My Word: The road that can’t be traveled

You can't mask the symptoms of a lack of clarity. The public needs to know what is a recommendation and what is a regulation. And people need to understand the rationale behind the rules.

Cars line up at a drive-through COVID-19 testing center in Tel Aviv earlier this month. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
Cars line up at a drive-through COVID-19 testing center in Tel Aviv earlier this month.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

There is a wonderful Israeli expression “full gaz be’neutral,” which has been constantly coming to mind lately. I say “Israeli” because as you can see, it is not really Hebrew no matter what accent you use to say it.

It seems to sum up the current political, economic, diplomatic and health situation in the country. More than just spinning wheels, there is an implied element of making an effort and holding back at the same time. The government is gearing up for every eventuality, while never putting the car into gear. At times, it feels like we’re actually in reverse. Coronavirus-wise, for example, there’s a feeling we’ve been transported back to March 2020 – not a time remembered fondly – as Omicron overtakes everything in its path. It can drive you around the bend.

Obviously, if ever there was a global crisis, it is the current pandemic with its multiple variants. Israel, compared to many countries, is dealing with it well. Or was. Currently, there is a feeling that the plan is to have no plan and to let the virus take its course. As the numbers surge, with some 195,000 active cases midweek and probably many more by the time you’re reading these lines, the government seems to be flapping and flip-flopping rather than producing a comprehensive, coherent plan.

That, too, is not restricted to Israel. The sight of Boris Johnson being roasted in the British parliament – if not turning into political toast before our eyes – is evidence that more than one leader is being badly burned. Still, BoJo’s predilection for parties (of the non-political kind) during lockdowns is reminiscent of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urging the Israeli public not to travel abroad days before his own wife and children took off for a foreign break. 

The closed skies were the limit. Red-listing foreign hot spots made sense when the disease was raging abroad but not yet at home, but once it had nonetheless made its way here, there was little point in keeping the airport basically closed. It reminded me of the constant talk in the early days of the pandemic nearly two years ago, about “flattening the curve” to buy time and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

 People line up in a queue at the entrance of a COVID-19 rapid antigen  Magen David Adom testing center in Jerusalem on January 03, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) People line up in a queue at the entrance of a COVID-19 rapid antigen Magen David Adom testing center in Jerusalem on January 03, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

There’s no point in buying time if you squander it. Postponing a difficult situation is not the same as dealing with it. What is happening in schools, for example, is very educational: With the rising infection rates, many classrooms are deserted as children bounce in and out of quarantine. Surely, the school system by now, with all the time bought or borrowed, could have figured out a way to have at least a hybrid system allowing for smaller classes and some remote learning and home assignments. Let mayors and school principals figure out what works well for their specific populations.

The travel industry has taken a particularly harsh blow everywhere. In Israel, thanks to the previous government and a strong public health system, there is a high rate of triple vaccination and the over-60s and high-risk have easy access to a fourth shot, to accelerate the booster. Note to the Health Ministry and Tourism Ministry, once you have reopened the skies you need to let people come in. Regulations regarding vaccination requirements are hugely important but have to be implementable. Take into account that outside Israel, not everyone is able to have had two or three shots within the last six months.

The prime minister, this week yet again, held a press conference, broadcast live, to say – well, not much really. Sympathy and a “we’ll get through this together” is not enough. It sounds particularly hollow when Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman last month, starkly told the cabinet: “As for travel agents and tour guides, it should be said: Start changing professions.” 

Liberman continued his dismissive approach this week when he pronounced that when he went out to eat in Modi’in, he saw the restaurants were “bursting at the seams.” Diners might have been eating cake rather than bread.

Nobody wants another lockdown, but if people are scared to go out and are warned to stay at home, clearly the result will be empty cinemas, theaters, restaurants, night clubs and lecture halls – even those strictly abiding by green pass regulations. Then there was the short-lived policy to separate people going into malls into those who were vaccinated and those who weren’t, as if they weren’t all going to breathe the same air once inside. Enforcement of the rules requiring masks would be easier and more effective.

The antigen test fiasco was also symptomatic of the current situation. With the policy change this week, PCR tests are mainly reserved for those aged 60 and over, or for people with underlying health conditions. Everyone else, if fully vaccinated, can use a home antigen kit instead of going to a testing station if they suspect they might be infected, or have come in contact with a confirmed case. The result was a run on the home tests leading to a shortage in most places and price gouging elsewhere. As usual, the poor – and the newly poor – suffer the most, as it’s hard to cover the costs of multiple home tests, and the prime minister’s promise to supply kindergarten and elementary school-aged children with three free tests is something that can be sneezed at.

YOU CAN’T mask the symptoms of a lack of clarity. The public needs to know what is a recommendation and what is a regulation. And people need to understand the rationale behind the rules. The government is not to blame for the existence of coronavirus, but it can be judged by the way it handles it. 

When Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid formed the government in June 2021 – after four rounds of elections in rapid succession – they promised it would be a “government of change,” a change for the better. Several months later, they seem to believe that its formation alone is enough to push the country further along the road of success. 

Liberman still dines out in Modi’in and elsewhere on the achievement of passing the budget (after two years in which the country did not have one). He ignores the awkward fact that passing the budget is literally the least he could do: Had the Bennett-Lapid government failed to get it through the Knesset, the country would have automatically returned to the polling stations.

But far from driving at full speed, the government is stalled. The disparate – and increasingly desperate – parties that sit behind Bennett, who is at the steering wheel, are urging him to turn sharp right or sharp left simultaneously. The result can be seen in the uproar over the so-called Electricity Law last week, which gave the go-ahead for Bedouin settlements built illegally to hook up to the national infrastructure, in effect granting them not only recognition, but also a permanent hold wherever they choose to assert a claim.

Ra’am (United Arab List) head Mansour Abbas, a member of the coalition, did not, however, return the favor. When the JNF-KKL carried out a preplanned tree planting on state land in the Negev ahead of Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, Bedouin claimed the land as their own and rioted – throwing rocks and firebombs at police, blocking roads and the railroad to the South, and forcing a journalist to flee his car which they set on fire. The scene reminded some of the rioting in the Arab sector when Israel fought Hamas under the rocket onslaught from Gaza last May. 

Despite the Electricity Law, sparks flew and Ra’am MKs boycotted the Knesset plenum on Wednesday creating yet another coalition crisis. Islamist Ra’am and parties on the Left are intent on heading in the opposite direction to the parties on the Right, within the same government.

MKs who increasingly fear for their jobs – like tourism industry workers but with guaranteed pensions – urge the best course is to try to stick to an undefinable middle path.

I might accuse today’s political leaders of taking the country for a ride but when you drive full gaz be’neutral you’ll go nowhere, fast. 

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