions from top doctors.”

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