Tensions roil Netanyahu government as corona crisis deepens

Arguments within the government over its corona response have bubbled to the surface. 

By David Isaac, World Israel News

Israel’s newly appointed corona czar will have his work cut out for him. The Israeli government is not only facing criticism from without but also from within. One of the disagreements, in fact, is who the corona czar will be.

Early reports Sunday pointed to Prof. Gabi Barbash, former deputy director of the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer Hospital. He has been a regular face on television explaining the ins and outs of Covid-19 to the public.

Later in the day it emerged that there were disagreements about appointing Barbash. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was for it, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and former Mossad Head Danny Yatom are opposed. They say there are better candidates.

The argument over the corona czar is one of several ripples disturbing the smooth sailing of the unity government in its efforts to curb the pandemic as infections continue to rise. There were 1,414 new cases Saturday and a total of 27,729 active cases overall.

The government attempted to impose a complete lockdown this weekend to slow the rate of infection. The lockdown was only partially put into effect after restaurant owners revolted, saying they had already purchased food for the expected weekend rush and would suffer steep losses.

The government, which had wanted restaurants to switch over to takeout only, relented but will likely impose a more comprehensive lockdown next weekend.

A lockdown may not be enough.

Deputy Director General of the Health Ministry Itamar Grotto told the Knesset’s coronavirus committee on Sunday that those needing hospitalization will continue to rise even if a full lockdown is imposed immediately.

“We have over 550 coronavirus patients hospitalized and the crush is creating a crisis. From the moment someone is infected until they degrade to serious condition is about two weeks. We can look ahead with worry because even if we shut the whole economy and force everyone to remain at home, we will see the spread continuing,” he said.

While the government faces protests, which have turned violent at times, the biggest revolt may have been internal, when Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, who heads the coronavirus committee, last week broke with her party and refused to close pools and gyms, saying the data didn’t support it.

Threatened at first with being ousted by the party for her insubordination, she defended her decision on Sunday. “It’s okay to disagree and argue. It’s not clear that a full lockdown is the right move,” she said.

“There is a lot we can do before we decree a lockdown on citizens,” Sasha-Biton said. “The question is not if we are remaining open, but rather how and under what conditions.”

Adding to the general friction was an argument that reportedly broke out at the Sunday cabinet meeting between Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel of the Likud and Minister of Economy Amir Peretz of Labor about the corona plans.

Also on Sunday, Netanyahu’s proposal, which he announced on Wednesday, to funnel money to every Israeli to the tune of some 6 billion shekels was criticized by members of the unity government. Minister of Justice Avi Nissenkorn of the Blue and White party tweeted:

“A monetary grant that will go directly to the public is the right move to propel the wheels of the economy, but will not be distributed as a blind grant. We will support a differential assistance program, one which is socially sensitive. One that first and foremost emphasizes those whose livelihoods have been harmed and prioritizes assistance to families in financial distress.”

Netanyahu has argued that if the government tried to decide who needed the money and who didn’t, it would take too long to get the cash to those who needed it.