Netanyahu said to threaten elections as ministers bicker at COVID-19 session

Netanyahu said to threaten elections as ministers bicker at COVID-19 session

PM reportedly livid as Gantz tells media in mid-meeting of need for greater role for Defense Ministry in addressing pandemic; Opposition leader: Government run like ‘kindergarten’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

A cabinet meeting Thursday to discuss new coronavirus restrictions became heated and contentious, and ended early, as ministers bickered over the correct course of action. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angrily rebuked Blue and White and threatened a new election, Hebrew-language media reported, apparently over the latter’s push to gain more responsibility over the health crisis.

The meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet, a ministerial panel that oversees the country’s pandemic response, revealed many disagreements between the ministers about the restrictions amid swiftly rising infections, as the Health Ministry pushed for dramatic steps that were opposed by others out of fear for the economic fallout.

According to transcripts reported by Channel 12 news, Netanyahu was frustrated at objections voiced by Blue and White ministers. When the party’s Tourism Minister Assaf Zamir, a former deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, complained of insufficient enforcement of mask-wearing and other guidelines, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana (Likud) responded: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. The facts are different.”

The premier then snapped at Zamir: “This is not the Tel Aviv Municipality, this is a government discussion.”

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) was also critical of the decision-making process, saying it made no sense to limit events while keeping beaches open. “How can you explain to people that you can’t get married, but other people can go to the beach?” he asked.

But Netanyahu was apparently particularly angered by a steady stream of comments by Benny Gantz’s wing of the coalition insisting his Defense Ministry should shoulder greater responsibility over the response to the pandemic.

Science and Technology Minister Yizhar Shai (Blue and White) said “If the defense establishment is responsible, there will be 25,000 tests a day and we’ll get test results in 12 hours.”

And Economy Minister Amir Peretz (Labor) said: “The Health Ministry [should] give directives and set parameters…and the Defense Ministry will carry it out.”

Gantz himself said “the operation should move to the [army’s] Home Front Command [at] the Defense Ministry.” And during the meeting his office released a statement saying he was pushing for the military to be given the lion’s share of responsibility for any operational aspects of dealing with the outbreak.

“The Home Front Command is a system that was created to act in situations just like the one we are in,” he told other ministers, according to the statement. “We demand moving to a model in which decisions are made by the cabinet, the Health Ministry sets regulations and the Defense Ministry is the operational actor.”

According to Channel 12 and Kan news, at a certain point Netanyahu, apparently having been told of Gantz’s statement to the press, banged on the table angrily.

“I’ve been given updates about reports that came out of here to the media,” he said. “If you keep on playing politics it will lead only to one place,” he said, apparently alluding to a possible breakup of the government and new elections. He then left the room.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (Likud) reportedly said that while he appreciated the IDF, Gantz’s statement “isn’t helping the nation — it’s called playing politics at the expense of Israel’s citizens.”

Gantz’s predecessor Naftali Bennett had also lobbied for the Defense Ministry to be given more responsibility over the pandemic, to little avail. On Thursday, Bennett, now in the opposition, set up an alternative “civilian coronavirus cabinet,” made up of non-government officials.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Opposition chief Yair Lapid used the disagreements to mock the government, which was formed when Gantz, a former ally of Lapid, decided to join a unity government under Netanyahu despite pledging to replace him over three election campaigns.

“What was created in a crooked way will remain crooked,” Lapid tweeted. “This is what happens when there are 36 ministers and nobody understands who is responsible for what.

“The disconnected [ministers] cannot manage the coronavirus crisis,” he added. “The economy is in free-fall and the health figures are worrying.”

Bennett himself also responded, accusing the government ministers of behaving like in a “kindergarten.”

“The failure to form an emergency task force against the coronavirus has caused mass unemployment,” he said in a statement, calling for 2,500 volunteer students to be recruited and for the number of daily coronavirus tests to be expanded to 100,000 along with “effective quarantine to stop the chains of infections without lockdowns.”

At a press conference later on Thursday evening, Netanyahu announced renewed restrictions on public gatherings as coronavirus cases continued their swift rise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

The new limitations approved by the cabinet included a limit of up to 20 people in most closed spaces, including inside homes, and up to 50 people at synagogues, event halls, bars and clubs. A decision on restaurants was put off for several days amid disagreements between the health and finance ministries.

The Health Ministry on Thursday morning recorded 905 new coronavirus infections in 24 hours and two more deaths since Wednesday evening, bringing the national toll from the pandemic to 324. The ministry said Thursday there have been 26,452 cases since the start of the pandemic, of which 8,647 were active; 17,481 people have recovered. That marked an increase of over 6,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases since June 1.

Israel on Wednesday hit its highest-yet number of daily infections, with 1,013. Though it has limited gatherings, closed off highly infected areas, and reinstated the controversial Shin Bet security service surveillance of carriers, the government has previously refrained from reimposing a nationwide lockdown to stem the outbreak due to the economic damage such a step would cause.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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