Israel's crisis mismanagement

As Israelis protest their government’s handling of the pandemic, Netanyahu unveils a controversial economic plan

Demonstrators clash with police outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on July 14 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Demonstrators clash with police outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on July 14
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
With Israel in the midst of its worst economic crisis in living memory and struggling to contain the second coronavirus wave, the government introduced a weekend lockdown and tightened coronavirus restrictions in an attempt to bring down the rising infection rate that threatened to overwhelm the country’s ailing healthcare system.
Amid angry demonstrations that have not been seen since the 2011 social protest movement, and polls showing the public losing faith in the government’s response to both the pandemic and the economic crisis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a controversial cash handout for every Israeli family and adult in an effort to stimulate the faltering economy.
Despite warnings that reimposing a full lockdown would be unavoidable if the new infections from coronavirus continued to rise, in mid-July the government opted instead to seek a weekend lockdown.
Malls and stores were ordered closed on weekends, but – in contrast to the Passover first-wave lockdown earlier this year – no restrictions were imposed on the distance permitted to travel from home on weekends.
The new weekday restrictions included limiting restaurants to take-aways and imposing a 50% capacity on government offices. Gyms, museums, exhibition spaces and tourism and holiday venues were also shuttered. Gatherings of more 10 people indoors, and 20 outdoors, will also be forbidden until further notice, with the exception of nuclear families.
Netanyahu reacted angrily when ministers spoke out against a plan to close summer schools and kindergartens. “What, are you blind? We are heading toward a full lockdown,” he warned. “If new restrictions are not imposed, then within three weeks, the number of sick in serious condition would increase eightfold and come to 1,600.”
National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat said the goal of the new restrictions is to reduce the number of new daily patients to 400 by August 31 while Health Minister Yuli Edelstein set the figure of 2,000 daily new cases as the trigger for a nationwide lockdown.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid (Yesh AtidTelem) accused the government of losing the trust of the public. “An entire country is trying to understand why decisions are made in the middle of the night without any data, but can’t. This is a failure at the level of the Yom Kippur War and there is one man who is responsible and it’s Netanyahu. The government has gone off the rails and it has lost the public’s trust,” Lapid stated.
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett also slammed the new restrictions. “Prime minister of Israel, have you gone mad?” he asked Netanyahu. “Deciding to impose a broad lockdown is out of touch, illogical and destructive. Even if you ultimately change the decision, you have already caused damage to hundreds of restaurant and hotel owners, waiters, cleaners and more. Who will compensate them? Why are you ruining peoples’ livelihood?” And there was also opposition from within the Likud. MK Gideon Saar went on the offensive. “I have trouble finding the logic behind the decisions, which will definitely make the blow to the economy worse and are unlikely to achieve the desired purpose,” he said.
MK Ofer Cassif from the opposition Joint List linked the weekend lockdown to the growing momentum of the economic protest movement, following large protests and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “The decision to impose a lockdown on weekends is politically motivated and dangerous, and its goal is to prevent the brave and important protest against the tyrant from Balfour Street. It won’t contribute a thing to the campaign against the coronavirus,” he said, calling on citizens to keep demonstrating.
THE HEALTHCARE establishment also leveled criticism at the decisions. “There is no epidemiological logic to imposing a lockdown on weekends or denying access to outdoor areas,” said Prof. Hagai Levine, chair of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians. “In order to preserve the public’s health and confidence, decisions must be made transparently, in a planned way, based on epidemiological logic and data, and not based on political considerations.” At the last minute, Netanyahu backed down from including restaurants in the first weekend lockdown after hundreds of restaurant owners threatened to defy the ordinance that would have forced them to throw away everything they bought for the weekend.
Prior to the government moves, a large non-political rally had been held in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on July 11, protesting the government’s response to those hit by the coronavirus crisis and calling for the prime minister’s resignation. “No more games!” said one of the protest organizers, Ronen Mili of the Association of Restaurant and Bar Owners. “We waited for four months and haven’t seen a shekel!” This was followed a few days later by an angry protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem.
Some of the protestors clashed with police and 50 people were arrested. Government officials called the protesters “anarchists.” Netanyahu prided himself on Israel’s successful response to the initial outbreak of coronavirus, saying other countries were following its example. He was widely praised for his actions, moving quickly to seal the country’s borders and impose lockdown restrictions to contain the outbreak.
By late May, designated hospital coronavirus wards were closed, and economic restrictions were eased as he told Israelis “go enjoy yourselves.” But it transpired that he declared victory too early and a sharp spike in infections followed a few weeks later. At the same time, unemployment surged to over 20% while Netanyahu’s popularity plummeted. A poll by the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute found only 29.5% of the public trust Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis.
The constantly changing regulations, often announced in the early hours of the morning, and against the advice of health and/or economic advisors, created an atmosphere of chaos and confusion. The numerous financial compensation plans announced by the government were also criticized by people who have been out of work for more than four months. The cumbersome bureaucratic process of applying for compensation and the host of requirements necessary for entitlement left many with no refund or a paltry sum at the end of the process.
The feeling that the government was disconnected from the genuine distress felt by the newly unemployed was amplified when Minister-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) described reports of citizens going hungry as “bullshit.”
Netanyahu, in what looked like a panicked response to quell the growing resentment, that every adult or family without children would receive a grant of 750 shekels, rising to 3,000 shekels for a family of three children or more. Following public outrage, the economic cabinet decided that top officials in the public service who earn 30,000 shekels a month or more and those in the private sector who earn more than 640,000 shekels a year will not be eligible for the grant.
“We need to get the economy moving and so we are giving out this money,” Netanyahu said. “People are sitting at home and not spending and we want to encourage consumption.” But the move, which will cost an estimated 6 billion shekels, was opposed by Treasury officials. Shaul Meridor, the head of the Finance Ministry Budgets Department, reportedly warned Israel would “end up like Venezuela.”
Indeed, the plan seemed to go against Netanyahu’s staunchly capitalist, free market beliefs. Critics also noted that the plan failed to differentiate between the affluent and those who are truly struggling. Many who said they did not need the handout promised to donate the money to people hard hit by coronavirus. Thousands of Israelis responded to a crowdfunding campaign launched by TV host Guy Lerer redirecting millions of shekels to those in need.
As the death toll topped 400 in mid-July, the feeling lingered that the government  had no direction and no vision and lacked a cohesive strategy to lead Israel out of the crisis.