The steep drop in the disease rate in Israel accelerated this week, far beyond the most optimistic forecasts the coronavirus cabinet had heard lately.
- The daily number of new cases dropped below 2,000 Wednesday, for the first time since the end of August. By the start of next week, the weekly average is also expected to fall below 2,000 a day – one of the criteria set by the coronavirus cabinet for emerging from the lockdown.
- The rest of the data is also fairly encouraging, and perhaps more significant. The number of severely ill COVID-19 patients – a “hard” figure that is unaffected by the number of people being tested – fell by about 200 compared to the peak, to 730 on Thursday.
- The rate of positive tests has been about 5.5 percent for a few days, compared to a high of 15 percent in mid-September.
- The R number – a measure of how many people on average a single patient will infect – fell below 0.7 percent.
Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu told Haaretz Thursday he attributes the change to the sweeping ban on gatherings and the closing of the schools.
The rapid decline in infection rates is also accelerating the coronavirus cabinet’s discussions on how quickly to exit the second nationwide lockdown. It began September 18, the eve of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, was extended beyond the original promised end date and has caused untold harm to Israel’s economy and social cohesion. The coronavirus cabinet met again Thursday, but a final decision is unlikely before early next week.
No immediate measures have been approved: the full opening of workplaces that are not public-facing and the resumption of in-person learning for children up to 6 as of Sunday. Hovering in the background are two major dangers: a possible clash with ultra-Orthodox communities and a fear that reopening schools and businesses too quickly will cause infection rates to rebound, as happened in May and again in September.
Gamzu, with the backing of cabinet members of Kahol Lavan, backed these two measures, while maintaining the lockdown in “red” towns and neighborhood – where infection rates are highest – according to the so-called traffic light model. Most of these are majority-Haredi communities. In these places, schools and nonessential businesses would remain closed and residents would be barred from leaving the area except for essential work or necessary activities.
However, given the political clout of the Haredi parties, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s total dependence on them in his effort to cling to power, it’s clear to everyone that this is just a starting position.
Haredi lawmakers have been speaking more stridently this week, from the “storm troopers” speech by lawmaker Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism) to Shas Chairman and Interior Minister Arye Dery’s five statements denouncing the police after the violent incident at a wedding in Givat Ze’ev, a West Bank settlement north of Jerusalem.
The Haredi Masada
What was previously whispered in back rooms is now taking place openly. It’s no longer sporadic violations by some of the communities in the hope that the police won’t intervene.
Haredim are flirting openly with the idea of widespread civil disobedience. Their Masada, the hill they are willing to die on, is the education system that serves them, from Talmud Torah elementary school to yeshiva gevoha “high yeshiva” colleges. The education system is the organizing idea around which the entire Haredi society is built.
High yeshivas, for ages 16 and up, were a major source of infection in early September, but most operate as boarding schools, which are exempt from the order closing schools in a lockdown.
And if preschools across the country will reopen, the cabinet might capitulate and allow their opening in Haredi communities, despite COVID-19 rates in some red towns that are 10 times that of the rest of the country.
The finance and education ministries want first- and second-graders to return to school as well. The former believes this is critical to getting parents back to work. Education Minister Yoav Gallant, meanwhile, stresses the long-lasting damage to the acquisition of learning standards in the lower grades. He also wants a solution for students in grades 11 and 12, many of whom are studying for matriculation exams, that would include in-person instruction.
The intention is to avoid past mistakes and to be more meticulous about separating students into small groups. However, the plans put forward so far don’t look comprehensive or orderly enough to reduce the morbidity rate. And that still leaves us with the 8-16 age group, grades 3 to 10, for whom there is no solution at present.
Under the Health Ministry’s multistage plan, some of them will be back only around January or February, and even then only if Israel is not subjected to a third wave of the epidemic in the winter.
The Haredim, for their part, are demanding that all the institutions be opened already next week.
Here we arrive at the core of the problem. A broad reopening of all grades in all communities will take us back to the starting point that brought about the imposition of the second lockdown. Giving the Haredim preferential treatment would be a poke in the eye to the general public, who are watching in astonishment the systematic violations by some Haredi groups and the continuing spread of the diseases throughout the ultra-Orthodox population.
If Netanyahu decides to allow such flagrant differentiation, that might be a bridge too far for his government. As it is, the prime minister has been overseeing a kind of traffic light program in reverse in the past few weeks. The green and orange cities are obeying the guidelines and suffering, while some of the red cities, where the disease is rampant, are pooh-poohing the guidelines and doing as they wish. Dery added fuel to the flames when he demanded at Thursday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet to raise to 200 the number of persons permitted to attend weddings and funerals. It’s probably not the interior minister’s intention, but that sounds almost like support for mass infection.
The lowering of the illness rate should facilitate the work of contact tracers. In the past it was said that it was possible to conduct 2,000 investigations a day. The Israel Defense Forces’ Alon task force, which is responsible for this mission, is supposed to be fully operational November 1.
The main problem lies in how willing the public is to cooperate. With between a third and half of those who contract the disease refusing to say whose company they were in during the two weeks preceding their illness, the phone tracking by the Shin Bet security service and the analytical capabilities being created by the IDF won’t be enough.
The army is talking about the virus as something we must learn to live with, at least until autumn 2021 or, in a grimmer scenario, spring 2022, when an effective vaccine will be available.
Gamzu’s American counterpart, Dr. Anthony Fauci, recently mentioned the first quarter of next year as a possible target date for starting a vaccination campaign in the United States. Israel will want to join shortly afterward, in the hope that the manufacture and distribution of the vaccine, and the vaccination process itself, will not encounter unusual difficulties.
But until then, says a senior IDF officer, we need to get used to living in the shadow of the coronavirus for the long haul. “It’s impossible to hold air in the lungs for more than a year, as a working concept. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Two reports by Channel 12’s Guy Peleg stirred a furor this week, evening after evening. First he published extensive excerpts from a signed affidavit by Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Harel, a former director general of the Defense Ministry, on possible improprieties in Israel’s acquisition of naval vessels.
The next day, with colleague Amit Segal, he broadcast excerpts of conversations five years ago between Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and then-bar association chief Efraim Nave, who currently is knee-deep in his own legal woes.
Peleg and Segal’s scoop was leveraged by the prime minister’s propaganda machine to reinforce a central motif in Netanyahu’s defense in his corruption trial. Mendelblit’s remarks about former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan (“maniac,” “has me by the throat”) were marketed as proof that Nitzan blackmailed his boss to toughen the line in the Netanyahu cases.
But the well-oiled machine emitted an embarrassing screech Wednesday when coalition whip Miki Zohar threatened Mendelblit in a radio interview: If the Attorney General doesn’t resign and close the cases against Netanyahu, additional damaging recordings will be released.
The belated damage-control efforts by Zohar and Netanyahu’s office failed. In Zohar’s remarks, every listener who’s not a Bibi-ist heard a mafia-style threat.
Peleg’s first scoop may have a longer lifespan. On Wednesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz was quoted by Haaretz’s Yossi Verter as saying there’s no point in establishing a commission of inquiry to probe the acquisition of submarines and missile ships. According to Gantz, a commission formed under military law will be limited to questioning members of the armed forces and reservists in active service.
But the next day, Gantz and his Kahol Lavan sidekick, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, changed their tune. In interviews with Army Radio and Ynet, they said the possibility of establishing a commission of inquiry was being examined.
Under the law, every minister may establish such a committee on a subject within his or her purview. In contrast to a military commission, a government commission suffers no restrictions in summoning witnesses.
And defense procurement, certainly when it involves billions, harmful practices and a serious suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, is well within the defense minister’s purview. Such a panel can be headed by a retired judge.
With the government’s approval, the justice minister can upgrade the commission to that of a state commission of inquiry. That won’t happen, of course, given the balance of forces in the government.
But even a lower-caliber commission would be enough to jolt Netanyahu twice: by renewing the investigation into a highly sensitive issue for him, and by stirring a political crisis that would threaten to bury his government earlier than his preferred exit date, between this coming December and March.
This is a loaded gun, not necessarily on safety, that’s aimed at Likud. The question is whether Gantz will summon up the courage to use it, maybe combined with the idea of establishing an alternative government, something Kahol Lavan has been toying with again in recent weeks.
Dan Harel’s statement speaks for itself. He describes immense pressure on him to halt the bidding process for the naval vessels and to award the deal to Germany’s ThyssenKrupp. The prime minister’s people helped apply this pressure, along with other senior figures, Harel said.
In recent years, an increasing number of retired senior defense officials have said the affair of the submarines and missile ships is a horrific corruption story, maybe the most serious in Israel’s history.
Mendelblit’s decision to halt the investigation before testimony could be taken from Netanyahu, perhaps for fears about future of arms deals with Germany, is turning out to be a mistake that has left lots of damage in its wake.
Original: Amos Harel – HAARETZ