Health minister: 'Don't seek political dividends'

Virus czar rejects criticism by Netanyahu ally as serious cases hit new high

Ronni Gamzu dismisses remarks by Miki Zohar, says he has picked a ‘complicated’ approach to fighting COVID-19 that isn’t always popular

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu at an inauguration ceremony of a Health Ministry command center near Ben Gurion Airport, August 26, 2020. (GPO)
Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu at an inauguration ceremony of a Health Ministry command center near Ben Gurion Airport, August 26, 2020. (GPO)

Health Ministry Yuli Edelstein and the top official tasked with overseeing Israel’s coronavirus response, Ronni Gamzu, both rebuked a Likud ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday who slammed Gamzu for trying to keep Israelis from traveling to Ukraine for a Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage but not seeking to halt mass protests against the premier because of alleged fear of the media.

The comments came as Health Ministry figures showed the number of serious virus cases had reached an all-time high of 430, as the infection rate continues to rise.

Gamzu, who was appointed by the government in July, has recently come under fire from Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners for attempting to prevent tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews from flying to the Ukrainian city of Uman to celebrate the new year. On Tuesday, Ukraine said it would limit the number of pilgrims allowed in the city after an appeal from Netanyahu, but the prime minister denied making any such request.

“We chose to take the complicated route, it isn’t always popular,” said Gamzu while inaugurating a new Health Ministry command center at Airport City, a business park near Ben Gurion Airport.

“I am not sure the citizens and all politicians understand what we’re doing here,” he added. “We are charging ahead and are determined to continue. Today most of the world is starting to say ‘let’s manage this without lockdowns.’ It has a price, it’s complex, these are very difficult decisions.”

“I would like to tell my colleagues, the elected officials, that we are doing our best, health-wise and with all considerations, including those related to the economy,” Edelstein said at the event.

“I am asking my friends not to seek political dividends at the expense of public health,” Edelstein said, adding that the Health Ministry decisions were made by Israel’s top experts.

He asked local leaders and rabbis to make sure there are no mass gatherings at synagogues this year for the Jewish festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

He also defended his decision regarding the Uman pilgrimage, citing “national responsibility.”

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein holds a press conference during his visit at the Assuta hospital in Ashdod on August 20, 2020. (Flash90)

New Health Ministry figures released Wednesday morning showed 2,089 new cases were recorded over the past 24 hours, bringing the number of cases since the pandemic began to 107,341.

The ministry said the death toll from the virus had risen to 867.

Of the 20,581 active cases, there were a record 430 people in serious condition, with 118 on ventilators.

The ministry said 33,272 tests were performed Tuesday.

Zohar earlier in the day told the Kan public broadcaster that Gamzu was “sure that he has the ability to prevent Israelis from going to Uman but Prof. Gamzu meanwhile was sure he had the ability to stop the protests [against Netanyahu]. He didn’t succeed in stopping the protests.”

Gamzu has expressed concern over the protests against Netanyahu, which have centered on the prime minister’s indictment on graft charges, but has never pledged to stop them and the government has consistently upheld the right to gather for protests despite the pandemic.

Likud MK Miki Zohar at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Zohar faced swift pushback from lawmakers for his criticism of Gamzu.

Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir of the Blue and White party called on fellow cabinet members to back Gamzu.

“From the beginning [he] has been trying to put things in order and create a working method that has a chance of blocking the morbidity without overwhelming the economy while regaining the public’s trust,” he wrote on Twitter.

He added: “The unity government was supposed to allow the necessary decisions to be made, even when they’re politically complicated.”

A group of Orthodox Jews pray around the holy Jewish sites of Uman, Ukraine, September 21, 2006. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

Zohar’s criticism of Gamzu came a day after the latter vowed to “do everything” to prevent large numbers of Hasidic Jews from flying to Uman and threatened he could resign over the matter.

Gamzu’s opposition to the pilgrimage, which mostly draws ultra-Orthodox Jews, has raised hackles among Netanyahu’s Haredi partners, some of whom have reportedly sought to oust him from his post.

Ukraine is one of the few countries that are currently allowing in Israeli nationals, despite the high coronavirus infection rate in the Jewish state.

Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report.

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