JERUSALEM—Like beachgoers informed there is no danger just before a tsunami hits, Israelis are stunned by the magnitude of the dramatic turn in their fortune. In under six weeks, they’ve gone from model nation fighting the novel coronavirus to a small, isolated country whose citizens face a long, deadly summer locked down.
On May 17, Israel reported only 10 new cases of COVID-19 in the entire country. It looked like Israel had succeeded in subduing the coronavirus crisis with a lockdown enforced early and strictly, reemerging on the other side with only 271 dead.
Announcing the imminent reopening of restaurants and pubs, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who usually sticks to a formal manner, beamed and told Israelis to “go out and enjoy yourselves.”
The prime minister, who was indicted late last year and had failed to win enough votes to form a right-wing government in three successive electoral campaigns, was basking not only in his internationally applauded success against the virus, but in having remained head of government. After 18 months of political limbo, he’d been able to cobble together a team-of-rivals coalition with former opponent Benny Gantz, a centrist retired army chief of staff.
That government, Netanyahu promised, would focus only on the “corona emergency” for its first six months.
With Israelis under virtual house arrest and the number of patients under control, Netanyahu spent much of April boasting about his mastery of virus management.
“Israel is the safest country on earth,” he crowed at one of his prime-time live appearances, citing statistics published by an unknown website, the Deep Knowledge Group.
Speaking to the pro-Netanyahu freebie newspaper Israel Hayom, “associates of the prime minister” said that Israel got top marks thanks to “the strict steps promoted by the prime minister.”
“Israel is ranked first among the safest countries in the world. The over-preparation, in which it is a leader, is justified, and that has resulted in Israel leading among western countries,” the outlet cited one associate saying.
Jump to July, when cases of COVID-19 are spiking, putting Israel high on the list of countries who’ve lost control of the virus’ contagion; the economy is cratering, with unemployment at about 23 percent, and the new government is on the verge of collapse.
If you ask Siegal Sadetzki, the head of the nation’s public-health service, who served as an Israeli Dr. Anthony Fauci for the past six months and quit her job on Tuesday, the government “has lost its compass.”
“Israel is heading to a dangerous place,” she wrote in an 8,000-word indictment of the government’s failure to prepare in any way for a resurgence of illness.
“Despite systematic and repeated warnings through various channels, and discussions in several forums, we are watching with frustration as the hourglass of opportunities runs low,” she warned.
“I have come to the conclusion that in the newly created conditions under which my professional opinion is not accepted—I can no longer help to effectively cope with the spread of the virus.”
All this may sound familiar to Americans in the many states where the virus infections are now spiking. But … it gets worse.
During the six wasted weeks, the period singled out by Sadetzki, schools were chaotically reopened and then, as infections soared, re-shuttered. Parents were unable to foresee re-entering the workforce. The public was instructed to wear masks—but no system of enforcement was put into place. The lists of permitted and prohibited activities shifted daily, with little or no explanation. While Netanyahu actively pursued his (since scuttled) dream of annexing significant parts of the occupied West Bank, the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 multiplied by 499 percent.
Ashdod, a city on the Mediterranean coast, emerged as a top locus of infection, but no Israeli official could explain why the breezy, fun beach town, where citizens live outdoors during the summer, gained almost 700 COVID-19 patients during the month of June.
Criticizing the government’s “hesitant response,” Ran Balicer, a professor of public health and a member of Israel’s national Epidemic Management Team, said in an interview that “no place on earth has seen a spike in morbidity [the disease rate] like Israel’s.”
Tuesday was Israel’s worst day of contagion, with 1,400 new cases of COVID-19 announced, a record since the start of the outbreak.
Event spaces, bars, and gyms have been re-shut but instructions regarding public transportation remain unclear, and the transport and finance ministers squabble on the airwaves.
On Tuesday, in testimony to the Israeli parliament, Udi Kliner, Sadetzki’s deputy, reported that schools—not restaurants or gyms—turned out to be the country’s worst mega-infectors.
(Again, this should be of interest to Americans who have been told by a presidential tweet in all caps that “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!”)
The disastrous resurgence of the disease is having major political consequences.
On Wednesday, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, was thrown into pandemonium when legislators allied with Netanyahu floated a bill that would have created “a national committee of inquiry to investigate judges’ conflicts of interest,” a naked attempt to throw into question Netanyahu’s trial, which opened May 24 and is scheduled to resume on July 19.
He faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in a spate of corruption cases.
One-time rival Gantz, who serves as “alternative prime minister” in the rickety six-week-old government, reacted by accusing Netanyahu’s party, the Likud, of “sabotaging Israeli democracy.”
The vote failed, but the government’s longevity is being put to the test.
The little-noticed reappearance of Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Natan Eshel, may be the most potent metaphor for Israel’s precipitous six week decline.
Eshel, a longtime Netanyahu confidant, resigned in 2012 after he was accused of threatening and harassing a female aide in the prime minister’s office, more specifically, of surreptitiously photographing her beneath her skirt.
While rarely seen in public, he is known to remain close to the prime minister.
On Wednesday, Eshel blasted journalists with a text message blaming the public for Netanyahu’s travails. “A high percentage of the public isn’t obeying instructions to wear a mask, is partying in clubs and on rooftops, at the beach and in other public places, is responsible for this situation,” Eshel wrote.
Focusing his wrath on small business owners, who have been prominent in anti-Netanyahu protests in recent weeks and whose businesses are collapsing as Israel’s usable income vanishes, Eshel claimed “the government wanted to help—but they didn't obey the rules. And now all of us will pay the economic and personal price for it.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin wasn’t having it. Speaking to Israeli army officers graduating from Israel’s National Defense College, he said that Israel has not developed a clear and coherent doctrine to combat the coronavirus. “We do not have one body in which the knowledge, the effort, the management, the authority, and messaging to the public is concentrated.”
When it looked like Israel was winning the fight against the virus, in fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted to embody that effort. Now, the resurgence of the plague is all the fault of the people.