Israel’s leaders are playing politics with Omicron - opinion

Nothing tells the nation that you are working hard on their behalf more than posturing in the middle of an international state of emergency.

 RETURNING ISRAELIS at Ben-Gurion Airport this week. Why were foreign travelers banned? (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
RETURNING ISRAELIS at Ben-Gurion Airport this week. Why were foreign travelers banned?
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Last month nearly 400,000 Israelis entered Israel through Ben-Gurion Airport. So did 80,000 foreigners.

In October, it was 360,000 Israelis entering the country, alongside 60,000 foreigners. Why the 20,000 jump in non-Israelis? Because beginning November 1, Israel stopped requiring them to apply for permission to enter the country. If you were vaccinated, you were allowed in.

That was true until Sunday, when the country closed its borders to non-citizens due to the discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa. While many countries instituted bans on flights – mostly just from Africa – Israel was the first country that went to the extreme and banned foreigners from entering no matter where they came from.

In other words, someone from the United States – which by Wednesday had identified only one case of the new variant – was looked at by Israel no differently than someone from South Africa. Everyone was banned from entering Israel.

It was a strange decision made by the cabinet on Saturday night, one that reeked of panic and which came under criticism from the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and Jewish leaders throughout the Diaspora now blocked from visiting Jerusalem.

 Ben-Gurion Airport in wake of the new travel imposed in light of the COVID Omicron variant, November 28, 2021.  (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Ben-Gurion Airport in wake of the new travel imposed in light of the COVID Omicron variant, November 28, 2021. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

On the one hand, the decision was somewhat understandable. If there is one lesson that countries should have learned over the last two years, it is that you need to move fast because time is not on your side. So the two steps that were taken by Israel – barring foreigners, and sending vaccinated returning Israelis to three days of quarantine – were deemed the least harmful, while still being seen as doing something.

On the other hand, the decision to allow Israelis to keep flying and to bar just foreigners was strange. With 400,000 Israelis entering the country last month, it means that for every tourist who entered with a chance of carrying the variant, there were five Israelis who could also have brought it in. In October it was one foreigner for six Israelis.

So why bar the foreigners? If the fear is that Omicron will enter Israel, why not bar everyone?

Government officials push back against this argument claiming that Israel needed to take some sort of precaution, and that the decision to bar foreigners was the least of all evils because barring everyone would have been too harsh. Moreover, the officials argue, Israelis are easier to track since they will quarantine for three days at home. Foreigners are harder.

This might be true, but there were easy solutions if Israel had wanted to find one. If everyone is required to quarantine for three days, then the country could have offered foreigners to do so at government-approved hotels and at their own expense, kind of like what Canberra did to anyone entering Australia, until its recent reopening.

By Thursday, five days after the cabinet’s decision, initial reports about Omicron seemed positive, indicating that vaccines remained effective, if not in preventing the infection then at the very least in ensuring that ensuing symptoms would be mild. While it might be premature to accept this as absolute gospel, there is little difficulty in seeing the role that politics once again played in Israel’s corona decision-making process.

First there was the urgent news conference Bennett convened last Friday afternoon at 2:30, at a time when Israel and everybody else knew absolutely nothing about the severity of Omicron. No restrictions were going to be imposed anyhow until Sunday. So why convene the press conference altogether, unless you have a different goal in mind: to get the nation to panic.

And why do that, you might wonder? Because nothing tells the nation that you are working hard on their behalf more than posturing in the middle of an international state of emergency.

Netanyahu recognized this strategy, as does Bennett. In the Spring of 2020, Israelis had the chance to see Netanyahu on television almost every evening, teaching everybody how to sneeze, blow their nose and wear a mask. People like to see a strong leader, someone who seems to be working to keep them safe. If Bennett did nothing, he would have looked weak. He needed to appear strong.

And just as Netanyahu had no qualms violating government-imposed restrictions (remember when he hosted his non-resident children for Seder during Passover lockdown 2020?), we learned on Wednesday that Bennett’s wife, Gilat, and their four children had flown overseas for a vacation. They had initially planned to fly to Mauritius apparently but had to amend their itinerary after Africa was declared red by the Health Ministry. So after choosing a new destination, the Bennett family – minus the prime minister who remained in Israel – departed Israel on Wednesday.

Gilat Bennett and her children should enjoy their vacation, they deserve it. The problem is that just a few days before, Gilat’s own husband, the prime minister, asked Israelis not to travel abroad due to the spread of Omicron. As a result, people canceled and changed travel plans, with some losing large amounts of money.

If people should not be flying overseas, why did the prime minister’s wife and kids leave? And if it is okay for people to fly, then why is the prime minister not lifting the ban on foreigners, or rescinding his earlier recommendation for people not to fly?

This leads to the political question of why restrictions were even imposed to begin with. After all, Israel prides itself as being one of the countries with the highest vaccination rates in the world, even though, as one medical expert recently pointed out to me, the country is quite similar to the US, where about 86% of people over 65 are considered fully vaccinated.

One of the reasons given by Health Ministry officials for the restrictions was that there is still a percentage of people – about 10% to 15% of those over 60 – who are not yet vaccinated. In order to protect them, health officials say, Israel needs to take precautions.

That’s why the decision was made? Because of the 10% to 15% unvaccinated?

While we all agree that Israel should do what it must to protect its citizens, we also have to question if it makes sense for national policy to be set according to the interest of a small group of people who are refusing to get vaccinated.

Pfizer shots have been available in Israel since last December, a full year. If some people had not gotten vaccinated a few months after that, it would have been understandable. Even six months. But a year later? That holdout is not someone who didn’t get to their health fund in time, but a citizen who has made a decision not to vaccinate. And a country cannot be held hostage by a group of people who have made that conscious decision not to protect themselves.

Managing a pandemic like corona is done best when it is void of political considerations. That was evident during the first 16 months of the virus, when Netanyahu repeatedly made decisions that appeared aimed at benefiting his political career, his legal battle, or some other personal consideration.

Bennett came into this week riding high from the way he managed the fourth wave caused by the Delta variant, which Israel countered with a quick and efficient booster rollout. He obviously wanted to replicate that success again this week with a swift response to Omicron. But he forgot one lesson: keep politics out of it.

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The chance that the talks in Vienna will lead to an outcome that will please Israel is almost nonexistent. For a variety of reasons – geography, being the target of Iranian proxies, and that Iran outright calls for its destruction – Israel will always look more critically at what one day could develop into an existential threat.

America and the rest of the P5+1 have an interest that differs from Israel’s. They want to reach a deal, even one that gets less for more – as Mark Dubowitz from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies has called it – or simply any result that removes the issue from the international agenda.

President Joe Biden demonstrated this self-interest with the way he pulled US forces out of Afghanistan – get out, and get out fast. The consequences of the Taliban taking over, or in this case Iran continuing a nuclear program, are less concerning.

With that said, Israeli threats of military action need to be considered carefully. The saber-rattling coming out of Jerusalem right now in comments by Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Air Force Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin is aimed at getting the world to hold Israel back.

It is a similar tactic to the one that Netanyahu and former defense minister Ehud Barak employed in 2010 and 2012, when they regularly threatened Iran and even primed the Air Force for a strike. It was partially a bluff and partially real. Israel wanted the world to stop Iran, while at the same time wanting the world to stop Israel from having to act. In the end, Netanyahu won a partial victory: the world made a deal, and Israel did not have to attack.

While it is important to be ready, it is important to keep in mind that Israel will not need to act now or anytime in the coming year. Even if Iran started enriching uranium to military-grade levels, Israel would not have to immediately respond. Enriched uranium is one component for a bomb – albeit a very important one – but there are still many other processes that need to advance. Those will still take some time.

The other point to keep in mind is that countries that want nuclear weapons end up getting them. North Korea, Pakistan, India and even Israel (according to foreign reports) all succeeded despite attempts to hinder their efforts. Four countries were stopped: Libya and South Africa, which gave up their programs, and Syria and Iraq, which Israel stopped by bombing their nuclear reactors.

The idea that a negotiated deal will stop the Iranians is fiction. A new deal might delay and postpone the journey, but they will get there, if and when the ayatollahs decide it’s time.

That is why a military option looks increasingly like the last viable option that will be able to stop Iran. But that does not mean it needs to be launched soon. There is still time, and it needs to be used wisely. Bennett has every right to criticize the talks, but he also needs to constantly work to ensure that Israel retains international legitimacy for the day that it might feel compelled to act. The lessons of 2015 need to be applied.