Who by quarantine: 6 things to know for March 9
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Who by quarantine: 6 things to know for March 9

Amid speculation that Israel is set to shut its doors to the world, politicians and pundits debate the balance between healthy people, healthy diplomacy and a healthy economy

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman hold a video conference with European leaders at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman hold a video conference with European leaders at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. Cough, fever, sore throat, and cold feet: What seemed like an insane over-reaction only days ago is now not only being seriously considered but pushed by some health experts and pundits — forcing all visitors to Israel from anywhere in the world to self-quarantine for 14 days.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought up the idea at a press conference Sunday evening where it had been speculated restrictions might be placed on travelers from some parts of the US. Instead, he said that Israel was considering placing the restrictions on everyone.
  • What’s the hold up. According to a report in Haaretz, political considerations are overriding health concerns.
  • “Netanyahu’s associates had pressured [health officials] to walk back any quarantine planned for Israelis returning from the three hardest-hit U.S. states. [Instead t]he prime minister began pivoting to the more sweeping strategy that would quarantine all overseas travelers,” reports the paper’s Allison Kaplan Sommer.
  • She adds that officials were “shocked” when Netanyahu essentially kicked the decision down the road at the press conference, saying no decision had been made.
  • The paper notes that officials have been pushing for a move to quarantine all entries for weeks, since the number of infected Israelis was still in the single-digits, but was pushed off by elections (having 70,000 Israelis in quarantine would have wreaked havoc on voting.)
  • It also notes that Belgium seems to be protected from quarantine by outside forces, specifically the ultra-Orthodox community there (one might guess the diamond industry could play a role as well).
  • Speaking to Army Radio, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman dismisses such suggestions as “fake news.”
  • He also hints — this guy loves his hints — that more restrictions are a-coming.

2. Not all allies are equal: Kan’s Amichai Stein reports that when someone brought up diplomatic damage in a closed-door meeting about closing borders, Netanyahu dismissed it as “So, a few diplomats will grumble.”

  • Taking that baton, Stein writes that it’s okay if Israel treats important allies differently — here he adds the UK and the AIPAC conference into the mix — so long as officials are upfront about it: “When senior officials are asked what the parameters are for placing restrictions and on whom, they can say they have different considerations. Because trust is the main thing Israelis need now.”
  • Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunotherapy laboratory at Bar-Ilan University, tells The Times of Israel that a blanket quarantine is a foregone conclusion.
  • “I believe that they will ask everyone coming from abroad to go into quarantine for 14 days,” he says. “That’s the smart thing to do right now.”
  • Haaretz’s lead editorial takes the position that not placing the quarantine on the US despite the number of cases there (over 400, that we know about) is harming Israelis’ health.
  • “The decision-making process must be more transparent and led by professionals based on medical considerations, not political ones. Public health must be paramount,” it says.

3. Sick moves, bro: Beyond policy decisions, the sheer numbers continue to push the news agenda, and it’s no different after Israel sees its biggest single-day jump, hitting 39 cases on Sunday night, up from 25 a day earlier.

  • Yedioth calls it “dramatic” and a “spike,” though it notes that one case is of particular concern, that of a person who did not travel abroad or have any known contact with someone carrying the disease.
  • “This could represent proof of community infection,” the paper notes.
  • (According to the WHO, Israel has already reached the local transmission stage, though Health Ministry epidemiological studies show that the vast majority of cases are imported by those who were abroad.)
  • Channel 12’s Arad Nir, who has been pounding the don’t panic drum, writes that Israelis should expect the numbers to continue to spike, but that should not be a major worry since “the faster we find them, the faster we can overcome this.”
  • “Once we start testing more, we will find more sick, and we will need a national effort to bolster our infrastructure,” he says, adding that most who get sick are fine.
  • Which is true, though even with just a very very modest 10 percent infection rate and 1% fatality rate, it would mean 8,000 Israelis dead, i.e. more than any war Israel has ever fought.
  • In Ynet, microbiology professor Ehud Qumran writes that the panic is overblown, fewer people than thought have been infected and there is no need for panic.
  • “Most of the Health Ministry’s guidelines should be scrapped and only those that do not cause damage to the economy or to foreign relations should be maintained,” he writes. “The public should be encouraged to continue traveling, maintain their routine and allow the virus to disappear most probably with the summer.”

4. Taking stock: It’s a losing battle as doom-fearing Israelis join the rest of the world in stocking up, leaving empty supermarket shelves in their wake.

  • Israel Hayom reports that sales are up over 100 percent at Rami Levy grocery stores, and the number is in the several hundreds when only counting non-perishables.
  • “We are preparing by upping our stocks of some products, like cereal, by 30% to 50%, and staples, like sugar, we’re ordering double,” the owner of the eponymous chain tells the paper.
  • At least someone is doing well. The rest of the stock market, in Israel and abroad, is dropping like a rock as global travel grinds to a halt and fear runs rampant.
  • And it may get worse. Globes reports that there are signs of a run on investment funds, with NIS 8 billion  (roughly $2.3 billion) being pulled out in the last three days. “The stock market panic is seeping into the public,” it writes.
  • In Yedioth, columnist Sever Plotzker says that Israeli economists need to start taking matters into their own hands to help failing companies and pass a budget to slow the crisis, rather than continuing on the way they have been, with policies designed to restrain growth.
  • “Government spending is stunted and the deficit is shrinking — the opposite of what is needed. The government, with the support of the opposition, needs to take off the cautionary chains. Don’t be afraid of ramping up spending, growing the deficit and printing money,” he writes. “There’s no inflation on the horizon and a temporary rise in our debt to GDP ratio won’t negatively affect our credit rating. But a recession and unemployment will.”
  • Speaking to Army Radio, though, Finance Ministry budgets chief Shaul Meridor says Israelis need to take a deep breath, at least on concerns about the tourism industry collapsing: “This is not a microeconomic event and I can say that the Israeli economy has not taken a hit as a result of the Health Ministry’s steps.”

5. In Iran, lots to worry about: Israel is also watching closely what’s happening in Iran, which has seen the virus reaching epidemic levels, which seems fitting given that tonight is Purim.

  • In Yedioth, Ronen Bergman reports that Iranian diplomat Hussein Sheikholeslam, who died of the virus recently, was thought to have been involved in the kidnapping of Israeli airman Ron Arad.
  • Bergman writes that Sheikholeslam was Iran’s ambassador in Damascus in 1988, when Arad was captured, though it’s not clear what role he had. He surmises that a Syrian effort to locate Arad in 1989 was stopped suddenly, seemingly at the behest of al-Islam, who made it clear to them to leave the “minefield.”
  • “If there were a police investigation, the first person I would summon [would be] Sheikholeslam,” Bergman quotes an intelligence source telling him not long ago. “He was involved, and may be the only one alive of those who were involved in what happened in Lebanon.”
  • According to Radio Farda, Sheikholeslam was only ambassador to Syria in 1996, and was deputy foreign minister during the time in question.
  • Haaretz’s Zvi Barel also writes about Sheikholeslam and his involvement in the 1979 hostage crisis. But he says the problem goes well beyond one person, with numbers of infected in Iran rising and no end in sight, thanks to poor information, religious fanatics who like to lick things and other problems.
  • “Iran’s worsening situation has isolated the country far beyond what the American sanctions against Tehran sought to achieve, as Iranian nationals are barred from entering Turkey and Gulf states, and are subject to harsh restrictions upon their entry to Iraq,” he writes. “The sparse reports coming from the Iranian government and the unsubstantiated information on social media show that Iran is having difficulty dealing with the spread of the virus, which has become a threatening political issue.”
  • In Bloomberg, Tobin Harshaw writes that people should be more concerned about Iran’s restarting nuclear program than the virus, in an interview with expert Michael Rubin from the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
  • “Even if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon down the road, I don’t think they are suicidal. Rather, the nightmare scenario is that the regime might become terminally ill,” Rubin tells him.

6. Joined list: Buried below all the coronavirus stuff is Israel’s possibly unraveling political deadlock, which now seems downright quaint.

  • On Sunday, Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu seemed to agree to terms, leaving really only the Joint List to come aboard for a minority government or maybe even a unity one, though doing so is suddenly easier said than done.
  • Channel 12 reports that the Joint List is demanding that it be treated like any other party, without secret talks. “Gantz needs to decide if we as the leaders of the Arab public are legitimate in his eyes or not. [If he does not], then he had best find another party to form a government. He needs to show us how he differentiates himself from Netanyahu if he wants us to recommend him,” one lawmaker is quoted saying.
  • Meanwhile, two Blue and White MKs, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, are continuing to oppose working with the Joint List and threatening to torpedo the coalition, according to Channel 13 news.
  • Writing for Israel Hayom, Bar Ilan Prof. Asher Hacohen writes that it’s not racist to be opposed to the Arab-led Joint List — which represents a massive chunk of the country’s largest minority — having a part in Israeli politics.
  • “No one would reject cooperation with the Joint Arab List solely based on its Arab membership if their modus operandi really was akin to that of the ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox, with all their principled opposition to Zionism, came to terms with it on a practical level a long time ago, and advocate for the social, cultural and religious preservation of ultra-Orthodox society within Israel as a Jewish nation-state, most of whose values and character they oppose. The Joint Arab List’s representatives, in contrast, remind us again and again of how much they hope for the annulment of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he writes.
  • In Haaretz, though, Chemi Shalev writes that more and more Israelis, including vitally Gantz, are getting on board with not blackballing the party: “Whatever the reasons for his reversal or its outcome, Gantz’s newfound willingness to include the Joint List in his political camp has changed the Israeli political landscape and, in many ways, has broken down or at least chipped away at the wall that has separated Jews and Arabs in Israel for time immemorial.”
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