Barbash vs. Abulafia? Who will be Israel’s next coronavirus czar?

The Health Ministry claimed that both Barbash and Abulafia were worthy and no decision had been made so far.

Professor Gabriel Barbash  (photo credit: WEIZMANN INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE)
Professor Gabriel Barbash
Who will be Israel’s coronavirus czar and manage the ever-challenging and evolving coronavirus crisis?
Early Sunday, it appeared that the role of “coronavirus commissioner,” or czar, would be given to Prof. Gabriel Barbash, former CEO of Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, who also served as a previous director-general of the Health Ministry. In fact, according to N12, the official letter of appointment has not yet been signed, but was in its final stages.
However, it soon was revealed that there is not a consensus among top leadership on his appointment.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited Barbash to discuss the opportunity with him on Saturday and nominated him for the role, people with knowledge of the matter told The Jerusalem Post. However, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein prefers to appoint Maj.-Gen. Amir Abulafia, with the assumption that someone with a military background will do more fieldwork.
“Contrary to reports, the health minister is not fighting any battle over the identity of the commissioner,” the Health Ministry said in a statement. “We understand the desire to spice up news with juicy gossip. It’s just a pity it is simply not true. Minister Edelstein is examining the most suitable candidates for the position.”
The ministry said both Barbash and Abulafia were worthy, and a decision would be made in the coming days, with both of them having an equal opportunity.
“Right now, everything is political,” said Prof. Zeev Rotstein, head of Hadassah Medical Center. “I don’t know what will be at the end of this fight. It has already taken Edelstein too long to decide.”
Medical professionals across the spectrum praised the idea of appointing Barbash, who became associated with the coronavirus crisis through his near-nightly commentaries on N12, during which he has sharply criticized the government.
Last Friday, Barbash gave an interview on 103FM, in which he referred to the government’s decision to impose new restrictions, expressing concern that “we will go to a full and lengthy closure this coming winter.” Referring to the decision to close the beaches on the weekends, he said: “I do not think it should be done. There is no justification for it.”
The news of Barbash’s potential appointment came nearly two weeks after Edelstein announced he had intended to form a centralized authority to manage the coronavirus crisis. Since then, aside from Abulafia, several other names have been circulated to head such an operation, including former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen.(ret.) Gadi Eisenkot, Maj.-Gen. Roni Numa and former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov.
Abulafia is apparently desired for the role mainly because he is a talented manager and operator, traits that were expressed in his role as head of the IDF Planning Department. However, analysts said he might have struggled in the role due to his lack of political experience.
Last week, it was reported that Bar Siman Tov turned down the role because of the pressure he underwent managing the crisis during the first wave.
Since April, several health and economic officials have been pushing the government to establish a centralized authority that would effectively spearhead a crisis control center and be responsible for the management of real-time data, logistics, procurement, testing and epidemiological investigations. It would manage the health funds, the hospitals, the police, Home Front Command, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and any other body that plays a role in fighting the pandemic.
Barbash has many years of managerial experience and extensive medical background, which would make him a suitable candidate, health officials said.
“Gabi Barbash is the right candidate for the role,” Rotstein said. “I would be committed to supporting Barbash in such a role.”
Prof. Dan Ben-David, founder and head of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, said: “Prof. Barbash is one of Israel’s premier physicians with organizational background, having headed Ichilov Hospital and being director-general of the Health Ministry. I identify with the things that I have heard him say on the coronavirus and from personal acquaintance, I know that his heart is in the right place.”
However, he added, “the big question is whether the person to run the type of mammoth organizational structure that we need – and hopefully the kind that the government will authorize him to head – requires a physician to head it, or someone with proven skills at actually running such a multifaceted operation at the nationwide level who has top physicians on his staff. After all, this will require dealing with tremendous bureaucratic black holes and bringing a different operational culture to the otherwise extremely inefficient, unorganized and often unprofessional bureaucracy.”
The other question that remains is whether whoever takes the position will be given the authority to carry out his role.
Until now, the Health Ministry has been unrelenting about controlling the management of the pandemic.
“I have been hearing in recent days a question that just makes me smirk: ‘Who is in charge? Who is running the event?’” Edelstein said last week. “I want to tell you in the simplest and clearest way: I am responsible for this event. I have the authority, and I take all the responsibility.”