Netanyahu’s COVID-19 fatal flights of folly - analysis

As many as two-third of returnees did not adhere to the quarantine requirement.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein meet a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines at Ben-Gurion Airport on January 10. (photo credit: MOTTI MILLROD/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein meet a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines at Ben-Gurion Airport on January 10.
(photo credit: MOTTI MILLROD/REUTERS)
The failure of the government to effectively manage Ben-Gurion Airport played a major role in exacerbating the coronavirus crisis that ultimately led to many of the now more than 4,000 Israelis deaths.
While other countries with similar physical attributes to Israel implemented controls that kept infection outside their borders, Israel’s government ignored repeated recommendations to set effective policies.
In March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waited five days to shut Israel's borders to American travelers, resulting in more than 70% of the coronavirus infections during the first wave.
In September, he fought to allow thousands of ultra-Orthodox hasidim – against the recommendation of then coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu – to travel to and from Uman. It was then discovered that planes of sick people had returned to the country.
In November, throngs of Arab Israelis traveled to Turkey. They came back to their communities failing to enter isolation, which led to a surge of cases in their cities and towns. The Health Ministry reported that as many as two-thirds of returnees did not adhere to the quarantine requirement.
Then, after the peace deal with the United Arab Emirates, Netanyahu encouraged Israelis to travel to Dubai and celebrate the agreement, despite the high level of infection there and the professional recommendation that the country should be labeled as “red,” requiring isolation upon return. Instead, Israelis traveled unbridled until this week, days after it was published that a third of the coronavirus cases from abroad coming into Israel were from Dubai.
And this does not include entry into the country of mutations – from South Africa, Britain, likely Brazil and eventually the United States – through Ben-Gurion Airport, which remained open despite hundreds of warnings against it.
ACCORDING TO Yamina head Naftali Bennett, who is also a candidate for prime minister, some 750,000 people have arrived here by air since March in what he called a “huge fiasco” and “a failure of Yom Kippur War dimensions.”
On Monday, Bennett called for the dismissal of Transportation Minister Miri Regev. “The decision to allow the breach at Ben-Gurion Airport has led to the prolongation of the pandemic and huge losses of life and property,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
The Health Ministry defended its position, saying Monday that “unfortunately, despite the demands of the health minister and the transportation minister to require Israelis to present a negative coronavirus test as a condition of entry into the country, it was stated that there are legal difficulties.”
Regev added that legal advisers told her ministry that citizens could not be forced to take tests upon return either.
However, the Justice Ministry dismissed the accusations of Regev and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein in a statement: “Following a number of falsified publications, we want to make it clear that there is no truth to the claim that the legal advice to the government ever prevented, in any way, the conditional entry into the country from abroad by presenting a negative coronavirus test.”
The ministry added that the issue “first came up and was queried only last week – and we emphasize that there is an appropriate legal way to settle the issue, which has been communicated to the relevant policy makers.”
If Israel were to implement such policies, it would join the ranks of other countries, many of them vibrant democracies – such as Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Seychelles – and even Dubai.
Israelis were required to bring a negative test with them to the UAE when they traveled there and to take another one immediately upon exit from the aircraft – but could return to Israel unhindered.
Bennett told the Post that he does not believe for a second that there were legal obstacles to approving airport testing – before or after.
“This is easy and could be done in half a day in the Knesset,” he said.
SIMILARLY, Dan Ben-David, founder of the Shoresh Institute for Socioeconomic Research and a Tel Aviv University economist, said that when Israel wants to hide behind legal issues “it does it better than anyone else,” but if it wants to tackle an emergency it is also better at doing so than most other countries. Not implementing these best practices, he said, was a matter of will, not of way.
Other “island” countries like Israel that had these policies in place managed to contain their mortality rates, while Israel’s spiked in the second and now third waves.
Australia, with a population of 25.36 million, saw only 909 people die from the virus. New Zealand, with a population of five million, lost only 25 people. Taiwan, with a population of 24 million had only seven people succumb to COVID-19.
“When ‘island’ countries closed, managed entry and made sure that no one sick walked around, they cleaned out the virus from their countries and they had low to no infection rates,” Ben-David said. “This is primarily an issue of policy.”
He said that lack of willingness by Netanyahu and his government to follow through with any policy that might be deemed unpopular, especially among certain population groups, led to enormous harm in the long run to all of the people of Israel.
And Netanyahu was aware of the policies he could have implemented.
BACK IN March, when Bennett was still defense minister, he presented a plan to the prime minister, the head of the National Security Council and the Health Ministry recommending that Israel require people who wanted to enter to sign an agreement that they would be tested upon arrival in the country and isolate for 14 days.
The plan said that anyone symptom-free could test and then isolate at home. Anyone with symptoms would go to a state-run coronavirus hotel until a negative result was obtained. Anyone who tested positive would be transferred to a hotel.
The Shoresh Institute also issued a policy paper that was sent to the government and other policy thinkers. In it, Ben-David wrote that, “Israel’s small size and physical isolation internationally presents the country with a host of hurdles. But when it comes to combating a deadly virus, some of these hurdles turn into huge advantages.
“With just nine million people, Israel’s entire population would amount to no more than a large city in other countries. The lack of open and unhindered passage across Israel’s borders provides the country with conditions that other countries could only dream about in this period of crisis.”
He, too, recommended that every individual arriving in Israel from abroad undergo a PCR test upon arrival. People would be placed in isolation until the results were available. Those with negative tests would be released to go about their business.
“There are obvious things we should have been doing,” Ben-David told the Post, “and for entirely political reasons, we have not been doing them.”
BENNETT SAID that author Barbara Tuchman, in her book The March of Folly, defines a folly as something that in real time, rather than in retrospect, was known to be stupid, but was done anyway. He said that Netanyahu’s failure to manage Ben-Gurion is such a folly.
Most agree that the prime minister should be praised for bringing vaccines to Israel. He has been described as a genius diplomat.
If Netanyahu had targeted his efforts and invested similar interest into containing the virus, Israel would not be in a race between the mutations and the vaccines, as he has so aptly said. Netanyahu has become the “king of vaccines,” but he is saving Israel from a tragedy that he has mostly brought about himself.
“Imagine if Netanyahu had cared about us as much as he cared about himself,” said Ben-David. “He could have done wonders for Israel.”
Now, some Health Ministry officials are calling on the government to close the skies completely in order to prevent people infected with coronavirus mutations from entering the country. That is the lazy solution.
Just as Israel would not have needed to lockdown had it properly carried out a differentiated traffic-light model, neither does it need to stop all travel into the country if it properly manages the airport.
Instead, a requirement must be enforced immediately on all travelers to test within 72 hours before departure for Israel, and to test again upon landing. All travelers must then quarantine until a second negative result is obtained.
Even if Bennett gets his way that Regev is removed as transportation minister – and it is unlikely that he will – he said that this “does not absolve Netanyahu of direct responsibility for the failure to manage the breach at Ben-Gurion Airport.”