First test of new government: Covid-19 is creeping back into Israel

It may be too late to protect Israelis from the Delta Variant, which is already beginning to spread quickly


Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at the Ben Gurion International airport, on June 22, 2021. Photo by Flash90

The bad news is that anyone who was pinning their hopes on a summer holiday in Israel next month will have to now change their plans. The optimistic timetable of opening Israel up to international tourism on 1 July was set back a month on Wednesday until at least 1 August. And it was so close.

Only last week senior health officials from Britain and Israel were on a conference-call hoping to finalise details of a “green corridor” between the two countries. Dr Susan Hopkins, lead epidemiologist for Public Health England, was assuring her Israeli colleagues that both types of vaccines used in Britain (Israel only has experience with the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine) had proven their effectiveness. All that was left was for the NHS to provide Israel’s health ministry with the technical details of their app, so vaccination status could be verified upon arrival. Then the Delta Variant made Aliyah and ruined the plans.

After two months in which only a handful of daily new infections were detected in Israel, three consecutive days in which over a hundred new cases were confirmed caused the new Bennett-Lapid government to re-convene the “coronavirus cabinet”. At its first meeting, it put a hold on tourism and warned that two weeks after the requirement to wear face-masks in indoor spaces had been officially removed, it may need to be reinstated very soon.

So where’s the good news?

Unlike the previous coronavirus cabinet, which had a chronic habit of deferring decisions until after the very last moment and finally making them in the wee small hours of the morning, the new cabinet at least kiboshed incoming tourism a week in advance, giving holidaymakers more time to change their plans (or to avoid booking tickets altogether).

It may be too late, however, to protect Israelis from the Delta Variant, which is already beginning to spread quickly. Only last week Covid czar Professor Nachman Ash was optimistically predicting that his taskforce would soon be disbanded. On Wednesday he was forced to admit that “we don’t yet have the Delta Variant under control and we can’t say how widespread this outbreak will be.” But Brits who were planning a July getaway to the beaches of Tel Aviv may have saved themselves bitter disappointment and endless hours on the phone to airlines, trying get their tickets refunded.

Real existing socialism

“Nitzan called me up last night and asked me to explain to him how the capitalisation of healthcare rights works,” said Haim Oron, the former leader of Meretz. Nitzan Horowitz, Meretz’s current leader, is the new health minister and needed advice from his predecessor, who had played a key role in passing the National Health Insurance Law in 1994.

A former foreign affairs editor and civil rights activist before he went into politics in 2009, Mr Horowitz has no experience of being in government. Neither do any of his colleagues in Meretz.

At 81, Mr Oron, who was a member of Mapam before Meretz was founded in 1992, was the last true socialist to serve as a minister in an Israeli cabinet, 21 years ago. He’s also the last Kibbutz member to lead an Israeli political party. Now his successor has to work with “arch-capitalist” and finance minister Avigdor Lieberman on the public health chapter of the new state budget.

He doesn’t seem fazed that the party of which he was one of the founders is now in coalition with the likes of Mr Lieberman. “I was a minister in a Labour government but by that time Labour were no longer socialists, if they ever were,” laughs Mr Oron. “I’m very glad Meretz is in this government. It’s about time people understood that socialists aren’t just radical purists and can actually do things. Socialism is always about the tension between your values and actually getting things done. Especially when your socialism is coupled with Zionism.”

That tension was already on clear display this week, the new government’s second. On Tuesday, Mossi Raz, a Meretz MK, held a seminar in the Knesset together with members of the Joint List entitled: “After 54 Years — Between Occupation and Apartheid”. Meanwhile, his party leader, Mr Horowitz, along with Labour leader and transport minister Merav Michaeli, were accompanying Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on a visit to Ben Gurion Airport to try to work out how to ensure that all arrivals in Israel (Israelis, as no foreigners are now allowed to arrive) undergo a quick Covid test before being allowed to leave the airport.

Members of five of the coalition’s parties — Yesh Atid, New Hope, Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White — had signed a letter to the new Knesset Speaker Mickey Levi, asking him to prevent such gatherings in the future, while one MK of Mr Bennett’s own party, Yamina, joined right-wingers from the opposition in haranguing the seminar’s participants. But elsewhere, the new coalition seems to be holding.

The new cabinet’s most right-wing ministers, Ayelet Shaked and Zeev Elkin, even held a lengthy meeting on Tuesday night with Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, trying to find a compromise on the ‘family-reunification law’, a statute preventing Palestinian spouses of Arab-Israeli citizens from gaining various residency rights, which needs to be renewed in the Knesset next month. There are few more controversial pieces of legislation, but ministers who have been part of the discussions promised this week that “whether or not we reach a compromise, this won’t bring the government down.”

It’s Bibi

They have one man to thank for that.

On Tuesday evening, as Mr Bennett was holding his first Covid briefing, his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu was taking a stroll on Bat Yam beach with the local Likud mayor. It was a slightly incongruous affair, with the former prime minister in a suit and tie, barefoot for a few minutes and his trousers rolled-up, but it achieved its objective as dozens gathered for selfies.

Mr Netanyahu is not happy with his new position. His aides have asked Likud MKs to continue calling him “prime minister,” but at least with a much lighter security detail and schedule it’s much easier to stage photo-opportunities. He promises in every public appearance to “topple this dangerous left-wing government much sooner than they think”, but he is fully aware, according to those close to him, that his presence as an active leader of the opposition will make it easier for the new coalition to overcome their differences and keep the government afloat.

For now, he needs to keep up the appearance of a combative opponent. But, like all of us, Mr Netanyahu is hankering for holidays abroad. He has ordered the opposition to keep harassing the government in the Knesset constantly and has refused to allow pairing-offs with coalition MKs. He has to set an example. But for how long?

Being an MK doesn’t just mean turning up for votes. Under Israeli law, MKs are not allowed any additional income to their parliamentary salaries. And accepting invitations to give speeches abroad must be approved by a special committee. Mr Netanyahu is already chafing and may soon decide to resign his Knesset seat, in order to accept lucrative speaking engagements. That doesn’t mean giving up on his ambition to return to the prime minister’s office. But that will in any case be unlikely before another election. Though there is no precedent for such a case, Likud’s bylaws do not require the party leader to be an MK.

The last Likud leadership election was held only 18 months ago, when Mr Netanyahu handily beat Gideon Sa’ar, winning 73 percent of the vote. He wants to hold another soon, in the belief that he will win a similar landslide. Once he has reaffirmed his unassailable leadership of the party, he can take a break from the Knesset and go off on speaking tours, secure in the knowledge that whenever an election is called, he can run again.

And maybe in his temporary absence, the new government will forget why they got together in the first place.


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