ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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With 2020 economy already ‘in the garbage,’ ministries clash over exit strategy

Health officials back cautious, slow approach, angering treasury; reported compromise could see some stores, workplaces and childcare facilities reopen next week

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (left), Health Minister director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov (standing) and other officials meet Thursday to discuss easing social distancing measures put in place to battle the coronavirus (PMO)
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (left), Health Minister director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov (standing) and other officials meet Thursday to discuss easing social distancing measures put in place to battle the coronavirus (PMO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met ministers and top officials Thursday for the first discussion of a strategy to ease the coronavirus restrictions and revive the economy, as officials from the health and finance ministries clashed over the proper approach.

Reports said steps could be announced as early as Thursday night, with some stores and workplaces being allowed to reopen next week.

Among those taking part in the meeting, held over videoconference starting around 3 p.m., were the ministers of health, interior, economy, science, education, public security and energy; top Netanyahu aides; and various treasury officials.

While the Health Ministry has recommended a particularly slow and cautious strategy that would see businesses stay closed for at least another month, the treasury is demanding that restriction begin being eased as early as Sunday.

Netanyahu said in the preliminary discussions that the plan must be “gradual and responsible,” his office said, apparently placing his view closer to that of the Health Ministry.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is briefed on various ‘exit strategies’ to lift coronavirus restrictions on April 16, 2020 (Prime Minister’s Office)

“The national security adviser has consulted with many countries around the world and learned more about the challenges and various proposals,” the statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said. “The prime minister and ministers are being presented with all the alternatives that were raised during the discussions.”

Some ministers reportedly accused Netanyahu of “foot-dragging” and trying to buy time to see the results of other countries that have started easing restriction on their economies.

According to multiple Hebrew-language reports, the Health Ministry’s recommended plan is to wait until the daily coronavirus infection rate nationwide is under 100, which is likely to take weeks or even longer.

Finance Ministry Director-General Shai Babad was said to have severely criticized that plan: “Maybe we should end this meeting and come back when we reach 20 daily infections? This isn’t serious. This isn’t what an exit strategy looks like. We need to give the economy some oxygen.”

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon reportedly said that Israel’s economy has been dealt a “severe blow” and that the whole of 2020 was already “lost.” However, he added, the first quarter of 2021 could still be salvaged, though it too was in danger of “getting thrown in the garbage.”

“We’re afraid that people will take to the streets due to lack of hope, people want to see the end and they can’t,” he said.

Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

In response, Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov argued that if a curfew was being planned for Independence Day on April 29, it would be nearly impossible to enforce if the lockdown will already have been lifted by then and daily life largely resumed.

Kahlon retorted, “You want to keep people at home for two more weeks because you’re scared of Independence Day. It’s nonsensical. If there’s a problem, announce a lockdown on Independence Day.”

The treasury — with the backing of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett — was said to be demanding clear guidelines on when the next phase of easing restrictions can be implemented, and to begin putting that strategy in place on Sunday.

A third model, proposed by MobilEye founder Prof. Amnon Shashua, who has been advising Netanyahu on the COVID-19 crisis, would have Israelis resume their normal activities while at-risk populations remain in quarantine, according to Channel 12.

Progress was reported later in the meeting, with both ministries trying to reach understandings on which businesses could resume their operations first and how to enforce that.

Channel 12 said they had agreed that next week, 30 to 50 percent of employees in workplaces would be able to start coming in to the office again.

The more severe disagreement related to stores. One possibility, according to the network, was to introduce a so-called purple badge that would mean the store meets criteria such as having sufficient disinfectants for customers and staff and meeting social distancing guidelines.

Regarding the education system, the reported new measures will include resumption of studies next week in the special education system and for kindergartens. The Labor and Welfare Ministry is aiming to also reopen daycare centers and nursery schools.

Border police officers block a main road following the government’s measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty,)

Earlier in the day, the ministerial committee formulating Israel’s response to the coronavirus outbreak approved a decision to relax lockdown restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, while extending closure rules in Jerusalem neighborhoods until April 19.

The capital’s Shmuel HaNavi neighborhood joined the list of closed down areas, which are predominantly Haredi.

An industrial zone in the north of the city was exempted from the closure measures due to a relatively low rate of infection there.

Bnei Brak’s deputy mayor, Gedalyahu Ben Shimon, lambasted the failure to completely lift the closure, saying the lockdown had “utterly failed” and claiming the re-installation of the checkpoints was “only to appease anti-Haredi elements.”

The ultra-Orthodox town of 200,000 near Tel Aviv has the second highest infection numbers in the country — 2,150 as of Thursday. Jerusalem leads with 2,418 cases.

Magen David Adom medical workers seen at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing at the Shuafat Refugee Camp in east Jerusalem, April 16, 2020. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two weeks ago Bnei Brak was placed under a strict lockdown, with residents only allowed to leave municipal boundaries to work in key industries or to receive medical care. Several Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods were put under lockdown on Sunday.

The Kan public broadcaster reported Thursday that Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem were likely to be placed under lockdown next, following an increase in infection rates. Kan said that Silwan and Ras al-Amud were among the neighborhoods facing closures.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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