Who's at fault for Israel’s third coronavirus wave? - analysis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “lied to all of you."

Israelis are seen in Jerusalem wearing masks in accordance with coronavirus restrictions, on December 1, 2020. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israelis are seen in Jerusalem wearing masks in accordance with coronavirus restrictions, on December 1, 2020.
Israel could be heading into its third coronavirus wave because for the last 10 months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said one thing and done another.
Netanyahu “lied to all of you” and “led the entire nation astray,” Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said Monday night in his address to the public.
As Israel prepared for its exit from the second lockdown, Netanyahu said he aligned with the Health Ministry and that the exit strategy could take as much as six months to a year because this time around, the reopening of the economy would be done slowly.
The exit would be “graded, responsible and careful,” based on clear metrics for transition from stage to stage, he said.
Recall that the Health Ministry recommended that when the reproduction number (R) – the number of people that one infected person will infect – reached an average of 0.8 or less, restrictions could be reduced. When it was at 0.8 to 1.1, the status quo would be maintained, and when it surged above 1.1, restrictions would be tightened. The ministry also recommended waiting two weeks between phases to best gauge the impact on the infection rate.
For nearly a month, Netanyahu stood behind this plan, stressing to the coronavirus cabinet and the public that Israel would halt or move backward if the numbers of newly infected people rose too high.
“If we see that there is an increase again, which is now happening in European countries, we’ll be compelled to reimpose some of the restrictions,” the prime minister said in mid-October at a coronavirus cabinet meeting. At a November 4 meeting he said, “We also know that there is a certain increase in morbidity. So if we see next weekend, toward the big third stage, that there is an increase in morbidity, we will have to stop and maybe even tighten the restrictions.”
But while the infection rate rose – the R is currently between 1.1 and 1.2 – the prime minister did not close down. Instead, he aligned with those ministers that pushed to open more.
Israel opened street shops on November 8, strip malls on November 17, sent fifth and sixth graders back to school on November 24 and high schoolers on November 29. The country launched a mall, museum and marketplace pilot program a week ago that has led to mass gatherings – yet, with minor alterations, openings continue.
Speaking at the start of the Knesset’s winter season on October 12, Netanyahu promised that Israel would roll out rapid testing across the country. He said Israel was developing tests that would provide results “in less than minutes – in seconds. This, of course, is a revolution.”
But those rapid tests – which “we are investing in: a huge investment,” Netanyahu said, and are part of collaboration between Israel’s defense establishment and India – are yet to be seen by the Israeli public.
Netanyahu said those tests would open up the world of tourism and culture – two areas of the economy that remain miserably shuttered and suffering.
In addition, Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein stressed more than once that by winter, Israel would be screening around 100,000 people a day. But Israel has, with difficulty, reached only 60,000 daily tests.
Another aspect of the exit strategy was substantially increasing fines on events, parties, illegally opened schools and people who fail to wear masks. As recently as November 24, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Healthy Ministry said in a joint statement that they would “promote the raising of fines” as part of a strategy to stop infection from climbing.
The fines, however, remain the same.
It is true that Netanyahu did not act alone. Ministers have each taken their turns asking for changes to the Health Ministry outline: from Finance Minister Israel Katz who pushed to open all businesses too early and too broadly, to Transportation Minister Miri Regev who pressed for the resumption of salons and beauty parlors and to increase crowding on public transportation from 50% to 75%.
But populism should have been shut down by Israel’s supreme leader.
After all, at the Knesset, Netanyahu committed to insisting “that we maintain the health of the citizens of Israel, and that we open the economy only in a safe, careful and gradual manner.
“If we act precipitously, if we capitulate to the pressure of every sector, we will very quickly come to another lockdown,” the prime minister said. “I say honestly, populism won, and the citizens of Israel lost. We have learned lessons from exiting the first lockdown, and I hope others in this parliament have learned them, too.”
But it seems that the Knesset and the government did not learn – and neither did Netanyahu.
Although Netanyahu took responsibility for the rapid opening of the economy, saying that he was pressured by the public and that next time he would not listen to such pressures, he has succumbed once again.
Moreover, as has been stressed by health officials, it is not the act of opening the economy that leads to infection: it is opening in an uncontrolled and disorderly manner.
After the first wave and again now, for example, schools opened without a requirement for students and teachers to be regularly tested. So far, only around 25% of educational staff has been screened. This means that an outbreak in the country’s schools is very likely.
It was Netanyahu who refused to hand over epidemiological tracking to the Israel Defense Forces, delaying our ability to get the program on track for far too long. It was the prime minister who surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox, who let them fly to Uman and open their schools while refusing to lock down their red cities as the virus burned through them.
“Netanyahu has used the fight against coronavirus as a personal self-glorification campaign, presenting every step as his own personal accomplishment,” Gantz said on Tuesday, “as if it this weren’t a massive joint effort, shared by the Health Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Education Ministry, the Economy Ministry – and, of course, the Defense Ministry and the IDF.”
Netanyahu again took credit for Israel’s few coronavirus successes in his address on Wednesday night. But if he is going to celebrate these wins, then he must also take responsibility for the country’s many coronavirus failures.
The prime minister can spin it however he wants during his evening TV appearances, but as his alternate asked: “Does anyone believe him anymore?”