Is Israel at the forefront of coronavirus measures?

Diplomatic Affairs: At first criticized, Israel now looks like a coronavirus containment visionary

AN EMPTY departure hall of Ben-Gurion Airport this week – Israel’s policies to contain the spread of coronavirus were clearly prescient. (photo credit: FLASH90)
AN EMPTY departure hall of Ben-Gurion Airport this week – Israel’s policies to contain the spread of coronavirus were clearly prescient.
(photo credit: FLASH90)
The walls went up, and Israel is now a fortress. In a dramatic decision the government made this week, all those entering the country from abroad – regardless of where they have been – must be quarantined for two weeks to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Many other Western countries have begun taking similar measures, including the US, which barred entry from Europe on Wednesday night.
But when Israel first started pulling up the drawbridges, it was taking the most extreme measures in the West to contain COVID-19. After the government announced it was stopping flights from China, there was talk about adverse diplomatic effects.
China is very sensitive to its image in the world, and as a result, Israel made efforts to show that its problem was with the virus, not all of China. Those efforts included a video, produced by the Foreign Ministry, of Israelis saying that they stand with the Chinese in this difficult time; it was such a success that major Chinese newspapers and official TV channels reported on it. Israeli aid organizations also tried to send supplies to Wuhan, where COVID-19 first broke out.
The challenge is to try to maintain economic ties as normally as possible, even when people are not moving between the countries because of steps necessary to maintain the public’s health, sources in the Foreign Ministry said.
The next major diplomatic obstacle came last week as news emerged of more and more cases of coronavirus diagnosed in the US.
By the weekend, it came out that at least three people who had been at the AIPAC Policy Conference on March 1-3 were infected – as of press time, we know of five. An entire synagogue and Jewish school in New York shut down due to the virus’s spread. On Saturday night, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov said the ministry was examining the possibility of sending people who arrived in Israel from Washington state, New York and California, where COVID-19 had spread, into isolation.
On Sunday, Army Radio reported that the decision was frozen, and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said “such a decision has internal significance in the US. It is important to act in cooperation with the Americans on this matter.”
This led to widespread speculation that Israel was delaying a public health decision in order not to anger US President Donald Trump and his administration, and reporting in multiple news outlets relying on anonymous sources claiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was blocking the Health Ministry’s recommendations.
Netanyahu then spoke on the phone with US Vice President Mike Pence, who is in charge of the Trump administration’s coronavirus portfolio, and within hours he said that the government would soon announce that it would require everyone arriving from overseas to be isolated, rather than incrementally adding states to the list.
Barak Ravid of Channel 13 and Axios reported that Pence suggested the strategy to Netanyahu, telling him to “go global” instead of specifically quarantining arrivals from a number of US states. The Prime Minister’s Office wouldn’t comment on the matter, and the US Office of the Vice President told Axios that the conversation went differently.
Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman gave a description that differs from, but doesn’t necessarily contradict, the “go global” suggestion.
“I was there when the prime minister spoke to Vice President Mike Pence, and there was no argument or question. He agreed with everything, and there was no problem,” the Brooklyn-raised minister told Radio 103 FM.
Explaining the jump from adding a few countries at a time to quarantining arrivals from the entire world, Litzman said: “It wasn’t a question of America or not America. There are other countries. The question is whether to decide on [quarantining] everything.... There’s no point in doing one country and then another. If we’re doing it, we’re doing all of them.”
Prof. Eytan Gilboa of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, an expert on US-Israel relations and public diplomacy, thought that Netanyahu made the right move in a difficult situation.
“Pence, appointed by Trump to lead the campaign against the virus, wanted to reduce the hysteria and calm the people,” Gilboa said. “A restriction on travel from the US to Israel could have undermined his effort.”
Gilboa pointed out that a Pence instruction to “go global” fit the Health Ministry’s eventual aim, such that a blanket isolation policy “was an optimal response to the concerns of both the Trump administration and the local health professionals.”
WHAT A difference a few days makes. At first, every step toward a blanket quarantine policy was scrutinized as a potential diplomatic crisis – though, in effect, there was none except a brief hiccup with China. And now, Israel was clearly prescient.
All of Italy is in lockdown following its lax policies, and there are predictions that Spain is on the way, as well. The US announced that it is closing its doors to Europeans. The Chinese government, which set the kind of broad restrictions a nondemocratic country is able to use, says the worst is behind China.
And tens of thousands of Israelis and visitors to Israel are in quarantine, regardless of where they have been.
As for those concerns about Israel on the world stage, Gilboa posited that “the Israeli tough measures won’t damage Israel’s image and relations with the world.”
“The international media both praised and criticized the Israeli measures, which at the beginning seemed to be too extreme, but following the disastrous spread of the virus in Italy and across several states in Europe, coupled with the relative Israeli success in fighting the epidemic, the criticism has disappeared and has been replaced with more interest and understanding,” he said.
Former MK Nachman Shai, who wrote his doctorate on Israel’s public diplomacy and is teaching at Emory University’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel this year, said Israel was wise to act faster than many other countries.
“If we manage to block this war, it will be a reason to praise the broader public and the government.... Beyond the specific actions in every area, the main effort is psychological, on the masses – how people will behave and how they can be calmed and continue reasonable, not-hysterical behavior,” he added.
With the US now taking major steps to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus, the global response has entered a new phase.
“With President Trump’s speech” – announcing the stop of flights from Europe – “the atmosphere here has completely changed. The US took a step similar to Israel, closing its borders. In practice, it is disconnecting America from the world,” Shai said. “The dimensions of this global crisis will now be felt in every aspect of our lives.”
“If the US gets hysterical, the world will respond in kind,” Shai warned. “May God help us.”•