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This is the breadth of our affliction: 7 things to know for April 16

Restless Israelis are ready to roll back coronavirus restrictions and throw measures aimed at enforcing social distancing out the window along with their leftover matzah

Border Police officers enforce a curfew in the ultra Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, April 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Border Police officers enforce a curfew in the ultra Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, April 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. Don’t let the experts drive the bus: With Passover over, the sun shining and the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths seemingly remaining at a tolerable level, Israelis have ants in their pants about putting the coronavirus restrictions behind them and opening the country back up.

  • “The routine claim that this is saving lives — stay at home, stay alive — was good for a month or maybe a bit more, but it is no substitute for the need for a more comprehensive explanation that we aren’t choosing the easy way out when it comes at the expense of a million unemployed, the market closed, no income, a rise in domestic violence, and irreversible damage to the mental health of some people, unless this is really the only alternative,” writes Ariella Ringel Hoffman in Yedioth Ahronoth, in a column complaining about the “never-ending lockdown.”
  • Speaking to Army Radio, Moshe Or Hai Shmueli, the head of the Israeli Forecasters union, complains about the decision makers and the lack of help small businesses are seeing. “We are on one big Titanic, with 10 lifesavers and a hundred drowning. Who am I supposed to save, my kids or my friends who are drowning? They are abusing us and being covered by the law. They are totally sealed off…. I’ve paid NIS 2.1 million to [social security], and now when I need the country to stand with us, we are getting choked,” he screams.
  • “Why are supermarkets open and not the stalls at Mahane Yehuda,” complains Channel 12’s Amit Segal, referring to Jerusalem’s chronically crowded open-air market.

2. C’mon, Europe is doing it: Making matters even worse, the country is watching with jealousy as Europe takes some steps in just that direction.

  • “Israel will have its first discussion [on an exit strategy] … Europe is taking first steps,” reads the top headline on Channel 12’s news website, in a subtle gripe.
  • “While Israelis were spending their holiday under curfew and the economy was mostly frozen, European countries started implementing policies to ease the restrictions,” reads a headline in Yedioth Ahronoth.
  • Then again, many Israeli publications complained when Israel placed restrictions earlier than others, which has since earned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praise. In ToI, though, Raphael Ahren writes that the grace period that bought him has ended with criticism of the government (read: Netanyahu) ramping up since then.
  • “The prime minister ordered very strict measures in the beginning. That was a good call,” a former senior diplomat says. “But overall, the temporary results of his leadership are mixed. At this stage, they’re nothing to be ashamed about, but also nothing to boast about.”

3. Please, I promise we won’t all go to the mall: Speaking to Channel 13 news, Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov says that “a situation has been created which allows us to return to more economic activity. We are ready to take more risks, and that’s seemingly what will happen in the coming days.”

  • Health expert Ron Balicer writes in Haaretz,“For reasons of proportionality and risk-management, we will very likely have to take the first steps towards easing the lockdown after Passover,” noting that it will be “a continual process of risk management, managing medical and economic risks.”
  • “Even after some of the coronavirus restrictions are lifted, large gatherings will not be permitted, physical distance will have to be maintained, online orders and deliveries will still be preferable and we’ll continue to wear masks,” he adds.
  • Kan reports of senior officials that “there is a fear that the conversation around returning to routine will lead to another outbreak of the virus and are emphasizing that the steps will be measured and gradual. At the same time, they are looking to start on Sunday will some sort of measure — even despite the conflicting stances of senior officials.”
  • But the outlet notes that the Treasury is annoyed at the Health Ministry’s apparently demanding that the number of daily cases drop to double digits before any moves are made.
  • Israel Hayom reports that the main bone of contention in discussions for easing restrictions revolves around whether or not malls and other types of shops will be able to open, a move opposed by the Health Ministry.
  • “Our stance is that stores on the street and malls should be able to return to work, which will mean hundreds of thousands [back in the workforce],” Economy Minister Eli Cohen is quoted saying in the paper.

4. How about just a little prayer gathering? Israel’s first tentative steps got off to a less than stellar start, with police removing roadblocks in Bnei Brak before ministers had even convened on a final decision to ease restrictions there.

  • Looking at the numbers, Walla news reports that numbers of cases in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem have leveled off, though they are spiking in other ultra-Orthodox areas like Beitar Illit and Beit Shemesh.
  • But Channel 13 news reports that there’s been more laxity regarding adhering to the restrictions in the Haredi community, citing eyewitness reports of prayer gatherings congregating against regulations.
  • “Because of these services, there’s arisen a legitimization among some ultra-Orthodox that it’s ok to pray in a quorum (minyan), such that some of them are demanding the government lift the restriction on minyans. They say they can get together in a way that ensures social distancing, much like the situation in supermarkets and public transportation,” the station reports.
  • That seems quaint and lovely compared to this disease factory that was reportedly filmed in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood on Tuesday night, showing hundreds bunched together.
  • “People here are irresponsible. The ultra-Orthodox in America haven’t finished burying their dead, and here they think coronavirus is a Zionist invention,” tweets ultra-Orthodox journalist Yanky Farber.

5. Fast-rising fears: While there has yet to be any large breakout in Arab towns, there are rising fears that the upcoming Ramadan holiday could provide a fertile breeding ground for the disease.

  • “Without a massive information campaign by the state, the localities, and spiritual leaders, infection rates may skyrocket and create dangerous centers of outbreaks. We’re already seeing the fast spread of the coronavirus in towns like Tamra, Umm el Fahm, Daburiyyah and Jisr az-Zarka. In addition, a large number of Arab towns are among the poorest and most densely populated,” writes Jalal Bana in an opinion piece in Israel Hayom.
  • Haaretz describes the situation in Umm al-Fahm, where “people fear crowding in stores as Ramadan approaches” and where there already seems to be trouble enforcing social distancing.
  • “Making an appointment by phone doesn’t really help, you still have to wait in line,” someone waiting at a post office branch says. “People aren’t keeping their distance at all, but at least most have masks and gloves. I hope they’ll be enough.”
  • Globes reports that the Tnuva dairy concern has decided not to shelf its traditional Ramadan ad campaign, which tells Muslims that “there’s nothing like gathering together for Ramadan.”
  • When asked about it, a company spokesperson claims that it actually says “there’s nothing like getting together for Ramadan,” which it says is different.
  • “This is a problematic campaign with a message that undermines the work we are trying to do to separate people,” a communications person from the Arab community tells the publication. “A campaign that ignores everything happening on the ground. The slogan means the whole extended family, grandma, grandpa, the kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. You can’t say ‘get together.’ This is the time to say ‘stay at home.’”

6. Bibi’s choice: On the political front, President Reuven Rivlin turned down a request to extend Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s time to form a government, after an initial two-day extension expired, and instead kicked the decision to the Knesset, which now has 21 days to rally behind a candidate, or we’ll all go to the polls again.

  • The choice is not seen as the Knesset’s, though, but rather Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s, caretaker of the government but one lacking a vote of confidence for over a year.
  • “High Court, rotation or elections: In the next 21 days the only question is what Netanyahu wants,” reads a headline in Walla news.
  • Kan news reports that Blue and White believes Netanyahu wants new elections “and so has been introducing difficulties every time they meet with the Likud team.”
  • However, in a piece laying out the various scenarios, Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer writes that Netanyahu is too savvy to get swept up in polls showing Likud trouncing its rivals: “Netanyahu is fully aware that his surge in the polls right now is due to the initial ‘rallying around the flag’ effect of the coronavirus crisis. In three months, especially if the economy is slow to recover and there are still a million unemployed, things could look very different at the polls. So a fourth election is a possibility, but it’s much more likely that a deal will be reached beforehand.”
  • ToI’s Haviv Rettig Gur notes that “whether Netanyahu genuinely wants a unity government, as Gantz seems to believe, or does not, as some of Blue and White’s negotiators have suggested, Netanyahu thinks there’s no harm and much clarity to be gained by waiting till the last moment to decide.”

7. Ain’t afraid of no Gantz: According to several reports, the main issue leaving talks open is Netanyahu’s fear that Gantz will agree he can remain prime minister but the High Court will disqualify him and Gantz will take his place. Instead, he wants to remain caretaker and call new elections in such a situation.

  • Channel 12 news, which has been seesawing between reporting that a deal is just moments away and reporting that talks have failed — based on the last thing whatever chronically unnamed sources tell them and leaving news consumers none wiser — reports that talks continued even after the mandate expired and that main issue was put to bed.
  • “The sides managed to agree that if the High Court disqualifies Netanyahu from being prime minister after a unity government is sworn in, Gantz will not become prime minister and the Knesset will dissolve,” the channel reports.
  • Walla’s Tal Shalev quotes a senior Likud member saying that the main issue is that Netanyahu does not want a rotation deal and is trying to form a government without Gantz at all.
  • “In the three upcoming weeks, Likud will put much effort into enlisting defectors from Blue and White to get to a government of 61,” she writes, specifying Derech Eretzers Yoaz Hendel and Tzvika Hauser, Laborites Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli, and ex-Yesh Atidian Pnina Tamano-Shata.
  • “If he manages to get to 61, Gantz and friends will be invited to join, but only at dismal terms: No rotation and no even splitting [of authority],” she adds.
  • In Zman Yisrael, ToI’s sister site, Shalom Yerushalmi writes: “Netanyahu is not worried about Gantz. He knows he’ll be prime minister until at least September 2021, and then will find some maneuver to prevent the rotation from taking place, despite all the shackles … Blue and White have tried to put on his hands.”

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