Just when all seemed lost, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once again seized control of the COVID-19 crisis management in a surprise 10-day turnaround that silenced much of the dissent and restored his place as captain of the coronavirus ship.
On Tuesday night, coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu delivered his first speech in his new role. Just before he spoke, Netanyahu explained to his cabinet and to the public how Gamzu’s strategic plan should be received: “I expect all government ministers to back up this plan. I expect all citizens, without exception, to cooperate with it.”
Communication is at the center of Gamzu’s new role as coronavirus commissioner. He is meant to rebuild lost trust. His positive public relations skills were apparent from the minute he opened his mouth and told the public it is time for a new contract:
“We have seen a decline in confidence in recent days, and as such, the virus has spread,” Gamzu said. “The new contract: The government does everything logically, quickly, confidently; the citizens obey and cooperate.” But, he assured them, “I am responsible.”
However, exactly what Gamzu has authority to do in his position remains unclear.
SEVERAL OTHERS were tapped for the job and refused to take it, because they did not want to have responsibility for managing the crisis without the authority necessary to achieve success. When Gamzu agreed to accept the role at the last minute, he did not negotiate on this front. He said he took the job out of a sense of responsibility to the people and the State of Israel.
The medical community has embraced Gamzu. Even Hadassah Medical Center head Zeev Rotstein – who during the first wave was accused by Health Ministry Deputy Director-General Prof. Itamar Grotto of actions that “bordered on treason against the state” – has joined Gamzu’s professional cabinet. So have the heads of almost every major Israeli hospital.
Although Rotstein told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week that “I’m not part of the cheerleading squad,” he sung Gamzu’s praises on Israel radio Wednesday morning.
Gamzu formed a team of emergency department and intensive care unit professionals as well. They are meant to tell him if and when the health system is crossing a redline and could reach a point of turning the country’s sickest patients away.
He is getting buy-in, a key to successful leadership.
Gamzu has also managed to move testing and contact tracing to the IDF.
On Tuesday night, former defense minister Naftali Bennett celebrated the act, but said it was also “difficult” to witness.
“So much damage was done to the citizens of Israel for petty and irrelevant reasons,” he said. Almost four months ago, Bennett had pushed to appoint a coronavirus commissioner, to move testing and tracing to the IDF, to operate restrictions based on “red,” “orange” and “green” zones – all components of Gamzu’s plan.
“The Israeli government could have prevented the terrible economic disaster that has struck the citizens of Israel, and has caused so much suffering, unemployment, bankruptcy and heartache to so many people,” Bennett lamented.
He accused the prime minister of playing politics with Israeli lives.
Now, Gamzu is promising not to make populist decisions, but to base restrictions and policies on logic and data.
HOWEVER, it did not go unnoticed that while Gamzu was addressing the public, Likud faction and coalition chairman MK Miki Zohar was informing Knesset Coronavirus Committee chairwoman Yifat Shasha-Biton that she would be fired from her role. The reason: She had used data and logic in overturning several government decisions on coronavirus policy over the last two weeks.
When the Health Ministry failed to provide enough data about the number of coronavirus infections that took place at pools and gyms or in restaurants, she and her committee determined that the benefit of closing them did not warrant the economic damage such a move would cause – overturning government decisions made days before.
In response to the backlash, Shasha-Biton said that removing her from her role was meant to stop serious debate around coronavirus policies.
Zohar simultaneously sanctioned several other Likud MKs for failing to vote in accordance with coalition discipline, a move that was backed by Netanyahu, who said that the Likud faction “cannot govern without discipline.
“I request from all Likud MKs to show responsibility, be diligent about maintaining factional discipline, and to cease with internal, unnecessary attacks within the party,” Netanyahu tweeted.
Shasha-Biton and the Coronavirus Committee had already effectively been put in their place last week, when the Knesset passed the “Big Coronavirus Law” that gives the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee oversight power on coronavirus legislation and renders the Coronavirus Committee essentially obsolete.
ALTHOUGH THE Big Coronavirus Law is not the “end to democracy” or “an authoritarian bill,” as some have described it, “the fact that we have this new coronavirus law is problematic,” according to Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values project at the Israel Democracy Institute.
Fuchs explained that it was the institute’s belief that all coronavirus decisions made by the government should be authorized before going into effect. He said that the Knesset should be the body that decides on the rules and that the government, meaning the cabinet and ministries, should enforce them – not the other way around.
“It is not normal for a government to decide on rules or establish what constitutes a criminal offence,” Fuchs told the Post. “This is not only problematic from a democratic point of view, but also from a practical point of view.”
If the government decides on new restrictions and then 10 days later the Knesset changes them, people cannot cope with this kind of instability, Fuchs said.
The Knesset is aware of this challenge and therefore, in many cases, could become a rubber stamp for the government to maintain stability.
Moreover, also this week, the cabinet approved a decision by Netanyahu to consolidate the coronavirus cabinet to 10 ministers, leaving out key players in the battle against the virus. For example, Education Minister Yoav Gallant is now not part of that decision-making apparatus.
“This is outrageous,” Fuchs said. “Education is one of the two or three biggest issues we are dealing with in the coronavirus crisis. He should be there.”
Simultaneously, the prime minister shunned former Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, who was purportedly at least partially responsible for Israel’s success in conquering corona in the spring.
In a message of gender inequity, Netanyahu placed no women among the group, even though countries around the world that have been the most effective in conquering coronavirus are run by women.
While the government scaled down in the name of efficiency, who Netanyahu chose to sit on the cabinet appears to be politically and not practically driven.
“We should be concerned,” Fuchs said. “The management of this situation was bad – terrible.”
While control can be as bad as chaos, now that Netanyahu is back at the helm of the crisis again – with Gamzu as his new sidekick – the question to be answered is whether they will manage to steer the COVID-19 ship back to safer waters.