Will diplomacy trump health in new Israeli COVID travel policy? - analysis

The failure of the previous government to effectively manage Ben-Gurion Airport over the past 18 months played a major role in exacerbating the coronavirus crisis.

 People waiting in line at an MDA station to receive their coronavirus vaccines in Tel Aviv, August 14 2021 (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
People waiting in line at an MDA station to receive their coronavirus vaccines in Tel Aviv, August 14 2021
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will have to choose between diplomacy and health when he rolls out Israel’s new tourism policy next month.

Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash told The Jerusalem Post that the country is in the final stages of a plan to allow travelers to freely enter the country as tourists without any special permission so long as they can prove they are fully vaccinated or recovered.

Ideally, he said, this proof would come in the form of a scannable and easily verifiable digital vaccination certificate, such as the Israeli Green Passes or those that members of the European Union’s digital COVID certificate program can provide.

“At least in the first phase, we are recommending that only those who have digital vaccination certificates” be allowed to freely enter Israel, Ash said. But he added that this decision is still under discussion.

One can imagine why: Israel’s closest ally, the United States, is among those countries that generally do not provide such documentation and therefore travelers from America would still have to go through the special entry requirements and take a serological test upon arrival.

 A woman receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a temporary Clalit health care center in Jerusalem, September 30, 2021.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) A woman receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a temporary Clalit health care center in Jerusalem, September 30, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

This puts the government in a dilemma. Can it ease travel restrictions for some travelers but not those from the US, who have been eagerly waiting a year and a half to reconnect with Israel?

On the other hand, if Israel does allow Americans into the country without a proper verification process in place, does that put Israel at risk of a fifth wave?

The failure of the previous government to effectively manage Ben-Gurion Airport over the past 18 months played a major role in exacerbating the coronavirus crisis that ultimately led to many of the more than 7,800 COVID-19 deaths. It also destroyed Israel’s tourism industry, which in 2019 constituted 5.9% of the country’s GDP.

This was largely because of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government’s unwillingness to put in place or follow through with any policy that might be deemed unpopular, especially among certain population groups.

This included waiting a year to require travelers to test for the virus on exit and entry from the country and refusing to label certain countries that Israelis wanted to travel to as red even when infection rates were high.

 

LAST SPRING, when Bennett still sat in the opposition, he defined Netanyahu’s failure to manage Ben-Gurion as a ‘folly,” according to the definition provided by author Barbara Tuchman in her book The March of Folly. According to Tuchman, a folly is something that in real time, rather than in retrospect, was known to be stupid, but was done anyway.

Netanyahu’s first airport folly centered on travel from the United States.

More than 70% of coronavirus patients in Israel during the first wave were infected by a strain that originated in America, according to a study published in May 2020 by Tel Aviv University.

How did it happen?

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.

“There was this gap in policy, and this gap allowed people to return from the US who thought that they could go wherever they wanted, so they probably spread the virus that way,” Dr. Adi Stern of the School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology at TAU’s George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, told the Post back then.

The Health Ministry began considering adding 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 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.”

NETANYAHU MADE other mistakes, too, such as allowing thousands of ultra-Orthodox hasidim to travel to and from Uman in September 2020 – against the recommendation of then coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu. It was discovered that planes carrying many sick people had returned to the country.

In November, throngs of Arab Israelis traveled to Turkey. They came back to their communities failing to enter isolation, which led to a surge of cases in their cities and towns.

Also, 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 should be labeled as “red,” requiring isolation upon return. Instead, Israelis traveled unbridled until it was published by the Health Ministry that a third of the coronavirus cases from abroad coming into Israel were from Dubai.

In general, Ben-Gurion Airport is the weakest link in the coronavirus chain, according to health experts, because it is through this portal that vaccine-resistant mutations can enter Israel and potentially unravel its mass vaccination success story, leading to a fifth wave.

It was travelers that brought in the British mutation ahead of the third wave, which spread at least 30% faster than the original Wuhan virus strain, and therefore slowed the effectiveness of the first stage of Israel’s vaccination campaign.

In addition, travelers brought in the Brazilian and the South African mutations – both of which did not spread very much but were found to render Pfizer vaccines less effective.

And, of course, the Delta variant also entered Israel from abroad - likely starting with just one or two families.

Bennett has repeatedly faced tests about whether or not to follow in the footsteps of Netanyahu or learn from his mistakes. The decision he makes now will determine whether he will avoid a potential pitfall or repeat his predecessor’s folly.