The country is heading into a three-week nearly total lockdown on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the government determined on Sunday after more than seven hours of heated debate. The closure will go into effect at 2 p.m. on Friday and last through Simchat Torah on October 9.
During the lockdown, the school system will remain closed, except for special education and programs for at-risk youth. People will not be able to venture more than 500 meters from home. Restaurants, shopping centers and businesses that offer leisure and recreational activities will be shut down.
The private sector will be allowed to continue working, so long as these businesses follow the Purple Ribbon protocol. The public sector will operate in a limited format like it did in March and April.The airport will stay open.
Finally, there will be a special outline for High Holy Day prayers.
“There are detailed regulations that the government will approve in the next two days,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained during a briefing held shortly after the vote. “I know these steps will take a heavy toll, that this is not the holiday we are used to, and that we will certainly not be able to celebrate with the whole family.”
But he added, “If we are not careful to follow these basic steps the virus will spread… Anyone who does not keep the directives is harming other people.”
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein spoke after the prime minister: "Obviously I should be happy as someone whose offer was accepted, but that is not the case… For three months, I tried to do everything to allow us to live life alongside the coronavirus and keep the number [of sick patients] at levels the health system could live with.
“Unfortunately, that is not the case today,” he continued. “Under the circumstances, we had no choice.”
Edelstein spoke from his home in Herzliya where he is in isolation - and after a lengthy meeting that was not short on accusations against the Health Ministry and coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu for not doing enough to stop the spread of the virus, and that included harsh opposition by many ministers to a closure.
"It is nice that you are raising the red flag now, when hospitals are getting full, but you had to raise that red flag a month or two ago," Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said.
Water Minister Ze’ev Elkin accused Gamzu of "zigzagging all the time" and not presenting clear criteria for how the lockdown will end.
"In the coronavirus cabinet, we were told that for a lockdown to be effective, it takes three to four weeks and not two," Elkin said. "We need to say this honestly to the public."
Some, such as Science & Technology Minister Izhar Shay (Blue and White) and Economy Minister Amir Peretz (Labor), fought against the closure, saying the harm to the Israeli economy will be too severe for the country to recover.
Finance Minister Israel Katz said difficult decisions were being made, because the Health Ministry did not do its job properly. He claimed that a general closure of the Israeli economy would cause heavy damage to businesses and hundreds of thousands of other unemployed.
Peretz called for a scaled back closure: “I support a night closure in which about 80% of the economy remains open,” Peretz said Saturday night. “Hundreds of thousands of employees and the self-employed are in existential anxiety. The economic coronavirus pandemic is no less severe than the health pandemic.”
Minister Itzik Shmuli expressed opposition to a full closure because he claimed it would not stand the public test.
"I propose to better balance health and the economy and strike harder at the centers of illness and not everywhere,” Shmuli said. He also offered that instead of a furlough model, the government would move to a wage subsidy model.
Regional Cooperation Minister Ophir Akunis (Likud) also warned that a full lockdown would be "a disaster for the Israeli economy." He said the economy needed to be restored as soon as possible after the holidays.
Similarly, Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir (Blue and White) argued late Saturday night that “a full closure of the entire country during the holidays is too extreme a step and has economic implications that entire industries will not recover from.”
Zamir also lashed out against “outrageous violations” of Health Ministry directives, from nightclub parties to weddings, and against the ministers who have failed to be role models.
“No one is a role model here, including some of my colleagues in the Knesset and government, and this is the result,” he said. But he said that he will vote against the decision to impose the closure, nevertheless.
Even before the meeting, in the morning, Housing and Construction Minister Ya'acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) announced that he is resigning from the coalition, writing in his resignation letter that he believed Netanyahu intended from the start to have a full lockdown during the holidays out of a lack of appreciation for religious observance in comparison to other issues that are not being harmed in the fight against coronavirus.
"My heart is with the thousands of Jews who come to synagogue once a year and this year won't come at all due to the lockdown," Litzman wrote. "I warned against a lockdown during the holidays in every possible forum and emphasized that if there is a need for a full lockdown, it should not wait for a rise of infection to get to this pace."
He said a closure should have been carried out a month ago and not during the High Holy Days. He added that when he made his original plea to Gamzu, the commissioner denied that this was his intention. Litzman said that in retrospect he was proven correct.
"That is why I cannot continue to serve as a minister and I decided to resign from the government and return to the Knesset," he concluded.
Via the Norwegian Law, Litzman quit the Knesset and was replaced by the next candidate on the UTJ list, Eliyahu Baruchi, who will automatically leave the Knesset when Litzman's resignation letter becomes official.
The resignation is not final. If carried through, it will take effect in 48 hours.
"I am very sorry about the decision of Minister Litzman to step down," Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting. "I really value Ya'acov Litzman, but I also respect his decision. Nonetheless, we need to continue to make decisions on behalf of the State of Israel."
In addition to the battle over the lockdown, during the meeting there was also a colorful debate over whether to allow protests to continue.
"Gathering is gathering," charged Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana (Likud), "so it should be forbidden to everyone, including protesters."
In response, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn (Blue and White) said that the country could not stop people from protesting against it.
Minister David Amsalem (Likud) actually yelled at Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit for saying that demonstrations should not be stopped.
“Take responsibility for the disease,” Amsalem charged, “public trust is damaged by the demonstrations."
Mandelblit responded: "Demonstrations cannot be prevented. It is not a matter of quantity but of quality."
Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen requested that the government design a clear outline for the demonstrations.
“The police officer at the end should receive clear instructions,” Cohen said. “It is not his job to determine who will demonstrate and who will not."
"The top officials of the Ministry of Health unanimously agree that the demonstrations as they take place today are a danger to health. Public trust is required here, and we need one rule for everyone," Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kish added.
Gamzu said he could design such an outline.
The vote on a lockdown came after last Thursday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting, at which hospital heads from throughout the country raised a red flag and said that the situation in their coronavirus units and among their staff was becoming unsustainable.
A report published Sunday by the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center supported those statements: “The hospitals’ safety net has been significantly reduced, which creates a danger to the stability of the healthcare system.”
Furthermore, the number of serious patients is increasing, which puts the country’s hospitals at risk, the report said, noting that the number of serious patients in the hospitals has increased by 51 in the last two weeks.
At the same time, the Health Ministry reported another day of high infection: Some 2,715 people tested positive on Saturday. Israel reached a record high number of patients in serious condition with 513 patients, 139 of whom are intubated. The death toll stands at 1,108.
"I do not want to use the word collapsing," Dr. Michael (Miki) Halberthal, the head of Rambam Medical Center, said at a cabinet meeting, according to The Jerusalem Post's sister paper, Maariv, "but the situation requires immediate closure."
However, on Sunday, several of the hospital heads nearly contradicted Halberthal, such as deputy director-general of Sheba Medical Center, Prof. Arnon Afek, who said that his hospital is not close to breaking down.
Further, the head of Rabin Medical Center also contradicted Halberthal: "The trend has indeed changed since mid-August, but this is not a collapse of the hospital system. There is unnecessary anxiety. A full closure is not required."
Netanyahu, however, still seemed to believe that immediate action was required.
“Senior officials in the Health Ministry raised a red flag on Thursday,” he said at the Sunday briefing. “They warned us that the number of serious patients is climbing, and the winter is getting nearer.”
He said it is not a problem of respirators or beds, but a problem of human wear and tear on the health system staff.
At the start of the meeting, Edelstein also expressed that the country was in a state of emergency and if the ministers made more than “cosmetic changes” he would withdraw any proposal from the table.
"I will not allow the program to be negotiated," Edelstein stressed at the start of the meeting. "I say clearly at the beginning of this discussion: if the plan is not accepted, I will withdraw it and not bring alternative plans.
"The coronavirus is neither a political or populist matter, it is a matter of life and death," he continued. "I suggest to anyone who claims otherwise, to tour coronavirus wards and see the situation for themselves."
He added that if the plan is withdrawn, then by next Tuesday there will be no public restrictions, the price of which would be several thousand dead.
"I will not give in to pressure just to please such and such people," he stressed.
Later at the briefing he concluded, “When I am asked, ‘Are you sure that all the difficult things we will go through are not for nothing?’ I say, ‘It depends on all of us.’
“If in those weeks when there are these restrictions - and we, the citizens of Israel, will not abide by the rules and we will not obey the instructions - then the situation will be in vain,” he said. “But if we keep to the simple rules of wearing masks, good hygiene and social distancing… there is light at the end of the tunnel.”