Editor's Notes: Politicizing a health crisis

Ever since he was appointed speaker of the Knesset in 2013, Yuli Edelstein has epitomized what it means to be a statesman in Israel.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) sit in an empty hall in front of President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the swearing in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020 (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) sit in an empty hall in front of President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the swearing in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Under cover of the battle against coronavirus, Israelis witnessed an outrageous abuse of the rule of law this week, experiencing what can easily be described as nothing short of an attempted coup d'etat.
Ever since he was appointed speaker of the Knesset in 2013, Yuli Edelstein has epitomized what it means to be a statesman in Israel. He has worked hard at it, keeping his hands out of the political dirt and always staying above the fray. But on Wednesday, he threw all of that goodwill out the window when he participated in the attempted robbery of Israeli democracy with his decision to close the Knesset plenum and prevent the majority of its members from holding a vote to replace him.
Add to this the claim made Wednesday by Benjamin Netanyahu, the interim prime minister for the last 15 months, that “while I am fighting the coronavirus, they [Blue and White] are trying to topple a prime minister who is steering the ship through a storm.”
Did Netanyahu not understand the results of the election two-and-a-half weeks ago? Did he miss the part when 61 members of Knesset recommended Benny Gantz as prime minister, meaning that Blue and White now has the authority and support to elect a new speaker of the Knesset, pass legislation, and set up the committees needed for the Knesset to function?
What are these committees? One is the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Knesset’s most important whose responsibilities include overseeing the government’s controversial decision to allow the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to digitally track people with the coronavirus – an extraordinary invasion of Israeli civilians’ privacy. With no functioning committee, there is essentially no oversight.
People will say that the decision to activate the Shin Bet was approved by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit. That might be true, but Mandelblit is not an elected official. The MKs are, and it is their job to provide oversight for decisions made by the executive branch. In addition, it is ironic how suddenly for the Likud, Mandelblit’s opinion matters. Until a few days ago, Mandelblit was the enemy for many Likudniks due to his decision to indict the prime minister on corruption charges. Suddenly he is okay to rely on.
The second committee that needs to be established in the Knesset is one that will oversee the fight against coronavirus. The third is the Arrangements Committee, needed to pass laws – for example to combat the pandemic – during this interim period.
I can imagine what some of you must be thinking: why is any of this important when there is a war raging outside to stop the spread of a deadly virus? Who cares if there is a committee for this or that when peoples’ lives are on the line? And why is everyone trying to undermine Netanyahu who appears – at least on the surface – to be doing a good job curbing the spread of coronavirus in Israel?
The answer is because this pandemic will be over one day (God-willing soon), and when that day comes we will still have a country that I would like to see remain a democracy, where the people elect their leaders and the rule of law is upheld. I would like Israel to remain a country where there is a separation of powers with sufficient oversight between the executive, legislature and judiciary branches.
Instead, what we have is the consolidation of power within the executive branch and the cabinet without any supervision. I, for example, am concerned with the decision passed overnight by the cabinet to enact emergency orders that allow the Shin Bet to digitally track us. While I understand that this tool can save lives, I have also seen how digital information is used cynically by our politicians.
We don’t have to look back too far. Ahead of the election to the 21st Knesset last April, Benny Gantz’s cell phone was hacked by the Iranians. A cyberattack of that kind against a senior politician and former IDF chief of staff should be viewed as an act of war. Nothing less.
Instead, it was leaked to the media and then used as a political weapon against Blue and White and against Gantz until the last election two weeks ago. Members of the Likud, including the prime minister himself, used sexual innuendos and more to claim that Gantz can be blackmailed because of what might have been on his phone.
Now imagine the amount of personal and private information the authorities will have as a result of the digital tracking they can now do. I have no doubt that the Shin Bet will not misuse it or the health authorities. But I cannot say the same for our politicians especially now when there is no parliamentary oversight. Who watches over the cabinet? The cabinet? This situation is ridiculous.
Netanyahu knows all of this, but he also knows that he can potentially get away with what he does now due to the public’s greater fear of COVID-19.
Israel seems to have done a good job in curbing the spread of the virus, mostly by enacting various restrictions like stopping air travel to the country, and mass quarantining people who entered its borders. The aim of all of this needs to be clear though: this is not being done because the Health Ministry thinks it can stop the virus. The virus will still spread. What the government is trying to do is slow down the spread so Israel’s hospitals do not collapse like what is happening in Italy.
Israel’s health system is fragile on a good day let alone when facing a global pandemic. This has been known for years, stressed again and again in every single OECD report. Just this past November, a study showed that Israel invests less in healthcare than any other developed country. Health expenditure in Israel is around $2,780 per person per year, while the average an OECD country spends is $4,000.
We have a shortage of hospital beds, medical personnel and equipment, and strikingly, the highest mortality rate from avoidable causes. That includes death by some cancers that proper public health measures could prevent.
All of this has been known for years, but unfortunately was never dealt with. It was neglected because there wasn’t political benefit in investing in the health system. Let us also remember who let this happen. It was Netanyahu. He has been the prime minister since 2009, so while he might be out front in fighting corona on a daily basis as he says, where was he for the last 11 years? Why didn’t he prepare the health system and country’s hospitals for what is coming? Every winter, there are pictures and stories of the elderly being stuffed into cafeterias or storage rooms because the hospital wards don’t have enough beds. Where was he all these years?
When this is all over, Israel will have no choice but to appoint a state commission of inquiry to investigate the neglect of our health system, and how Netanyahu’s consecutive governments simply abandoned their responsibility to care for Israelis’ health.
Then there is the problem with the messaging. The statements that Netanyahu has been making every other night are the farthest thing from a news conference, as some people have called them. They are declarations without any questions; statements and assumptions that go unchallenged.
On Tuesday night, the prime minister said that Israel would be upping the number of tests it carries out every day to somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000. After he spoke, the head of the Public Health Department in the Health Ministry, Prof. Sigal Sidetzky, took the podium and downplayed the importance of the tests, putting a greater emphasis on quarantine. Later that evening, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said that the government needs to be conducting 30,000 tests a day.
So which is it folks? 3,000? 5,000? 30,000? Or just a few hundred?
This is just one example, but it illustrates the problem: mixed messaging and unclear orders. This has played out in the way social distancing orders are being adhered to by the general population and some parts of the ultra-Orthodox community.
The fact that haredi yeshivot were allowed to remain open for a few days after all schools and universities had been shuttered is outrageous. If all schools need to be closed, then that should include yeshivas, and if yeshivas can remain open then why can’t Hebrew University?
I know that some people will find this criticism inappropriate. Israel is still far away from the end of this battle against the virus. But, we need to speak up. Imagine if there had been a greater public outcry when the war in Gaza in 2014 carried on for 50 days or in the summer of 2006 when the IDF lost its way in Lebanon. It is our responsibility.
The politicization of this health crisis needs to come to an end. The rule of law and the democratic process need to carry on as if there is no coronavirus, and the battle against the coronavirus needs to take place as if there is no battle being fought in the Knesset. That is how a responsible country would act. It is time we be one.
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I spoke on Wednesday with Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He told me about an article his grandfather – the chief rabbi (1936-1959) of Israel whose name he carries proudly – published in 1975 and titled: “Man’s Smallness and Greatness.”
Here is a passage from the article that gives some perspective during these difficult times:
“Man is at once great and small. Viewed from the physical aspect, how small is he. The home of brick and mortar that he builds for himself is much more enduring…Yet how great is man! This tiny mite we call man, whom a chill or a pin-prick can demolish and reduce to dust even as the wind can blow down our Sukkah, has evolved a civilization, wonderfully rich and complex, has dived into the mysteries of the universe, has forced nature to yield him some of her secrets, has produced inventions that seem to rival the works of Nature herself. He sweeps the ocean in steel fortresses of his making; he rules the waves; he commands the winds; he soars to the clouds and fathoms the seas. This puny creature when he rises heavenward cannot but realize his own greatness. He alone in this world can contemplate and study the marvelous works of the Supreme Architect and Artist.
“But while man discerns his greatness in his intellect by which he scales heaven, he dare not grow arrogant and presume a divine ability to see everything at a glance. He must not imagine that while he is encased in his earthy shell he can obtain a complete view of reality and can understand it all.”
Shabbat Shalom.