Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday evening unveiled a new financial aid package for businesses and workers who lost their livelihood due to coronavirus closures, acknowledging that some government steps to reopen the economy had been premature, causing the current significant wave of infection.
In a press conference from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said the reopening of much of the economy had in retrospect been instituted “too early.”
“I take responsibility for this step, and I take responsibility for fixing it,” he said.
As Israel contends with an alarming surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, Netanyahu is facing a tide of anger and criticism over the government’s handling of the economic fallout of the pandemic, with polls indicating growing disapproval of his stewardship of the economy.
Unemployment at its height reached over 25 percent, with over a million Israelis out of work; now, over 800,000 are still unemployed, with that figure again starting to climb in light of renewed restrictions put in place to combat the spike in infections.
There has been widespread anger from various sectors of the economy whose members say the government is not doing enough to help them weather the crisis, accompanied by outrage over the alleged misdirection of financial aid and the bureaucratic complexities of obtaining assistance.
Amid the growing anger, a mass demonstration has been called for Saturday night in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to protest the lack of government aid for workers hit by the virus restrictions and delays in receiving the promised funds.
“I hear you,” Netanyahu said, addressing the many people hurt by the crisis, many of whom are pushing for anti-government protests. “I hear your troubles and am determined to provide the necessary help. I work day and night for you.”
Netanyahu said the government had ordered the acceleration of previous payouts, which many have said didn’t arrive.
The premier said an immediate stipend for self-employed Israelis would be paid out immediately, as early as next week, “without any conditions or bureaucracy, without even Knesset legislation.” He said there had been significant bureaucratic difficulties in approving those payments.
The payment will be of up to NIS 7,500 ($2,170), he said.
Other parts of the aid package included a “safety net” for salaried employees and for businesses, as well as expanding the eligibility for unemployment benefits.
Small businesses will receive NIS 6,000 once every two months, he announced. Big businesses will receive aid totaling up to NIS 500,000, depending on how much the business was harmed due to the crisis.
“If needed, we will do more,” he said. When a journalist played a recording of a plea for help by a business owner named Avi and asked for his response, Netanyahu invited Avi to call him personally.
The government on Wednesday delayed the release of the highly touted aid package for Israeli workers and businesses hurt by the tightening restrictions, amid reported disagreements over the method for distributing the funds to those in need.
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, and the number of active cases has reached an all-time high.
The country had been placed on a nationwide lockdown for about two months at the start of the outbreak, but removed most of its restrictions by May to reopen the economy.
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.
The government on Monday passed a raft of new restrictions to limit the spread of the virus.
The restrictions limited the number of people allowed in restaurants and synagogues, reduced the number of passengers permitted on public transportation, hiked fines for not wearing face masks, and shut down event halls, cultural venues, swimming pools, gyms, bars and nightclubs.
“We are in the midst of a global storm, which is growing,” Netanyahu said in his address, adding that managing the crisis “requires fateful decisions every day.”
He said governments around the world were dealing with the pandemic through “trial and error.”
“In the first wave we had amazing success,” he said. “The death toll was and remains very low. But the lockdown exacted a heavy toll on the economy.”
After detailing steps the government took to reopen the economy, the premier said: “Looking back, as part of the trial and error, we can say that the last step was too early. We did it because we listened to your troubles.”
He repeated previous calls on the public to stick to social distancing rules, but cautioned that before flattening the curve, “the curve will rise for several more weeks due to the infections that already happened.”
Netanyahu gave a warning to those who instead of holding weddings in event halls — which have been shuttered — intend to host large crowds in private homes: “They might find themselves subsequently holding funerals.”
However, he defended Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who attended a birthday party for his wife in a private home with nearly 50 other people hours after he announced that such gatherings would be illegal. Netanyahu justified the action by noting that the new restrictions had not gone into effect yet, claiming that therefore Edelstein had not done anything wrong.
Speaking after Netanyahu, Finance Minister Israel Katz echoed his sentiment.
“We have learned lessons,” he said. “We are here to ensure that nobody will be left without help or financial safety in the tough period we are facing.
“All the salaried employees who are furloughed or unemployed will receive upgraded unemployment benefits,” he added. “We have canceled the previous conditions for eligibility for unemployment benefits.”
The Blue and White party welcomed the plan, saying its leader, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, had praised the “broad fulfillment of Blue and White’s social and economic demands.”
However, Opposition Chief Yair Lapid issued a fiery response, calling Netanyahu’s words “hollow” and highlighting a decision passed in recent days handing Netanyahu significant tax breaks.
“Anyone who formed a government with 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers and in the midst of the crisis dealt mainly with his own tax breaks cannot lecture us about ‘taking full responsibility,'” he said.
Lapid warned earlier Thursday that the ongoing protests against the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic could turn violent.
“We are talking to people who are becoming more and more desperate and angry, who feel, and rightly so, that the country has deserted them in their hardest hour,” Lapid told the Reuters news agency.
“We are trying to be responsible… to calm things down, telling people, ‘You know violence is not the answer,’” he added. “But it’s getting harder by the day… I sympathize with the anger and I also worry about the possibility of violence as a result of this anger. What I am trying to do is not to encourage it but to raise a red flag as to what might happen.”