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Top Netanyahu aide says public, not government, to blame for renewed outbreak

With PM under fire for failing to take sufficient action to contain second coronavirus wave, Natan Eshel accuses ailing business owners of not following distancing rules

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with his then-aide Natan Eshel, on August 28, 2011. (Amit Shabi/pool/Flash90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with his then-aide Natan Eshel, on August 28, 2011. (Amit Shabi/pool/Flash90/File)

As public criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic grows, a close associate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday placed the blame solely on the public.

The last few weeks have seen the reversal of many of the gains made in the fight against the coronavirus in recent months. New daily virus cases, which had dropped to low double digits through most of May, have soared to over a thousand a day.

The current increase in weekly infections in Israel is one of the highest in the world, according to a chart published Monday afternoon by the Health Ministry.

Natan Eshel, a top aide to the premier, wrote in a statement that “the blame for the situation lies with a high percentage of the public that isn’t adhering to the instructions, isn’t wearing masks, is partying in clubs and on roofs, at the beach and in other public places.”

A party at the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv on June 2, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

The government in May opened all those places to the public, and has been widely accused of not taking sufficient action to enforce distancing rules and punish offenders, and of failing to take action for weeks while infections surged.

It eventually passed a raft of restrictions Monday to contain the renewed outbreak, including limiting restaurants and synagogues, reducing the number of passengers on public transportation, hiking fines for not wearing face masks and shutting down event halls, cultural venues, swimming pools, gyms, bars, and nightclubs.

Israel is “a step away from a full lockdown,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told cabinet members during a special meeting. While stopping short of shutting down the country like earlier this year, the new measures are a significant step back from May’s reopening of the economy.

The coronavirus crisis sent unemployment skyrocketing in Israel and Netanyahu has come under increasing fire from business owners and members of the culture sector for his handling of the ongoing economic woes.

Unemployment at its height reached over 25%, with a million Israelis without work; over 800,000 are still unemployed. There has been widespread anger from innumerable sectors that say the government is not doing enough to help them weather the difficult times, with outrage over the alleged misdirection of financial aid and the bureaucratic complexities of obtaining assistance.

Self-employed, small business owners and activists participate in a rally calling for financial support from the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, May 2, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But Eshel issued a general accusation toward all business owners: “The government wanted to help, but they didn’t stick to the rules, and now we all will pay the financial and personal price.”

Eshel, a former Netanyahu chief of staff who resigned in 2012 amid allegations that he used a surreptitiously placed camera to film under the skirt of a female colleague, continues to work with the premier, leading the coalition negotiations that followed the three Knesset elections since April 2019.

Eshel has previously been caught making embarrassing remarks disparaging Sephardi Israelis and disrespecting a top religious Zionist rabbi.

The comments came amid growing criticism of Netanyahu’s response to the pandemic. According to a Channel 12 poll published Monday, the premier’s approval has slipped so low that more people now say they are dissatisfied with his handling of the coronavirus outbreak than those who give him their approval.

Natan Eshel attends Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 20, 2012. (Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

Just 46 percent of those who participated in the survey said they were satisfied with how the prime minister is leading the country through the virus crisis, while 49% said they are unhappy with his performance.

That compares with a poll at the beginning of the month that gave Netanyahu 56% support with 36% dissatisfied. At the beginning of May, before a recent spike in virus infections began, a survey showed 74% of people backed the prime minister’s handling of the outbreak with just 23% saying the opposite.

Channel 12’s survey found that only 33% think Netanyahu was handling the financial situation satisfactorily; at the beginning of May it was 53%. By contrast, 62% now say they are not satisfied with how he is handling the crisis, compared to 43% at the beginning of May.

Likud Tzachi Hanegbi attends an event at Kedem in the West Bank on September 5, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

Eshel’s remark came days after Minister Tzachi Hanegbi of Netanyahu’s Likud party dismissed claims that some Israelis don’t have enough money for food amid the economic crisis as “bullshit.”

Hanegbi made the comment during an interview Friday evening on the popular Channel 12 talk show “Ofira and Berkovic” as he was pressed on Netanyahu’s response to the economic fallout accompanying the government restrictions put in place to contain the virus.

“This nonsense that people have nothing to eat is bullshit. Bullshit,” Hanegbi said. “There are a million people who, most of them, until now, have received unemployment payments… There are businesses that were hurt and they’re in serious distress. [But] saying ‘there’s nothing to eat’ is populism.”

Talk show hosts Ofira Asayag (left), Eyal Berkovich (center), with Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi on the Channel 12 program “Ofira and Berkovic,” on July 3, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Netanyahu issued a condemnation of Hanegbi’s remark but didn’t name him.

“The prime minister regrets comments [that imply] the distress of the coronavirus isn’t real,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said. “Like everywhere in the world, the coronavirus has had a high cost in [terms of] life, health and livelihood. The distress is real and the prime minister is working around the clock to provide an answer to it.”

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