Having hailed victory over coronavirus back in May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now embarrassed and appearing indecisive over his response to the second wave hitting the Jewish state. Israel operates a four part traffic light system based on the number of new patients per 10,000 residents, ‘red’ being most severe and ‘green’ being least. Areas graded red have outdoor gatherings capped at 20 people, indoor at 10.
On Sunday, coronavirus czar professor Ronni Gamzu was due to ask the coronavirus cabinet to approve a seven-day lockdown on eight to 10 towns – most of them ultra-Orthodox or Arab. According to the Jerusalem Post, some 28 percent of the current cases are in the Arab community (which makes up 21 percent of the population), and 22 percent of all cases are in Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities (which comprise about 12 percent of all Israelis).
Despite being categorised “bright red” due to case numbers, Netanyahu delayed local lockdown decisions under pressure from ultra-Orthodox mayors and parliamentarians key to keeping him in power. Israel’s Interior Minister and Haredi politician, Aryeh Deri, led the calls for a national lockdown, not area specific measures.
Curfew for the many or the few?
Instead, the Ministerial Committee for Restricted Areas approved a larger list of 40 places compiled by the health department. Each is now subject to a night curfew that started Tuesday and is due to last a week. The curfew will take effect daily from 7pm until 5am. During this period, residents will be able to walk no more than 500 meters from their homes, all businesses deemed not essential will be closed and the education system will shift to distance learning.
The Government curfew announcement Tuesday has already received backlash led by local officials of affected areas. The Mayor of Beitar Illit, a large West Bank settlement, said his area would not comply with the new rules, stating they discriminated against ultra-Orthodox cities like theirs by applying general curfews rather than singling out specific neighbourhoods. Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion criticised the methodology as being wrong and misguided.
The Haredi parties are crucial to keeping Netanyahu in power. Their support is key as his corruption trial starts up again in early 2020. Chair of the Zionist Left party Meretz, Tamar Zandberg, said “surrender to the ultra-Orthodox is much more than political. The farce of the ‘red’ cities is further proof that a prime minister accused of bribery is incapable of fulfilling his role … Netanyahu needs this alliance [with the ultra-Orthodox parties] to gain immunity from justice, and we will all pay the price in health and life.”
An unabated crisis
Back in May, Netanyahu told Israelis to “have fun”. Claiming victory over Covid-19 and determined to open up Israel earlier than the likes of the UK, USA and many other states, he told the country to “return to normal — get a cup of coffee and a glass of beer”. This is now looking short sighted but the prime minister is not one to take the blame – this weekend he wrote to opposition party leaders accusing them of undermining the government’s response to the pandemic.
On Saturday, Israel reached, and surpassed, 1,000 deaths from Covid-19. Israel currently has 29,123 active cases; 1,040 people have died – the highest rate of new infections per capita in the world, by weekly average. In the West Bank, there are 9,792 active cases; 185 people have died. In the Gaza Strip, there are 713 active cases and seven people have died.
On Monday, 90 plus doctors and researchers urged Israel to adopt the Swedish model and try to reach herd immunity while shielding the elderly. In an open letter, the group launched a campaign urging the government not to impose a new lockdown, claiming that fears over the coronavirus pandemic are overblown and that the economic damage from such a move will prove too high a cost to bear. Signatories include Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Michael Levitt and the directors of the emergency wards or coronavirus wards of several hospitals. It did not go down well.
Today, Wednesday, the Times of Israel is reporting that the growing case load means the whole country might be in full lockdown. According to leaks from senior officials, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said if a lockdown is approved, it will last for at least a month due to the current high morbidity rate.
Lessons for on-lookers
British lawmakers will be looking at the Israel experience closely as it enters a second wave. While the covid ‘czar’ Gamzu speaks with confidence about controlling the response, the reality is that Israel’s ability to bring it under control has been hampered by Netanyahu’s political arithmetic to stay in office – placating his political allies ahead of the best public health response possible. The results have been devastating. Having once had a response that was met with international acclaim, the nation of nine million has now experienced over 1,000 deaths and has nearly 10,000 active cases. As schools reopen and the UK enters the winter months, the dangers of a second wave here are clear, and a clear warning that putting political interests above the public health will have tragic consequences.