Should Bennett have risked Omicron or banned US travel? - analysis

The US is among a list of countries that were announced to be turning red on Tuesday.

 TRAVELERS AT Ben-Gurion Airport this week. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
TRAVELERS AT Ben-Gurion Airport this week.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Once a businessman, always a businessman.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett proved this theory on Monday when his government threw diplomacy to the wind and focused on health and data by banning travel to and from the United States in an effort to reduce Omicron risks.

While closing the skies seemingly goes against aspirations described by Bennett in his book How to Beat COVID-19: The Way to Overcome the Crisis and Lead Israel to Economic Prosperity, it is a bold move that his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu would have been unlikely to make – at least with any confidence.

Netanyahu waited five days to shut Israel’s borders to American travelers when the coronavirus crisis kicked off in March 2020, resulting in more than 70% of the coronavirus infections in the first wave, according to a study published that May by Tel Aviv University.

Flights from Europe and other parts of the world began to be halted between February 26 and March 4, 2020 – but not from the US. Only beginning on March 9 did Israel block its borders to anyone coming from abroad who could not complete 14 days of quarantine in Israel.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen holding a special press conference on COVID-19 in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen holding a special press conference on COVID-19 in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The Health Ministry began considering adding some American states to the list of places from which travelers were required to quarantine as early as March 5, but it was only after Netanyahu had held a conference call with former US vice president Mike Pence on Sunday, May 8, that he decided to close Israel’s borders to all countries, including the US.“We take action as we understand it to be necessary,” the prime minister said at the time, “and everyone accepts it – obviously the United States, too.”

But this gap in policy had tragic results.

Months later, after the peace deal with the United Arab Emirates, Netanyahu encouraged Israelis to travel to Dubai and celebrate the agreement, despite the high level of infection there and the professional recommendation that the country be labeled as red, meaning at the time that returnees would have required isolation (there was not a travel ban on red countries yet).

So Israelis traveled unbridled to and from the UAE until it was revealed by the Health Ministry that a third of COVID cases from abroad at the time were coming from Dubai.

ON THE one hand, it would seem that if Netanyahu’s relationship with former US President Donald Trump was so strong, he should have been able to tell the president that he had to take the serious step of shuttering the skies to Americans to protect his country.

On the other hand, Trump was giving Netanyahu so much that perhaps the prime minister did not feel comfortable taking such a drastic step. Trump was delivering on the diplomatic and security issues that Netanyahu had felt passionately about throughout his entire political career. The former prime minister would not have wanted to do anything to get in the way of his life’s mission, like stopping the Iran deal, legitimizing settlements and more.

As the recent tapes of Trump have revealed, the former president was easily angered and has cut off ties with Netanyahu over his congratulating of the new president, Joe Biden.

But the situation for Bennett is different.

First of all, Biden understands the threat of COVID-19 in a way that Trump never did. Biden has kept a close eye on Bennett’s strategy, and the US has even implemented some of Israel’s policies – including some regarding travel.

Moreover, Bennett’s relationship with the US president is much more practical than emotional. He seems to be able to say what he thinks his country needs without fear of punishment by the United States.

In fact, the decision to ban America is more a direct assault on American Jews’ connection to the State of Israel and the North American olim who have chosen to make Israel their home.

While in the first year of the crisis, American Jews were sympathetic and supportive of Israel’s need to protect its people, the dialogue has started to change. They see that, while they are being prohibited from coming, beauty contestants are not.

But Bennett, by labeling the US, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey red, was willing to gamble with Diaspora love to keep the local economy open.

The decision still needs to be approved by the Knesset, but it is expected to pass and go into effect by Tuesday at midnight.

BENNETT IS not without criticism. He wrote that the airports could be controlled through testing, home and hotel isolation and fines. These are all policies the prime minister has already enacted. But as Omicron threatens to enter Israel and the fifth wave begins to grow, his naïveté in August 2020 has started to show.

Even with new ministers and professional staff in place, the country continues to be plagued by poor enforcement.The decision to ban these ten countries effectively shutters Israel’s airport – just since December 1 there have been 340 flights and 65,000 passengers transported between the US and Israel alone, according to the Airports Authority – in what Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz have said is an effort to buy time for more children to vaccinate before the highly contagious Omicron variant – which is still largely entering the country from abroad – takes over in Israel.

The latest Health Ministry report showed that of the 661 people either infected or suspected of being infected with Omicron in Israel, 469 of them either brought the variant in from abroad or were in direct contact with someone who did.

Seventeen passengers tested positive for COVID on one flight from Florida to Israel, many of whom are suspected of carrying the variant, a ministry official told the Knesset on Sunday.

One could argue that Omicron is coming and there are few new steps to be taken in the short window of time the government has bought Israel with its travel ban, so why implement one?

Also, some health officials are saying that Omicron causes a less severe disease than its Delta predecessor, so mass infection with the variant coupled with vaccination could help usher in the coveted herd immunity.

These are pragmatic health discussions that can and should be had.

In business, having the right data at the right time is paramount.

One thing has become clear over the past six months: While Netanyahu ruled by politics and populism, quickly losing the trust of the public, Bennett is an entrepreneur and manager who is aiming to do what he believes is practical for the Jewish state.

Whether Bennett should have risked letting Omicron into Israel earlier or banned US travel will only be known when the fifth wave is over.

But in any case, sticking with prevailing data and science should be part of the basic leadership playbook when combating a global pandemic.