In 2007, a year after the Second Lebanon War saw 4,300 rockets rain down on Israel, the government passed two key decisions aimed at helping the country navigate through future national crises.
The first was the establishment of the National Emergency Administration (NEA), known by its Hebrew acronym “Rachel.” The second was the establishment of a new agency called the “National Information Directorate” (NID).
Both served different purposes, but their establishment drew on the same rationale: Israel needed to up its game and improve coordination between different ministries and governmental agencies during a war, an earthquake or a pandemic.
The National Information Directorate was created to synchronize the transmission of information to the public coming from all the government agencies. It was understood that there was a need for a single voice to deliver a clear message as well as direct channels to reach the frightened and uncertain public during crisis times.
The NEA was established as an agency within the Defense Ministry, meant to coordinate between the Prime Minister’s Office, the Healthy Ministry, Magen David Adom, Israel Police, the Fire and Rescue Authority, the IDF, and more. It does not have operative authority, but its power is as an integrator – making sure that everyone is in sync working toward the same goal and purpose.
There is no way to sugar-coat this so I’ll say it straight: both are broken, barely functioning, and have little influence over what is happening right now – the fight against a global virus, the very scenario for which they drilled and prepared over the span of a decade.
The NID, for example, has been vacant for nine months, since its last director, Yarden Vatikay, stepped down in June. No one was appointed to take his place, and what we have instead is every ministry running its own crisis communication team without coordination.
That is how we reached the situation earlier this week when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he wanted to get to 5,000 tests a day; the Health Ministry saying that it would do about 3,000; and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett then declaring that 30,000 were needed.
That is also why there was so much uncertainty when it came to the restrictions this week. With the guidelines changing on a near daily basis – understandably, with the ever-changing situation – there was a desperate need for a clear voice that could convey to Israelis what they need to do. Instead, people were confused: could they leave their homes? When? How? All of that was finally resolved Wednesday night with the new lockdown.
While the lack of clear messaging is a problem in itself, an even bigger problem is the absence of the NEA in any of the government’s planning on how to confront the spread of the virus. To understand why the NEA is not being seen, heard or felt, I spoke with the three people who ran it for most of the last 13 years.
The first was Matan Vilnai, the former IDF general who was minister of Home Front Defense in 2011. The second was retired Brig.-Gen. Zeev Zuk-Ram, the first head of the NEA who served in the role until 2011. And the third was retired Brig.-Gen. Betzalel Trieber, the last full-time head of the NEA until his resignation in 2018.
All three shared the same criticism: the government was operating without a strategic plan, and was not utilizing the tools it had created, poured hundreds of millions of shekels into, and had prepared to activate for this exact scenario.
“There is no one in charge,” Vilnai told me. “There is nothing going on at the NEA. There is no management.”
The agency, he lamented, was created specifically for what is happening now.
“It was set up to coordinate the home front for missile attacks, earthquakes and pandemics, and we always drilled in all three. The two ministries that were always the weakest in the drills were the Health Ministry, which lacks resources, and the Communications Ministry, which does not have reserve infrastructure in the event that our communication lines get damaged.”
Trieber’s criticism was more pointed.
“It’s all political,” he explained. “By activating the NEA, you are giving a role to the Defense Ministry and the defense minister, and Netanyahu doesn’t want that.”
Treiber refused to elaborate, but the tension between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Bennett is no secret. Rarely does Netanyahu like to do anything that gives Bennett a significant role or political credit.
In 2017, Treiber said, he went to the Finance Ministry and urged it to order all ministers to stipulate in their annual budget how much money was being allocated for emergency situations like this. The ministry refused.
“Ministers have a hard time functioning in routine and implementing their policies, let alone at a time of emergency,” he was told at the time.
This only underscores the importance of why a coordinator is needed. One of the important roles the NEA fills, Zuk-Ram explained, is heading what is known in Israel as “Melech,” a Hebrew acronym that stands for “Economy in a State of Emergency.” It’s basically the body that is supposed to manage the economy at a time like now, when thousands of businesses are shut down, a lockdown is in place, and close to one million Israelis are unemployed.
Melech though has not been activated. What that means is that there is no single integrated body looking at the supply lines coming into Israel to ensure that the country has the right amount of what it needs, and that the supplies are funnelled to the most critical factories and sectors.
“Someone needs to have their finger on the pulse of what is happening everywhere,” he explained.
Trieber agrees. Until now, he said, the National Security Council has been managing Israel’s response to coronavirus. The problem is that the NSC is not an operational manager, but an agency established to help the cabinet prepare key debates and discussions.
“The NEA was set up exactly for this purpose, and it is not being used,” he said.
A few months ago, way before this virus took over our lives, Vilnai went to the Defense Ministry and met with Director-General Udi Adam and other key officials to understand what had happened to the NEA, and why it was losing personnel and budgets. He failed to get answers.
“To me it seems like a politically motivated move,” Vilnai said. “It is unfortunate, but the bottom line is that the entire country is suffering as a result.”
The NEA, for example, had previously held drills on how to obtain vital equipment in times of emergency, working together with the Health Ministry and the Defense Ministry’s own procurement division that has a special expertise in obtaining weaponry during wars.
Why, the three wondered, was none of this used in recent weeks?
I understand those who question why this is relevant right now, when the country just entered its most severe lockdown in history. I believe the contrary: now is exactly the time to be asking these questions.
In times of emergency, like the current fight against the coronavirus, there are rarely going to be perfect answers and decisions. This is a developing and unprecedented reality that Israel – and the rest of the world – has never encountered before.
But that is why these questions are needed now. Israel created agencies and budgets that were meant to be immediately activated in a time of emergency, expressly to help combat an enemy like the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.
Why isn’t it using them?
Last week I wrote about the potential undermining of Israel’s rule of law under the cover of coronavirus. Many readers pushed back, upset at what they saw as an unwarranted accusation against the prime minister at a time when he is working around the clock to save lives.
What happened this week though in the fight between the High Court of Justice and Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein shows that the potential erosion of Israel’s democratic character is something we should watch for and be concerned about.
That is the case if you believe that Edelstein was wrong for defying a court order, or if you think that the court overstepped its authority and jurisdiction by intervening in the Knesset’s independence and sovereignty. Either way, something is happening when it comes to the rule of law, and even in times of crisis, that is a value that needs to be protected.
I have no doubt that Netanyahu is spending all of his time focused on one singular objective: how to save as many Israeli lives as possible during this global pandemic. But that does not mean that we shouldn’t be vigilant to ensure that power is not abused. In a democracy, that is the peoples’ job.
When Benny Gantz launched his Blue and White Party, his slogan was “Israel before all.” On Thursday afternoon, he showed it. The breakup with Yair Lapid was expected, especially in recent days as Gantz made it clear that his intention was to join a unity government with Netanyahu, a move that Lapid unequivocally rejected.
On the one hand, his decision to sit under Netanyahu is a violation of the promise he made to his voters not to sit in the same government with a prime minister who has been charged with bribery, and whose criminal trial is about to start. It followed the violation of another promise he made not to rely on votes from the Arab Joint List, something he also did since the election earlier this month.
That all might be true, but as we have often editorialized in these pages in recent weeks, Israel needs above all a government – and there is no better government right now than one that creates some semblance of unity in the Knesset.
For too long, Israel has been stuck in a political paralysis, in a state of constant mudslinging and divisiveness. It needed to get out of it especially now, as it faces a crisis heretofore unknown that is already wreaking havoc on Israel, as it is on the rest of the world.
I also understand Lapid. Netanyahu is a divisive leader who has been in office for too long. His most important objective right now – even as he fights the coronavirus – is how to stay in power and avoid jail time. That is not the kind of leader Israel deserves.
Nevertheless, while we can argue about the details of the deal that appears likely to be signed between Likud and Gantz, I believe that ultimately, Gantz made the right decision. Israel needs a functioning government, one that can properly tackle the coronavirus and run this country.
This is not without a serious gamble. Netanyahu proved once again on Thursday that he is always one step ahead of his political adversaries, and it is questionable whether he will rotate out of the role of prime minister when the time comes to hand it over to Gantz.
But for the time being, Gantz did the right thing. And he proved that Israel, at last this week, does indeed come first.