Netanyahu: If cases don’t dip in 2 days, full lockdown will be only option
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'We can revive the economy with artificial respiration'

Netanyahu: If cases don’t dip in 2 days, full lockdown will be only option

PM said to want to reduce economic activity to 10%, warns there could be thousands of seriously ill; finance minister objects, says Israel could be headed to economic catastrophe

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

The empty promenade and beach along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the city of Tel Aviv on March 27, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
The empty promenade and beach along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the city of Tel Aviv on March 27, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Friday that if there is not an improvement in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the next two days, he will have no choice but to order the country into a complete shutdown.

Netanyahu held a series of discussions with top ministers regarding additional steps the country can take to manage the ongoing crisis, “including preparations for a closure,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered preparations to significantly tighten restrictions on transport, to even further minimize those traveling outside in order to prevent the spread of the disease,” his office said.

He said that authorities would bring the additional movement restrictions before the cabinet in 48 hours.

“The prime minister also stated in the discussions that if we do not see a reduction in the numbers of infected in the next two days we will have no choice but to impose a full closure,” the statement said.

Hebrew-language media reported serious disagreements between Netanyahu and other ministers over the need to shut down the economy amid Health Ministry fears that the upcoming Passover holiday will lead to an explosion of infections as people try and shop for the festive meal or spend time with relatives.

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

During the discussions Netanyahu requested the Finance Ministry give him answers by Saturday night on the possibility of reducing economic activity in Israel to just 10%, down from the current 30%, Channel 13 reported, saying that Netanyahu wants to enforce the harsh restrictions in the next three weeks until the end of the Passover holiday.

“From an economic perspective it will be OK. We can revive the economy with artificial respiration. That won’t be the problem,” Chanel 13 quoted Netanyahu as saying in leaked remarks from the meeting.

“The problem will be if we can’t stem the pandemic and we have thousands of seriously ill people in the next few weeks,” Netanyahu said.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who will likely be leaving his post in the next few weeks if a unity government is formed, warned such steps would lead Israel to an “economic catastrophe.”

“I probably won’t be here in the next few weeks so I come from a neutral position,” he said. “You are doing the good, the bad and the ugly here. Everyone wants to save souls and the economy, but I’m telling you we are heading to an economic catastrophe,” the report quoted him as saying.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett also reportedly expressed opposition to a full closure, while Interior Minister Aryeh Deri called for only those over 65 to be put under lockdown. “Don’t let them out of the house, let their children take care of them and in the meantime we can return the economy to life.”

The Ministry of Finance will formulate a plan to further scale-back the workforce, the Prime Minister’s Office added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus outbreak, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Saturday night, Netanyahu will hold a meeting with Finance Ministry officials in order to produce a “comprehensive plan” to provide further “assistance to the economy,” his office said.

However, ministry officials said they were looking to present Netanyahu with alternatives. Israel Radio reported that officials were hoping to only reduce economic activity to 25%.

Netanyahu also directed  authorities to increase enforcement in supermarkets to prevent more than 10 people from congregating inside in violation of Health Ministry guidelines.

Since Wednesday at 5 p.m., Israelis have been ordered to remain in their homes unless they are taking part in a small number of specially designated approved activities, including purchasing food and medicine or a short walk of no more than 100 meters from one’s home. Those found violating those regulations are subject to large fines of upwards of NIS 500 and even imprisonment.

Some 500 soldiers will be deployed across the country beginning Sunday to assist police in enforcing the government’s latest restrictions on movement to stem the coronavirus pandemic, the IDF announced Friday.

This appeared to be a first step toward preparing for a full national lockdown, in which the military would deploy an additional 2,000-3,000 troops to assist police.

The soldiers will come from the military’s various training bases and will assist police by performing patrols, ensuring people remain in quarantine, blocking roads and protecting the officers, according to the military.

View of the empty Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 26, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Four more Israelis died of the coronavirus on Friday, bringing the country’s death toll to 12, as the number of infections nationwide climbed to 3,035. Of them, 49 are in serious condition and 60 are in moderate condition.

The Prime Minister’s Office also released a list of “emergency regulations” that cabinet ministers had approved for employment in a telephone vote on Friday.

These included allowing civil service volunteers to be placed in government offices that are not typically allowed to employ such volunteers, shortening from six months the amount of time one must wait to receive unemployment benefits and providing additional financial services to Israelis above the age of 67 who were forced to stop working because of the outbreak. In addition extensions will be given for Israelis to pay their taxes.

Urgent criminal trial hearings will be allowed to be held over the Zoom conference call service in both Israeli military courts.

The cabinet also approved the release of some 500 inmates to house arrest for a month to reduce the risk of a coronavirus outbreak in jails.

The measure applies only to Israeli residents serving time for criminal activities, and not for security or terror inmates or sex offenders. They have to have been serving less than four-year sentences and due for release in less than 30 days, the Israel Prisons Service clarified.

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