How Politics Are Compounding Israel’s COVID-19 Crisis

Bibi succumbs to pressure from religious factions even as he imposes a second nationwide lockdown.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man wearing a protective mask and shield against the coronavirus,  walks along a street in Jerusalem on Sept 11.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man wearing a protective mask and shield against the coronavirus, walks along a street in Jerusalem on Sept 11. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel The story of an embattled political leader facing deep social divisions in his country and allowing political interests to steer his handling of the coronavirus crisis sounds like a uniquely American one.

But these days it’s also the story of Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has imposed a second nationwide lockdown to halt a spiraling infection rate, even as he rejected the opinions of experts and succumbed to assorted pressures from ultra-Orthodox groups that give him his governing majority in parliament.

The measure, which went into effect just before the beginning of the Rosh Hashana holiday and will last for at least three weeks, marked the first time a developed country instituted a second nationwide quarantine. As of 2 p.m. Friday, restaurants, malls and other in-person retail outlets were shuttered, and Israelis were barred from venturing more than 1 kilometer from their own homes except for work, health reasons, or exercise. Visiting neighbors was also banned, and outdoor gatherings were limited to a maximum of 20 people. Schools were also closed nationwide.

But analysts described the program as muddled and watered down compared with the measures Israel imposed to crush the initial surge of COVID-19 in the spring. And experts warned that hospitals could soon be overwhelmed.

Netanyahu went on national television to warn of an even tighter lockdown in the coming days if the measures don’t work—and to plead with the public to wear masks and comply with social distancing directives.

“Avoid large gatherings. There’s no compromise. That way countries and populations can avoid harsh measures,’’ he said. “I ask you to enlist in this mission.”

But compromises made to placate Netanyahu’s religious coalition allies—such as a list of exceptions for prayer services and ritual baths—as well as frustration over the clampdown’s effect on businesses and anti-government protests raised the possibility that many Israelis would defy the order.

In ultra-Orthodox towns, represented by political parties that have long been bulwarks of Netanyahu’s governments, synagogues were preparing for large-scale worship services and yeshivas prepared mass dormitories for students.

Meanwhile, some leaders of the protest movement calling for Netanyahu’s resignation have pledged to continue with mass demonstrations, alleging the measures are meant to stifle democratic opposition to the government. And restaurant owners vowed to keep their doors open in spite of the directives.

In the hours leading up to the Rosh Hashana holiday, many Israelis ignored the spirit of Netanyahu’s request by holding early holiday meals in order to comply with the letter of the lockdown.

“Like in the U.S., the response to corona has become politicized in Israel, but it plays out in different uniquely Israeli ways,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli-American author and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

“The growing sense in the country is that the government is not making its decisions based on pure health considerations and is playing politics with people’s lives and with the Israeli economy.”

The public health tug of war started escalating in August, when Netanyahu’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, began pushing to implement a so-called traffic-light plan that would have imposed local restrictions on “red” virus hotspots—singling out predominantly ultra-Orthodox and Israeli-Arab cities.

Gamzu, a former Health Ministry director-general and hospital director, also appealed to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to block the annual religious pilgrimage of tens of thousands of Breslov Hasidim from Israel to the grave of the sect’s spiritual leader in the city of Uman.

Housing Minister Yakov Litzman, who leads an ultra-Orthodox party in the coalition, pushed back by alleging a conspiracy to shut down holiday worship, while local mayors threatened to defy the plan. The traffic-light measures were subsequently watered down to a nighttime curfew in deference to the ultra-Orthodox parties.

“The [ultra-Orthodox] community said, ‘If you enforce limitations on us, we will bring down the government. Everything you do to regulate corona is a punishment, and everything is hypocritical discrimination in favor of the secularists who are holding mass demonstrations,’” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an public opinion expert and political analyst, referring to the anti-Netanyahu protests.

When cases began spiking after the resumption of the school year, the government abandoned the traffic-light plan altogether in favor of more blunt countrywide lockdown— restrictions that public health experts opposed. But after the government’s public health advisory panel recommended a 10-person limit on indoor gatherings, the cabinet approved an exception to allow synagogues to be subdivided into “capsules” of up to 25 people, separated by plastic dividers.

The arrangement allows for more people to gather for prayers inside rather than what is permissible outside. It’s just one example of how the countrywide restrictions have become riddled with exceptions, reducing them to what is being called a “Swiss cheese” lockdown, said Haggai Levine, a Hebrew University epidemiologist and a former member of the panel of experts that advised the government.

“This kind of decision-making is creating confusion among the public. I’m worried that the public will not follow the rules” and Israel will experience all of the negative fallout from the virus without getting it under control, he said. “There is a great civil service in Israel, but it was crushed by the politicians, who want to do whatever they want, regardless of data and planning.”

For months, Netanyahu’s government has been beset by a protest movement calling for his resignation over corruption charges and his handling of the economic fallout from the pandemic. Though some leaders have called for a halt to mass demonstrations during the lockdown, others are planning a protest outside his private residence in the Israeli town of Caesarea after the end of the New Year’s holiday on Monday. An anti-Netanyahu banner in central Tel Aviv read, “You are the virus.”

The blow to small businesses and wage earners has swept some working-class Israelis—a constituency that usually favors Netanyahu—into the protest movement. Public opinion polls show his Likud party losing support to other right-wing factions.

Grumbling over the closure has been compounded by quarantine exceptions made for members of Netanyahu’s delegation that returned from the White House signing ceremony this week between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

The crisis “has intensified the passionate divide over Netanyahu,’’ said Klein Halevi. “One side sees him as indispensable, the only one who can keep Israel safe, while the other side sees him as a danger.”

Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for the liberal Haaretz newspaper who wrote a biography on the prime minister, said the coronavirus has exposed Netanyahu’s relative weakness in handling socioeconomic policy compared to his expertise in foreign policy and defense.

On a broader level, he said, the pandemic has exposed the tribalism inherent in Israeli society. Netanyahu has exploited those gaps of social and ethnic identity to remain in power. But those same divisions are now weakening societal cohesion and resilience at a time when the enemy faced by Israelis doesn’t lie outside the country’s borders, but takes the form of a community-spread virus.

“When the different parts of the population don’t feel solidarity with each other, and worry they will be taken advantage of, you get this tug of war that doesn’t allow for the formulation of a policy,’’ said Pfeffer. “In a sense you have each tribe looking at each other and asking, ‘What am I being forced to do? I’m not going to agree to take precautions until the other guy is forced to do so as well.’’’

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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