As reported here last month, Israel’s initial battle with the new coronavirus actually went rather well. A few wise decisions, quickly deduced from Italy’s horrific experience, allowed Israel to close its borders early and limit the spread of the virus. The number of cases remained relatively low (around 20,000, or 460 per million) and so did the mortality rate (about 1.5% of all cases). But then things changed – and not for the better.
The Warning Signs Were There
In retrospect, the alarming signs had all been there. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government decided to end the country’s general lockdown in late April and quite quickly resume business as usual, most experts warned that this was happening too soon.
Two decisions in particular, received criticism and in retrospect had indeed created most of the damage. The first decision allowed all schools, from kindergarten to high school to get back to class without any restricting measures. Israeli schools are the densest in the OECD and very soon, they turned into hubs of infection.
The second decision allowed attendance at weddings as high as 250 participants. If that isn’t enough, then many families – in a rather typical Israeli behavior – actually invited 750 people to their celebrations, dividing the venues into three sub-areas, but not really bothering to make sure that these restrictions were respected. The end result? Multi-generational greater family infections, where participants returned to their respective hometowns and made sure small fires of illness soon rekindled all around the country.
Cases Rise in Mid-July
By late July, the number of new daily cases rose as high as 1,500-1,800 – a new Israeli record, relatively almost equivalent to the United States, where the disease had already become completely out of control. Israel’s lack of preparation for the next stage of the battle meant that it is now facing a second wave of COVID-19, while other countries are hardly getting over the first.
Earlier on, Israel planned to co-ordinate its actions with Austria, a country with a similar population, which had been hit by the pandemic about 10 days earlier. This allowed the Israeli government enough time to learn from the Austrian experience. But the plan never materialized: Israel rushed forward in order to revive its economy, while the more cautious Austria has yet to encounter a significant second wave.
A Second Lockdown is Possible in Israel
Israel also never bothered to establish a sufficient epidemiological organization, which would help test, trace and isolate new cases and thus prevent a rise in infections. Various countries, from South Korea to Germany have adopted such methods. All the Israeli teams of advisors recommended that this was a basic condition for lifting restrictions, but hardly anything happened. Wasn’t this supposed to be the “start-Up nation”, ready for any scientific or technological challenge? How did this happen and why is the country considering a second lockdown in an urgent attempt to bend down the curve?
The main explanation, unfortunately, has to do with Netanyahu himself. After the virus seemed to be retreating in late April, the prime minister apparently lost interest. He had enough on his plate: persuading his opponents from the Blue and White party to join a national emergency coalition; fighting and undermining the judicial system as his trial for three counts of corruption had been approaching; and trying to persuade the Knesset to approve the funding of some of his outrageous expenses. Netanyahu was so sure he had beaten the virus that he kept bragging leaders from all over the world were calling him for expert advice. This has since turned into a running joke for the Israeli public. The leaders are phoning, it has been said, just to make sure their countries don’t repeat Israel’s silly and costly mistakes.
Netanyahu’s Mistakes Will Have a Price
Now, there will be indeed a price to pay. Netanyahu faces what one of his predecessors, Ariel Sharon, used to call the corales (from Spanish – the bull’s only path into the matador’s arena). On the one hand, he has to stop the virus from spreading, because the Israeli hospital system may crumble under the growing pressure, the way it happened in Lombardi and New York in March. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are either unemployed or have lost their small businesses because of the crisis. They expect the government to help them out, but so far the state’s financial assistance has been limited.
Recently, nightly demonstrations have been held around the PM’s residence in Jerusalem. Many of the participants are young Likud voters. These events have clearly gotten under the Netanyahu family’s skin. Netanyahu’s distress is rather evident. For the first time, he cannot just announce a new election. He may just lose it, as the public seems to have lost faith in the politician that local newspapers nicknamed “the magician.”
And in the background, as always, lurks Iran. A series of mysterious explosions has hit the country since late June. The Iranians blame Israel for the most significant of these, an explosion in the nuclear facility in Natanz. Apparently, it has pushed back the Iranian nuclear program by a year or two. Iran will surely be considering retaliation. If it is successful, Israel and the United States may strike in return. The Middle East is on the verge of a possibly serious military escalation this summer, in spite of the coronavirus demanding most of the different leaders’ attention.