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From New Zealand to America: COVID-19 in Israel

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I’ve been meaning to write a post about Israel’s handing of the COVID-19 epidemic for about four months now, and every time I sit down to do it I’m overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information I’d have to convey, and the speed with which events develop and the situation changes. Happily, journalist Neri Zilber has a piece in today’s Spectator that handily sums up how Israel initially achieved a New Zealand-style victory over the coronavirus, and then, in a few short weeks, squandered it, arriving at US-level infection rates.

Israel beat the coronavirus. Or at least that’s what the public were led to believe only a few weeks ago. An early lockdown and stringent enforcement measures in March and April not only ‘flattened the curve’ but sent it crashing downwards. With less than 250 deaths and only a few dozen new cases per day, by early May prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a press conference to crow about Israel’s ‘great success story’ and how foreign leaders the world over were calling him for advice on how to battle the pandemic.

Fast forward two months and there are over a thousand new infections per day. On a per capita basis the curve is a sheer straight line hurtling upwards to American and Brazilian levels. Hopeful talk of summer holidays to other ‘green’ countries like Greece, New Zealand and Austria has been overtaken by dark warnings from health experts that the government has lost control of the situation. Yesterday new restrictions shuttering bars, nightclubs, gyms and cultural halls were begrudgingly reimposed. Israel is firmly in the ‘red’.

The fatal mistake from an epidemiological point of view was reopening schools, where initial outbreaks occurred, as well as wedding halls, event spaces, and houses of worship. Efforts to institute localised closures around specific towns and neighbourhoods have failed, with the virus now reaching all parts of the country (including a major second wave in the Palestinian Territories).

Yet this being Israel, the major failure, according to many critics, was arguably political. The initial outbreak ran in tandem with a long-running political stalemate that saw the country go to elections three times in just 15 months. Netanyahu leveraged the (very real) health crisis into an ’emergency corona government’ with his main centrist rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, who had promised never to sit under the long-serving premier. The new government was already being sworn in by the time the country nearly reopened fully.

Netanyahu claimed personal credit as he consolidated all decision-making via a pliant health ministry. The military, controlled as it was by political rivals, was on the whole frozen out. As a result, the national contact tracing apparatus is woefully understaffed, testing is still bogged down with bureaucratic delays, and a controversial cellphone tracking tool used by the security services to hunt terrorists is not the ‘magic bullet’ Netanyahu promised.

I want to expand a bit on Zilber’s accurate identification of the crisis as a political one. In the early weeks of the lockdown, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the government’s handling of coronavirus. Unlike other autocrats like Trump and Boris Johnson, Netanyahu took the danger of the virus seriously and implemented drastic but necessary steps to curb its spread. But it is now clear that his main purpose in doing so was to shore up his political position. Netanyahu’s go-to policy when facing criticism for corruption or ineptness has always been to stoke a sense of panic in the Israeli public, and the coronavirus epidemic was merely a slightly different crisis than the usual geopolitical one. It not only allowed him to distract from his looming corruption trial (and defer it—Netanyahu’s loyal follower at the Justice Ministry just happened to issue an order shutting down the country’s court system at midnight on the Saturday before his trial was to commence; it has since proceeded, but now the buildup of the second wave threatens to defer it once more), but to break the back of the greatest threat his premiership has faced in more than a decade.

Gantz—either out of genuine belief in the necessity of a stable government in a time of crisis, or an unwillingness to form his own government with the support of the Arab parties—has kowtowed to every one of Netanyahu’s demands, and in so doing destroyed his and his party’s political future. He’s meant to take over as prime minister in eighteen months, but no one believes that’s going to happen, and current polls show his Blue and White party cratering so badly that it’s doubtful whether they’ll even cross the four-MK threshold they’d need to be seated in the Knesset. Despite all the criticism and disappointment Israelis feel towards Netanyahu’s handling of the country’s reopening, the odds are that when he next goes to elections, he will easily garner a commanding majority.

Having achieved this goal, Netanyahu no longer had any use for coronavirus, and therefore felt free to ignore it. He spent most of June crowing about a promised annexation of the West Bank that no one outside of a deluded group of settlers believed was going to happen, even as the number of new infections skyrocketed. And, as the last few weeks have revealed, his government did nothing during the lockdown to prepare for a safe reopening. The testing apparatus is still too slow. The contract tracing apparatus simply doesn’t exist. And the public is being fed contradictory messages about proper precautions, even as the elites openly flaunt the rules—earlier today, and despite the new regulations banning crowded gatherings, newly-minted transportation minister Miri Regev went ahead with a planned event celebrating the opening of a new overpass, complete with hundreds of attendees, a lavish buffet, live singing, and hardly any masks in sight.

It is, in short, a classic failure of autocratic systems. Netanyahu has spent the last decade-plus concentrating power in his own hands, elevating lickspittles and the terminally corrupt (the previous Minister of Health, Yaakov Litzman, spent most of his term fighting on behalf of cigarette companies and opposing the construction of a new public hospital in a city where a group with whom he is associated is building a private one), and hollowing out the very institutions necessary to fight the pandemic. The public health system, first and foremost, but also the social services, and the agencies responsible for stepping up during times of emergency and liaising between the various ministries, local authorities, and the military. There has been no planning. Decisions are made from one minute to the next, and often overruled due to political considerations—a proposed closure of yeshiva schools that was meant to be included in yesterday’s list of new restrictions was scotched due to the religious parties’ threat to leave the coalition.

Like a classic autocrat, when his actual leadership and management abilities fail, Netanyahu turns to force, empowering the police to fine and even arrest individuals who defy the rules on wearing masks in public, and recruiting the security services to expand their spy powers from the occupied territories to the entire country. Both have proven to be crude, ineffective tools that have done more to cause resentment and distrust of the government than to curb the virus’s transmission.

This is also, however, a failure of policy. Or perhaps I should say faith. Netanyahu’s treasury ministry remains ideologically opposed to the idea of a cash infusion in order to keep the country afloat during this crisis. Israel ranks near the bottom of the list for the amount of financial support that it has given citizens and businesses who have taken an economic hit due to the pandemic and the lockdown. The two decisions most obviously responsible for the resurgence in disease transmission—reopening the schools and permitting public gatherings—were both clearly designed to ease the burden off a workforce that was on the verge of collapse, without the necessity of reaching for one’s wallet. The result has been as expected—as we’ve said on this blog many times already, there is no economy under coronavirus. As the number of cases has increased, Israelis have started staying home even before being ordered to, and businesses that barely managed to survive during the lockdown are now suffering another, perhaps fatal, blow.

It’s hard to have much hope going forward. I suspect that a second lockdown won’t be long in coming—as noted, Netanyahu has no plan, only grand gestures—but even if such a step succeeds in curbing transmission, it will leave hundreds of thousands of Israelis in dire financial straits. Without a government willing to take concrete, thought-through steps, there is no realistic path out of this crisis.

So as not to leave you on a completely depressing note, check out the clip to Israeli pop sensation Ivri Lider’s most recent song, “HaMizrach HaTichon” (“The Middle East”). It is, to the best of my knowledge, the year’s first coronavirus-themed pop song. Even if you can’t follow the lyrics, I think the video conveys Lider’s meaning quite thoroughly.

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