March 24, 2023

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Israel at War — with Corona

Good morning from locked down Israel.

I was hoping to write that the Corona virus (called COVID-19) had accomplished what three elections failed to do, and forced the forming of an emergency unity government, as Netanyahu proposed. His main opponent, Benny Gantz, seemed warm to the idea, but as yet it hasn’t happened. Today the various parties will begin meeting with the President, Reuven Rivlin, to give him their recommendations for the person most likely to be able to form a government. Then he will use this information to decide who will have the first shot at organizing a coalition.

As they like to write in the Talmud, lo kashia. This isn’t hard. The two largest parties, Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’ Blue and White, together have more than the needed number of seats in the Knesset to form a government. They should do so. Although I think it is reasonable that all the various segments of Israeli society should have representation, the situation in which minority parties hold the balance of power and use it to extort money and unreasonable concessions from the nation as a whole must end.

The idea that Gantz will form a minority government with the support of Arab members of the Knesset “from outside” – that is, they will vote with the government in order to keep it in power as long as their demands are met – seems to be dead (I hope I’m right). There is nothing wrong with Arab citizens having influence – indeed it is essential for democracy – but the Arab members of the Knesset are all anti-Zionists: communists, Palestinian nationalists, pan-Arab nationalists, or Islamists. They should not even be in the Knesset, and would not be if the law that requires candidates to accept the idea of a Jewish and democratic state were enforced as it should be. This is a problem that must be dealt with, but in the meantime they are not needed to form a government.

The Haredim are a different kind of problem. On Thursday, Israel shut down its schools and universities; and today the kindergartens and day-care centers were closed also. But many Haredi yeshivot and schools were kept open against the orders of the Health Ministry, because leading Haredi rabbis declared that “canceling Torah study would be more dangerous than the coronavirus.” Apparently some schools have even been closed by police (link to Hebrew tweet). This is the kind of thinking that kept many Orthodox Jews in Eastern Europe from escaping the Nazis while it was still possible.

New rules have been issued in the light of the epidemic. Gatherings of more than 10 people are forbidden, and all non-essential businesses like restaurants, gyms, and cinemas are closed. Malls are closed, except for supermarkets and pharmacies. Many offices are closed and workers that can do so are working from home. In a drastic step, the Attorney General has approved tracking the locations of those infected with the virus by their cell phones, despite the violation of privacy involved. The army is not allowing soldiers leave. The use of public transportation is recommended only when absolutely necessary. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced this morning that the government will temporarily convert some hotels (which are almost empty anyway) to house those with mild or asymptomatic cases of the disease, in order to isolate them and free up hospital beds for more seriously ill patients.

The economic pain of the closures has been great. When there is no school or daycare, parents have to stay home from work. Some workplaces have closed, and some independent contractors – like my son, who trains security personnel – have seen their livelihoods disappear in a matter of days. It is not clear at this point how and to what extent workers will be compensated, and where the money will come from.

Testing for possible infection has been inadequate – Bennett said there were something like 600 tests a day being done, compared to thousands in some other countries, due to the small number of laboratories that have been doing them, but the plan is to greatly increase this. There has even been close cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, which is also taking the situation seriously.

I think it’s safe to say that the great majority of Israelis think that PM Netanyahu is doing a good job managing the crisis, and want him to continue doing it. There have even been a few grudging admissions by opposition figures that he has been following the right path, although the most vicious Bibi-haters can’t help but snipe at him. It is funny to watch them try to squirm away from the fact that he is by far the most competent person in the room. In an ironic turn of events, the court system may shut down, resulting in the postponement of Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges, something that makes his enemies absolutely splutter with indignation.

All of the measures being taken to slow the rate that the disease will spread are intended to “flatten the curve,” to reduce the number of acute cases at any given time so that the hospitals will not be overwhelmed, as happened in northern Italy. There are only a finite number of intensive care beds and equipment, and if there are more patients in respiratory failure than ventilators available, then some who could have been saved will die. And in this respect, Israel is not so well situated as some other countries. We have only 3.09 hospital beds per 1000 people, ranked 28th out of 40 OECD countries. The leaders, Japan and South Korea, have 13.05 and 12.27 respectively (the US ranks even lower than Israel, in 32nd place with about 2.8 beds per 1000, and the UK is worse, at 35th and 2.54).

There are many unknowns. Will the virus die out or slow its progression during the summer, as happens with the flu? If so, will it come back next winter? There are at least three laboratories in Israel on the verge of testing a vaccine. Will there be an effective one and when will it be ready? Are there other possibilities for treatment?

This is not unlike a war, which demands a national effort. It is not going to be fun and it is not going to be easy. Some of us may not make it. But putting the politics and personalities aside, setting up an emergency unity government now, and ending the waste of money and energy on unnecessary political conflicts would be a good way to begin.

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