Countdown to the Hanukkah COVID-19 closure began today - analysis

From four to one, Israel can countdown to the next lockdown.

Jerusalem during the second lockdown amid the coronavirus crisis (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem during the second lockdown amid the coronavirus crisis
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
If only government officials could find that miracle pot of oil to light their way out the COVID-19 darkness.
Instead, the government, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as its shamash, is plunging deeper into the abyss – so much so that the next holiday closure is almost a certainty.
From four to one, Israel can count down to the next lockdown.
No. 4: No one wants to be a “frier” (sucker)
Some 63% of Israelis have “little” or “no trust at all” in the prime minister’s ability to lead the effort against the coronavirus, according to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute that will be published this week.
Add that to the increasing number of public officials who have broken Health Ministry regulations to barely a slap on the wrist.
“The message it sends to the public is that not following the rules is OK, and following the rules makes you a frier,” – Israeli slang for someone who gets taken advantage of, said Hagai Levine, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem epidemiologist and chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians.
The result: A defiant public, one that does not listen to the health recommendations and therefore puts the country at risk.
Chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians Prof. Hagai Levine (Credit: Knesset Spokesperson's Office/Shmulik Grossman)
Chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians Prof. Hagai Levine (Credit: Knesset Spokesperson's Office/Shmulik Grossman)
No. 3: The missing miracle – data
“You should not go into a lockdown if you don’t know how to get out,” Levine said.
Government decision-making continues to lack balance between health, social and economic considerations, and it continues to be based on political logic rather than epidemiological data.
What Israel saw once again late Friday afternoon highlighted this challenge: Health officials agree that to keep schools COVID-free, the country needs to do routine testing of teachers.
In an abrupt and last-minute move on Friday morning, the Health Ministry sprung open hundreds of coronavirus testing centers across the country and called on every teacher and aide to get screened for coronavirus over the weekend.
On Sunday evening, the Education Ministry reported that out of 592,000 preschool children between the ages of three and six, some 750 were infected. This is 2.22% of all infected citizens – while their share of the general population is 6.48%.
However, they did not report data about the teachers, who are much more likely to have and contract coronavirus.
“I am worried today that some preschools opened with sick teachers. They came in and taught. Now, what are we going to do?” Levine asked.
Not only did teachers not have time to be tested, they were given less than 48 hours to prepare their classrooms or become comfortable with the new outline for managing the children in the shadow of the virus.
It was déjà vu of September and May, when the government left parents and teachers on the edge of their seats, debating until the final hour if schools could open, let alone how.
“The government did not learn anything from the first closure,” MK Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid-Telem) said Sunday.
 Israel Democracy Institute president Yohanan Plesner. (Photo credit: Courtesy IDI)
Israel Democracy Institute president Yohanan Plesner. (Photo credit: Courtesy IDI)
No. 2: Netanyahu is spinning for the win
Israel is likely heading to an unprecedented fourth election, and during a campaign, political considerations dominate (or sometimes become the only) considerations, according to IDI president Yohanan Plesner.
“If we are heading toward an election, it means that we cannot expect Netanyahu to ever enforce the law in a meaningful way vis-à-vis the ultra-Orthodox sector,” he said. “Without effective enforcement on gatherings in closed places, there is no way we can block the spread of the virus.”
From the perspective of the pandemic experts, one of the key principles for stopping the spread of infection while allowing the country to operate is to apply a differential approach, one that limits activity in areas of high morbidity and allows activity in areas with less.
Health officials, including Levine, coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu and nearly all heads of hospitals, have stressed that if the coronavirus is to accompany the country for at least another year, a differential policy driven by data will sustain the Start-Up Nation.
In August, the prime minister refused to bring the “traffic light” program to the coronavirus cabinet for a vote for three weeks, knowing it was likely to put several haredi towns under closure. When he did, it was too late.
The next month, he enabled hassidim to travel to Ukraine and bring coronavirus back to Israel.
And when he was faced with the choice between locking down a few dozen haredi cities or the whole country at around the same time, he chose to close down Israel.
Now, he approved opening preschools in red zones, which he claimed on Saturday and Sunday was not for political reasons.
“There is an outline, and we followed it point by point, including with everything related to the ultra-Orthodox sector in the red cities – exactly what was determined,” Netanyahu said. “I did not agree to any changes or give in on anything.”
But the traffic-light program has always called for schools to be shuttered in areas of high infection.
On Saturday night, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky called for students to return to school in direct opposition to the government. In response, Netanyahu said that while he would send police to enforce the regulation, “we are unable to send a police officer to every street corner or alley. We will exercise our best judgment. Understand that there are limitations here.”
Plesner said Netanyahu’s response was “weak, completely crooked and upside down.”
According to Plesner, Israel is “paying the price for the autonomous lifestyle the government has enabled for years.”
One of the prime minister’s “supreme” political directives, he said, is never to take on the ultra-Orthodox as he struggles to preserve his political bloc and allies. As an election nears, it becomes even less likely that Netanyahu will do anything short of complying with haredi demands.
No. 1: A Greek tragedy
Netanyahu’s key priority now is subverting the legal process he is facing. To achieve this goal, he can trust his Orthodox allies. But this comes at the expense of confronting the pandemic.
“Netanyahu’s trial is now the key element that dictates his priorities and decision-making,” Plesner said. “If not for his trial, I would think it unlikely he would be leading the country toward a fourth election campaign.”
To bring the country to a fourth election means he cannot pass a budget because he wants to retain an exit option from the government, Plesner said. But the price of not having a budget is the inability to respond with a sound, comprehensive economic policy to one of the deepest economic challenges Israel has confronted for decades.
Israel needs a government that has the courage and willpower to solve the challenges ahead.
When it comes to getting the haredim to comply with the restrictions, this surely means using enforcement, Plesner said, but police do not have to be the only option.
There are economic tools, he said, such as denying budgets for publicly funded institutions that are not complying with the law – as Health Minister Yuli Edelstein alluded to doing on Sunday night.
It could also mean holding criminal proceedings against heads of institutions that are spreading the disease, Plesner said.
“There are tools available for a government that wants to act,” he said.
For Netanyahu, any of the above actions would be a contradiction to his personal interest, and hence he is unlikely to act – as Israel has seen for months and saw again on Sunday when tens of thousands of haredi children in such cities went off to school, and the Israel Police said they gave out only dozens of tickets.
In “regular” times, Israel needs a full-time prime minister.
In the time of a global pandemic, Israel’s leader can’t afford to balance between his personal priority of staying out of jail and the national mandate to combat this deadly disease.