A diplomatic balancing act - Analysis

Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be able to respond aggressively to the coronavirus while also trying to avoid actions that would single out the US?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks to supporters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's election at his Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel March 3, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks to supporters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's election at his Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel March 3, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
The public’s health comes before everything else, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov emphasized again and again in their press conference Sunday night.
Yet Netanyahu’s other remarks made it clear that he is walking a tightrope between Israel’s stringent but effective response to the spread of the novel coronavirus and relations with Israel’s most important ally, the United States.
A day after Bar Siman Tov said the Health Ministry was examining the possibility of sending people into 14-day isolation if they arrived in Israel from Washington state, New York and California, where COVID-19 has spread, the decision was put on ice.
The reversal took place amid reports citing anonymous Health Ministry sources lamenting that the Prime Minister’s Office is not accepting their recommendation to quarantine arrivals from those states, because Netanyahu is worried about angering US President Donald Trump, and remarks by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin that Israel is “trying to coordinate with the Americans” because “they’re not just any country.”
Netanyahu spoke with US Vice President Mike Pence in the afternoon, but the Prime Minister’s Office statement about the call had nothing to do with quarantines.
Then Netanyahu announced that Israel may require everyone who returns from abroad – regardless of what country – to self-quarantine. The prime minister’s explanation was that after so many countries have been included in the isolation policy, it no longer made sense to do it incrementally.
There may be a logic to that policy, but in the context of the rest of the press briefing, it looked like the prime minster was trying to avoid actions that would single out the US.
Though there is continuing debate in the US about the Trump government’s handling of this health crisis and questions of whether there is enough testing or reporting of people infected with the virus, and though there is community transmission in the US, unlike in Israel, Netanyahu effusively praised the US administration’s response to COVID-19’s spread.
“There are difficult decisions to be made with international cooperation,” he said. “Our most important cooperation [is] with the US government, which is leading an American and international effort.”
Netanyahu also made remarks in English thanking Trump and Pence for their “extraordinary cooperation with Israel,” and in a Trump-like formulation, he said: “Perhaps the finest people in the world… exceptional people” in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are handling the response.
“We can learn a lot from them,” he added. “We deeply appreciate the opportunity to cooperate, especially on technological solutions, on widespread screening, especially home screening, which will change the situation not only for the US and Israel, but also the world.”
Still, Netanyahu insisted that Israel is “taking steps as we are understanding it, and everyone is accepting it, including the US. The steps we’ve taken have proven themselves, because we are in control of the situation.”
Similarly, Bar Siman Tov said: “All decisions made are professional. We try to make the right decisions and implement them correctly, and I promise you, all decisions that have to be made, will be made.”
In other words, the Health Ministry will do what is necessary to contain the contagion, regardless of outside considerations.
By moving toward a general quarantine for people who were abroad, Netanyahu may have found an elegant solution to keep Israelis safe while not insulting the Americans, who are so strategically important to Israel.
At the same time, it could be viewed as a draconian measure. Making a decision that looks political weakens the public’s trust in a policy under which thousands of people have been inconvenienced and lost money and which has hurt the economy.
So far, Israel’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has been more extreme than most of the Western world, has proven effective. Whether this is a step too far or the major shift needed to keep Israelis healthy remains to be seen.


Tags Mike Pence