Things will get worse before they get worse: 7 things to know for March 23
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Israel media review

Things will get worse before they get worse: 7 things to know for March 23

Coronavirus cases are going up, the lockdown hammer is coming down, money is lost but tech dreamers are found, and questions are being raised but dissent is getting stomped on

This March 19, 2020 photo, shows a playground toy at Tel Aviv's beachfront wrapped in tape to prevent use. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
This March 19, 2020 photo, shows a playground toy at Tel Aviv's beachfront wrapped in tape to prevent use. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

1. Here comes the lockdown: The inexorable march to full lockdown appears to be continuing on its merry way, with reports Monday morning indicating new steps on the way as the number of COVID-19 cases rockets above 1,200.

  • Police minister Gilad Erdan tells Kan radio that Israelis should brace for the country transforming into even more of a dystopian police state. “We will proceed with steps toward a cordon. Hundreds of thousands will be told not to go to work, Israel will be divided in quadrants and the police, along with army battalions, will check anyone found outside.”
  • Erdan tells the outlet that he has been pushing for a much stricter lockdown for weeks.
  • Israel Hayom reports, without citing a source, that “it seems police have already requested significant backup from the IDF ahead of a general lockdown. The police are asking the IDF for a large number of troops to carry out the enforcement, and it appears will be asking for 16 battalions.”
  • The news comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is huddling with other top officials to decide on steps ahead. “There is no choice but going up a step. It’s not final, but we are as close as can be,” an unnamed source involved in the talks tells Channel 12 news.

2. The sick man of Israel: Army Radio reports that at the start of the meeting, Netanyahu demanded the Treasury chief and Bank of Israel head present him with a plan for “massive help” for contractors, workers and companies.

  • This came as unemployment reaches its highest level since the days of David Ben-Gurion, in the telling of the Walla news site.
  • “This is something that has never happened in Israel,” a senior Treasury source tells the news site.
  • In Yedioth, columnist Sever Plotzker writes that “Israel’s coronavirus-infected economy needs an emergency plan to save it, it needs a ‘ventilator’ on a comparable scale to the US or Germany, between NIS 150 billion to NIS 200 billion.”

3. Yes-men at the helm: Haaretz looks at how Netanyahu is making his decisions, and finds that the prime minister, no medical expert he, has “hijacked” the decision-making process and kept Health Ministry experts out of the deliberations.

  • The paper quotes senior health professionals who say the discussions are being managed by a group of yes-men, including Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, whom it accuses of “stifling dissent.”
  • “The orders come from above and the professionals are expected to fall in line,” one source is quoted saying. “The proper situation would be for decisions of this kind to be discussed in depth by the professionals and the epidemic task force, including every line of thought, its implications and objections to it, and then presented to the decision-makers. But none of this is happening.”
  • The paper also singles out Prof. Ron Balicer, who is part of the Health Ministry’s virology team, and it says is one of Netanyahu’s advisers, none of whom are virology or epidemiology experts.
  • Balicer, who heads the Clalit Research Institute which looks at how to harness big data for health policy, tells Army Radio that “I would have told the prime minister to step up the restrictions now, otherwise in two weeks we will have an extreme and painful lockdown.”

4. Technology will save us: The police are already enforcing orders that went into effect Sunday, shutting down stores and gatherings of 10 or more people, and the Shin Bet is using phones to track people who may be sick or may be near them.

  • Shocker of shockers, among those backing the use of invasive measures to track people via their phones is Shai Hulio, head of NSO Group, which has made quite a name for itself in that field.
  • Writing a column in Yedioth Ahronoth, Hulio says that nobody’s privacy is being invaded because it only identifies the number of the SIM card, not the person’s ID number or phone number.
  • “The decision to allow the use of the technology [for tracking] is brave and unpopular, and I’m convinced that in this time of crisis, is the right decision and we should allow the use of proven technologies to deal with the pandemic and save lives,” he writes.
  • The lack of ID can also be problematic, according to Zman Yisrael, which reports that kids with cellphones are being sent messages telling them they were in contact with a carrier and they should quarantine, but are just being dumb kids and erasing them without telling anyone, if they even read it.
  • “There’s a difference between a 17-year-old and an 8-year-old and they need to find a proper way to send important messages like this to parents and/or guardians of the kids and not the young kids themselves,” the head of the National Council for the Child tells Zman. “It’s not right to give responsibility like this to little kids.”
  • Meanwhile, Channel 12 news reports (in what it calls an exclusive, even though Maariv wrote about it three days ago) that more technology may be on its way to save us, with the Defense Ministry gathering a team of “the best people from the IDF, the Mossad, security firms, the high-tech world and academia to work together — around the clock — to defeat the corona.”
  • Among things that the brain trust that is definitely not going to turn into a movie pitch will be working on: advanced monitoring, an app to identify COVID-19 carriers by smell, and a way to disinfect public spaces by electromagnetism.
  • It sounds far-fetched but the man heading the effort is none other than Gen. Daniel Gold, who is credited with turning his far-fetched anti-missile idea into Iron Dome over a decade ago.

5. Signs of hope? Health Ministry deputy director Itamar Grotto tells Israeli media that there will soon be an app where Israelis can check on the Shin Bet’s tracking and see if they were near a carrier, rather than waiting to be contacted.

  • He also says that current methods aimed at keeping Israelis away from each other and off the street appear to be working.
  • “Right now it looks like 200 new cases a day on average, partially due to the fact that more tests are being conducted,” Grotto said Sunday night. However, he cautioned that “it is clear to us that we don’t have the full picture regarding untested cases.”
  • His boss, Bar Siman-Tov, is also somewhat upbeat, telling Yedioth that he hopes Israel can start lifting restrictions sometime after Passover.
  • But at the same time he warns that they are planning for scenarios with thousands of sick people needing ventilators, when the country only currently has 664 of them, and are assuming that the virus will come back with a vengeance next year.
  • “We are getting lots and lots of beds ready, in hospitals, geriatric centers and hotels, according to the acute needs of the sick person. In addition, we are buying more and more ventilators. The scenario we are working off is that the peak will come next winter,” he says.
  • Haaretz reports that government ministries are also scrambling to try and buy more protective gear and other medical needs, according to funding requests submitted by ministries: “The documents show disparities in the level of preparedness for the crisis among government entities and that some of them – including the police and hospitals – are in a race to address the shortages and are competing with one another for the limited supplies.”

6. Democrapolypse now: While the coronavirus crisis rages, Israel’s political crisis is also getting major attention, with the Knesset set to open and a vote on establishing the Arrangements Committee (an ad hoc panel akin to the US’s Ways and Means Committee) imminent, along with the probable ousting of Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein by the Blue and White-led bloc.

  • Channel 13 news reports that Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc is slated to boycott the measure in protest of the setting up of the committee despite there being no agreement to do so, which will wrest some power away from them.
    “In all the years of the state’s existence and all 22 Knessets, there has never been a situation in which the plenum votes on an Arrangements Committee or other committees without an agreement,” Likud whip Miki Zohar claims to the channel.
  • Not that Likud is bitter. In Israel Hayom, pro-Netanyahu activist Simcha Rothman writes that “rumors of the demise of Israeli democracy were too early,” claiming that both sides are in agreement about the need for Knesset oversight over the Shin Bet.
  • At the same time, he offers that “rumors of the demise of Israeli democracy were too late.”
  • “The High Court thinking it has the authority to decide how to manage the corona[virus crisis], make professional, economic and health decisions, with no solid information, shows that Israel has not been a democracy for a while,” he writes.
  • In ToI, Haviv Rettig Gur writes that Edelstein’s shuttering of the plenum was ham-fisted, but was no more than a “dimming” of democracy.
  • Looking ahead, he predicts that Blue and White’s Benny Gantz is in a pickle, with a tenuous majority to oust Netanyahu but not to actually rule, because of members of his party’s reluctance to join forces with the Arab-led Joint List. His most powerful card is a threat to enact legislation that would make it impossible for Netanyahu to resume being prime minister, but only if he can use it to scare Likud into joining a unity government.
  • “Brought so close to finally felling Netanyahu, his anti-Netanyahu coalition may not be able to resist the win, and attempting to stop the legislation in mid-stream — it stops being a threat once it becomes law — may cost Gantz far more than a few MKs from his coalition. His prospect of serving first in a unity coalition will be gone, he won’t be able to build a stable coalition, and the advantage will pass to Netanyahu — who may then decide that a fourth election, and the likelihood of being able to overturn the legislation in the next Knesset, is the way to go. In fact, he may well find it preferable right now to negotiating with Gantz with that legislative sword of Damocles hanging over his head,” he writes.

7. Sick obsession: Blue and White seems to be close to being okay with Netanyahu joining its government in some capacity. Party No. 2 Yair Lapid tells Kan that he would be okay with a rotation agreement in which Netanyahu is prime minister second. “We need to deal with the corona[virus] and the economy and not politics because nobody cares about that now. We need to let Netanyahu continue to be the lead person on the corona[virus], because maybe continuity is important.”

  • In Haaretz, columnist Chemi Shalev writes that Netanyahu has disqualified himself by plainly exploiting the health crisis for his own gain. “Whatever his shortcomings, Netanyahu could very well be the most competent politician around to deal with the challenges of the corona[virus] pandemic. Most Israelis, including many of his fiercest critics, would grudgingly agree to him continuing to serve as prime minister, as long as he does not exploit his position to advance his personal legal agenda. That, however, is a bridge too far for Netanyahu: With all due respect to his country, his own freedom comes first.”
  • Writing a special column for Yedioth, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman writes that while health workers deserve all the praise, Netanyahu and his cronies should get none despite his near-nightly statements to the public.
  • “The circus we see every night from Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s production house is insulting, ridiculous, and mostly increases the uncertainty for each and every Israeli citizen. We are in an absurd situation where for a year there has been a transitional government, with no functioning political security cabinet, and with a paralyzed Knesset unable to supervise the government’s workings.”
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