Israel's coronavirus commissioner is set up to miss the target

Every day that Prof. Ronni Gamzu is left in limbo, without a clear mandate or authority, he is further away from hitting the bullseye of defeating coronavirus.

Israel's new coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu  (photo credit: FLASH90)
Israel's new coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu
(photo credit: FLASH90)
What is the difference between the head of the Mossad, the IDF chief of staff and coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu?
Mossad head Yossi Cohen and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi were both given their official mandate by the prime minister and the defense minister and were then approved by the majority of ministers in the cabinet. Both were tapped to fight wars – Cohen against Iran and Kochavi along Israel’s borders.
Gamzu is also supposed to be leading Israel in fighting a war. Not against an enemy like Hezbollah, Iran or Hamas, but something silent and no less deadly: COVID-19.
Within the government, there are rules about who can get different positions – and what is the authority and responsibility that come with those positions.
The difference is that the appointment process for Cohen and Kochavi was by the book. They were tapped by the minister in charge of their organization and their nomination was then brought to a vote before the cabinet. The Mossad chief is appointed by the prime minister; the chief of staff is appointed by the defense minister; the Israel Police commissioner by the public security minister; the ambassador to the UN by the foreign minister and the head of the National Parks Authority by the environment minister.
This is how appointments are supposed to be done in a government – by the book and according to regulations.
When it came to Gamzu, however, nothing like this has happened. When the former Health Ministry director-general was appointed to the new role of “coronavirus czar,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein did agree on his appointment – but that is where the similarities end.
Gamzu’s appointment was made after midnight on a Wednesday. Netanyahu had originally tried to convince former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barbash to take the role, but he refused. When there was no one left, Gamzu became the default candidate.
In a Facebook post announcing his new role, Gamzu described the crisis as a “medical, economic and social crisis. I do not ask questions in such a situation – when it comes, I just contribute my whole being and help my country and the health system in managing the crisis.
“The challenges are enormous,” he continued: “Restoring the public’s trust in leading the treatment of the epidemic, a smart balance between reducing the infection and continuing life, improving public response and enforcement, improving the system of cutting off the infection chain and continuing to strengthen the medical system.”
But not asking questions will only get you so far. While commendable, this situation is an anomaly, which is playing out to the detriment of Israel’s citizens. While Gamzu seemed to figure that everything would work out, wishful thinking cannot be a strategic plan for fighting a pandemic.
One would assume that Gamzu would have signed some kind of contract by now. While that might be the case – at least for him to be able to get paid – he has yet to receive a formal mandate, at least one that the public is aware of. More importantly, he seems to have little clout and more often appears to serve as an adviser to the prime minister than the one who makes the decisions himself.
What is happening with Uman is a perfect example. Gamzu has warned what most medical professionals agree upon: letting thousands of Israelis fly to Ukraine poses a direct health risk to the entire population in both countries. Nevertheless, the prime minister is not listening to him and has instead tasked one of his Likud ministers to create a plan that would allow thousands of hassidim to fly there.
Would something like this happen in the army? In the Mossad? In the Israel Police?
While the cabinet can always overrule a professional appointment, it is almost impossible for a military mission or covert operation to go ahead without the support of the chief of staff or the head of the Mossad. That is why responsibilities are made clear.
But with Gamzu, that is not the case.
When the corona commissioner presented his “Shield of Israel” plan to the public about a week after his appointment, Netanyahu announced that Gamzu’s core role was to cut the chain of infection by improving contact tracing, but said little else about his other expectations.
It also remains unclear exactly who Gamzu reports to: Edelstein? Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy? The prime minister himself? All three?
It is also difficult to judge the effectiveness of Gamzu in his role, except to watch as the number of people infected with coronavirus continues to climb.
It seems that the one power that Gamzu has – the one bullet in his gun – is his resignation, which could be potentially fatal for Netanyahu. If Gamzu quits, it is unlikely that anyone else would be willing to take the job after him.
The problem is that this bullet can only be fired once. And the amount of times he can threaten to fire it is limited if he wants to continue to be taken seriously.
With schools expected to open on Tuesday and the High Holy Days less than three weeks away, Gamzu must keep his finger on the trigger.
The target has to be whether lives will be lost – not only to the virus, but also due to the resulting economic crisis. Every day that he is left in limbo, without a clear mandate or authority, he is further away from hitting the bullseye of defeating corona.