Instead of fighting protesters, wage war against coronavirus

Instead of waging war on protesters, the government should be fighting against the coronavirus and its ravages.

Police and protestors at Habimah Square in Tel Aviv, October 2020 (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Police and protestors at Habimah Square in Tel Aviv, October 2020
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
For political and highly irregular reasons, senior positions in the public service, such as the chief of Israel Police, have remained vacant for a considerable period of time.
Earlier this week, this situation led to outbursts of violence against citizens who had turned out to protest the government’s policies.
As part of some mayhem in Israeli streets, demonstrators who had stayed close to their homes – in accordance with government health regulations – were assaulted by hotheaded citizens who had been incited to do so.
While this was going on, the Israel Police failed twice: once by not protecting the demonstrators who were exercising their right to protest in the open air while maintaining social distancing; and a second time by using disproportionate force and violence against innocent citizens.
It appears that those who have sought to weaken and undermine the police by freezing the appointment of a permanent police chief for almost two years have now succeeded. The police seem to be behaving like a flock without a shepherd.
While law enforcement officials say that their motive is only the lofty goal of checking the spread of the pandemic, the facts tell quite a different story. Studies have shown that the risk of infection in the open air is only 6% of that in closed spaces. Moreover, there is no convincing scientific evidence (in Israel or abroad) of a correlation between demonstrations and increased COVID-19 morbidity.
Moreover, if breaking the chain of infection were the foremost goal driving the allocation of police resources, we would expect to see the broad deployment aimed mainly at preventing crowds inside closed buildings.
Given that some 40% of the confirmed cases last week were members of the ultra-Orthodox sector, which accounts for only 12% of the population, it is safe to say that this community is the epicenter of the pandemic in Israel today. This is also why we would also expect the police to concentrate their efforts in closed halls in these communities where there are many indications that the regulations are being openly flaunted.
Yet despite a few recent attempts to enforce the regulations in these communities, the overall efforts can be deemed only as futile. Because they are the prime minister’s political allies, the ultra-Orthodox have enjoyed and continue to enjoy immunity – not from the virus, but from any real enforcement of the public health regulations.
Further exacerbating this situation is the fact that the Public Security Minister Amir Ohana has chosen to function more as the personal steward of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to further his (Netanyahu’s) personal interests at a time that he is on trial for corruption. According to media reports, Ohana is in direct contact with the district police commanders, who are dependent on him for a possible promotion to the position of chief of police, driving them to encourage their officers to employ more aggressive measures to paralyze the protests.
The public realizes that when Netanyahu puts senior appointments on hold (including those of the chief of police, the state attorney and the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office) in order to advance his personal and legal situation, the government’s ability to tackle the medical and economic challenges of the coronavirus pandemic is severely undermined. So it is no wonder that polling we have conducted at the Israel Democracy Institute indicates that public confidence in Netanyahu’s management of the crisis has plummeted from 57% in March to 27% today.
IN THIS reality, the initiative by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn to convene search committees to vet candidates for the posts of state attorney and deputy attorney-general is a welcome, appropriate and essential step that should have been taken long ago.
The appointment of senior civil servants is not a privilege reserved for government ministers; it is, rather, their obligation, so as to enable government institutions to function professionally and optimally. It is absolutely vital that the cabinet appoint persons to fill the posts that have been left vacant for far too long.
Even the faulty coalition agreement, which stipulated that no such appointments would be made during the first 100 days of the government’s tenure, is no longer an impediment. The mandated 100 days of paralysis should now be over.
The cabinet cannot allow itself to continue to behave as though it were a paralyzed caretaker government unable to appoint senior officials while also failing in its basic duty to pass the state budget, which is essential for the country’s economic well-being.
Instead of waging war on protesters, the government should be fighting against the coronavirus and its ravages. But it is impossible to make progress on that front when the organs of government and democracy are hobbling along and, at best, functioning at less than their full capacity.
It is imperative that the government change its course immediately. The lives and livelihoods of all Israelis are at stake.
The writer is the president of the Israel Democracy Institute.