Clueless in Coronaland: How Israel learned short-term fixes aren't enough

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Israel’s ability to think on its feet and work together for the common good has been replaced by finger-pointing and people setting their own rules

POLICE OFFICERS remove demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last week. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
POLICE OFFICERS remove demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last week.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
 As an illustration of one of Israel’s strongest national traits – the ability to find short-term solutions to problems – a tale is told of an entrepreneur who wants to build a rocket to take him to Mars.
The man goes to the United States, and says, “Build me a rocket to take me to Mars.” He talks to the physicists at MIT, the rocket engineers in Huntsville, Alabama, the scientists over at NASA. Within 15 years, America – with its tremendous wealth and ingenuity – builds a rocket to take the man to Mars and bring him back home. It’s a breathtaking achievement.
He then comes to Israel, and says, “Build me a rocket to take me to Mars.” He talks to the engineers at the Technion, the rocket makers at Israel Aerospace Industries, the computer whiz kids in the army. Within three years Israel has a rocket to get the man to Mars. It doesn’t bring him back, but it gets him to Mars. And once on Mars, he’ll figure out – in typical Israeli fashion – how to get back home.
In the past Israel has always found a way to return home. This has been one of the country’s greatest charms, as well as one of its secrets of success: finding short-term solutions to problems. Not long-term solutions; we’ve never proven overly adept at that. But when it comes to short-term solutions, nobody does it better.
The examples are numerous.
War in the Middle East changed forever in 1991 when George H.W. Bush attacked Iraq in Kuwait. How did Saddam Hussein respond? He lobbed Scuds at Israel.
From that moment on, every confrontation with our enemies has been their missiles against our population centers, their rockets against our kindergartens. What are you going to do? You can’t just empty out your population centers; you have to find a solution.
From the moment that first Scud came crashing down into Ramat Gan, Israel began developing a three-tiered antimissile system – the Arrow, David’s Sling and Iron Dome – to create a missile defense umbrella over the country and prevent as many rockets and missiles as possible from penetrating.
Does it hermetically seal the country? No, but it allows for a degree of breathing space and maneuverability. It’s a short-term solution.
In September of 2000, exactly 20 years ago, the Second Intifada erupted. In 2002 alone more than 450 Israelis were killed. To put that number in some kind of perspective, consider that so far this year two Israelis have been killed by terrorists. There were periods during the four-year-long intifada when 130 Israelis were killed in one month.
The situation was impossible, unsustainable. People simply could not live that way, so the country took a number of measures – building the security fence, moving the IDF back into the Palestinian cities, targeted assassinations, developing new technology – to bring the numbers way down. Israel found short-term solutions.
And that trend continues to this day. Israel has, to a large degree, sealed off the implacably hostile Gaza Strip via a border fence and Iron Dome. This forced the terrorists to go underground and build tunnels in their search for ways to penetrate and kill Jews. Israel responded by spending a great deal of money and energy successfully developing technology to snuff out the tunnels. Again, short-term solutions.
Then the coronavirus hit, and with Israel’s track record there was confidence that the country would be able to find short term solutions for this as well. In the early days Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others pumped up this hope by talking optimistically about the scientists at the supersecret Israel Institute for Biological Research at Ness Ziona hard at work in search of antibodies and a vaccine.
The world was watching, and even Omar Barghouti, founder of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, gave his “ruling” that BDS followers would be permitted to use an anti-COVID-19 vaccine developed by Israel. Even Barghouti was aware of Israel’s track record on finding short-term solutions.
The country comported itself handsomely during the first corona wave; it was even looked upon in late April and early May as a model of how to effectively deal with the virus. It shut down borders early, went into lockdown sooner than most, and the public – well acquainted with crisis situations – heeded the government calls and showed great discipline.
Israel reached the coronavirus Mars.
But then something happened: we got stuck. We’re still on Mars. While in the past, we have always figured out how to return home, this time – as of this writing – that recipe eludes us. And this is not like us. It is both uncharacteristic and unsettling, and it is shaking the nation’s confidence daily.
ALONG WITH a penchant for finding short-term solutions, Israel has always also been known for its resilience, for its ability to bounce back and bounce back quickly.
Humans in general are a resilient species, and Jews – because of their often tragic history – have proven even more so. You want to see resilience? Look at the state of the Jewish people coming out of the Holocaust in 1945, and look at the state of the Jewish people today, 75 years later.
One of the foundations of that resilience, one of its key ingredients, has been a sense of solidarity: a sense of common purpose and shared destiny.
Solidarity does not mean unanimity, it does not mean no disagreements or consensus – we are a people that has always been mired in disagreements – but it means, as The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word, “a union of interests, purposes, or sympathies among members of a group; fellowship of responsibilities and interests.”
That Israeli solidarity – which in the past has always appeared when the country has faced external enemies – has frayed badly this time around.
Perhaps because the enemy is of a different variety this time – a microbe, not a terrorist. Perhaps because when facing conventional enemies in the past, there was largely a sense that we were unfairly attacked, and just defending ourselves. Perhaps because this time the enemy crept up on us after three back-to-back, ugly election campaigns that highlighted all of our divisions.
Unlike other crises, this time there is no one to blame for our situation except ourselves. And when we blame ourselves, solidarity shatters and resilience suffers.
We saw that on full display this week. The press blamed Netanyahu; Netanyahu blamed the opposition; members of the opposition blamed the haredim (ultra-Orthodox); the haredim blamed coronavirus “czar” Ronni Gamzu; Gamzu blamed the politicians.
Nobody wanted to blame the people – that is not politically wise or correct – but the people deserve much of the blame: for carrying on as though everything were normal and showing, by not following simple rules, a stunning lack of consideration for the health of others.
Insteadw of one cohesive society battling in unison, we deteriorated this week into warring camps, with the message coming across that people should essentially just do what is right in their eyes.
The mayor of Nazareth intimated on the radio on Thursday that he would continue going to large weddings, even though this contravenes Health Ministry regulations; the mayors of four haredi cities said they would not heed a government call for a lockdown; and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman came out and said it directly: none of the government’s decisions make sense, the guidelines are worthless, everyone should just follow the dictates of their own common sense.
Reimagine that rocket to Mars for a second, and picture a cross section of Israeli society up there trying to figure out how to get back home. If everyone just does what his common sense dictates – if the members of the group do not work in unity with a sense of responsibility one for the other – then that group will be stuck there forever.
As Israel prepares to enter the new year, that – unfortunately – is exactly where we are: uncharacteristically stuck because there is no sense of mutual responsibility, common purpose or the greater good. And this is something being demonstrated daily and to the detriment of the country, both by the country’s leaders and by its people. •