As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread in Israel, more and more members of the government have had to go into self-isolation, whether due to contracting the illness or coming into contact with someone who is infected.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went into quarantine on Thursday after being in contact with Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, who tested positive for COVID-19.
Mossad Director Yossi Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat also entered isolation for the same reason.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi went into quarantine a day earlier after exposure to an officer infected with coronavirus, though Kochavi tested negative for it.
Diaspora Minister Tzipi Hotovely is in isolation. Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Interior Minister Arye Deri and others were in self-isolation, along with several other MKs. The only non-minister MK in isolation as of Thursday is UTJ’s Ya’acov Tessler.
All this adds up to a logistical nightmare when it comes to keeping the country afloat.
The Prime Minister’s Office and others are loathing to acknowledge that this is any kind of obstacle – other than Netanyahu joking about having to do his own hair and makeup – and tend to say the relevant parties will just do their work from home.
But just like many other Israelis, cabinet ministers also are adjusting to working remotely from home.
Litzman is a Gerrer hassid. The Gerrer Hassidim eschew smartphones and modern communication technology. But Litzman had Internet installed in his home for the first time to allow him to work via video conference while under quarantine.
Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich finished his 14-day quarantine on Wednesday. He immediately went to a site in Tel Aviv to inspect the accelerated electrification of railroad tracks being carried out thanks to the reduced train traffic during the lockdown.
On Thursday, Smotrich said his work was limited by being in isolation but added: “The limitations were not removed when I left quarantine. Even now, I make sure to leave the house as little as possible.”
He said he was trying to make do with conference calls and video conferences from his home in Kedumim, where he lives with his wife and six children.
“It’s not efficient like sitting in normal discussions, but I have a home office with a computer and a phone,” Smotrich said.
On Thursday, several ministers told The Jerusalem Post they think cabinet meetings have been going smoothly.
Unlike awkward video conferences, where people talk over each other and struggle to find the mute-microphone button, cabinet meetings mostly have been on the phone – something that happened even before the advent of the coronavirus – or via Whatsapp, using text messages, not voice notes.
Asked if there could be truly in-depth and fruitful discussions in that format, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis said: “It’s true that it’s simpler when we’re in the cabinet meeting room, but it’s possible.”
The ministers sign up in advance to speak by privately messaging Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman.
A cabinet meeting earlier this week lasted from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., Smotrich said, indicating that everyone who had something to say was able to take part in the meeting.
“It’s definitely less practical, but we review the materials in advance… When we approve things, it’s after our offices worked on them before. I know what the proposals are in advance’ of the cabinet meetings, Smotrich said.
The Knesset has a different challenge: It does not allow remote voting. MKs cannot call in their votes, leave a note or have someone vote in their place.
After the first MKs had to go into isolation, the Knesset worked out a creative solution in which they walk into the legislature on a designated path and then vote from the plenum’s public mezzanine, which is shielded by glass. The area, which is two floors above where MKs sit, is usually open to the public, and the plate glass was installed so that protesters cannot throw anything or jump into the other areas. But it is now serving to protect lawmakers from coronavirus.
After UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tested positive for coronavirus, a question came up that has relevance for Israel: Who succeeds him if he becomes incapacitated?
There is no official line of succession in the law in the UK, and Tory MP Peter Bone told The Mirror: “Nobody seems to be able to tell me what happens if the prime minister is incapacitated… In a national emergency, you don’t want to be scrabbling around worrying about who is in charge. And you don’t want the foreign secretary and cabinet office minister arguing about who’s in charge.”
Similarly, Israel does not necessarily have a clear line of succession. By law, there can be a deputy prime minister who would become acting prime minister if the premier were to be incapacitated. That is the job that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz will hold for the next year and a half – assuming he and Netanyahu successfully form a unity government.
Netanyahu has never had that kind of deputy prime minister before, not wanting to give a boost to a possible heir. He usually appoints someone temporarily to be in charge when he travels abroad or if he undergoes any kind of medical procedure.
The law also states that if a prime minister is incapacitated for 100 days, then an election is automatically called. Before that election takes place, an MK from the prime minister’s party is chosen by the government to take over temporarily.