Sunday, March 15, 2020
Two Tracks of Craziness
Israel, like much of the rest of the world is facing an ever-growing and severe spread of the Coronavirus. The Israeli government has taken several increasingly aggressive steps to slow the spread of the virus, the most recent of which came into effect last night. At the same time, the country continues to face a political crisis which has not yet been resolved. No government has been formed and the country is currently running on an interim government and could well wind up with a fourth round of elections. Either of these issues would normally be enough to occupy media coverage twenty-four hours a day on its own. With constant reporting about both issues, along with news from many other parts of the world dealing with Coronavirus, things are very stressful here.
As of the writing of this blog, Israel has more than 200 confirmed cases of Coronavirus. Fortunately, there have not yet been any fatalities, though there are a few patients in serious condition.
Last week, Israel began instituting restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus. Within days, things went from a restriction on no more than 1,000 people at a gathering - to a maximum of 10 people. By the end of last week, the Israeli government had closed schools, universities, and other large institutions. Effective this morning, restaurants, recreational establishments, malls, gyms and other establishments had been ordered closed. Supermarkets, drug stores and private businesses (in other industries) have been left open. Public transport is still running. Anyone arriving in Israel is required, by force of law, to self-quarantine for 14 days. But many airlines have suspended service to Tel-Aviv. I have decided to stay here and work remotely, at least until after Pesach. The restrictions in Canada and the United States will probably soon catch up to those that have been implemented in Israel.
Israel has not yet gotten to where France and Spain are - effectively instituting martial law - preventing anyone from leaving the house - without a proper reason. But I believe that will be following soon, perhaps by the end of the week, perhaps by next week.
This afternoon, we went out for a walk. Surprisingly, we saw many places open that, seemingly, were not supposed to be. Falafel places, Shawarma places and bakery/cafes. Restaurants that are only restaurants are either closed or are running take out service/ delivery service only. But other places seem to be operating, oblivious to the directive. Not sure what will be open in the coming days.
Many business owners are complaining about the lack of support measures behind these steps along with the disparate application. For example, a drug store that is inside a mall is now closed whereas one on a main street is open. Some falafel places and bakeries are open but full service restaurants are closed. Many of the people who work in these establishments are very vulnerable financially and may have no support. Many of the owners are vulnerable as well. They have rent to pay, lines of credit, tax installments etc., none of which are being frozen. But all income has come to a halt. It seems to me that this is only an interim step that will last a few days - until we get to a full closure that looks more like what is going on in Rome, Madrid or Paris. It is all placing the whole country under tremendous pressure, though that is not very different from many other places around the world.
The decisions are being made by the current interim government, led by Netanyahu. Although many experts seem to agree with most of the steps taken by the country to fight the community spread aggressively, there are certainly well-founded concerns about the manner in which these dramatic decisions are being made.
Netanyahu does not have a majority of Knesset members supporting him. He has, thus far, only been able to muster 58 supporters - with the opposition holding 62. The Blue and White party has been willing to support the measures he has taken thus far - but in the circumstances, they should be an integral part of the decision making.
The difficulty is that Netanyahu is fighting the spread of the Coronovirus - while fighting a concurrent personal battle to deal with the criminal charges he is facing - and while trying to find three Knesset members to switch sides and support him in building a government. So it is natural that many Israelis have a reasonable level of suspicion and skepticism about decisions he is making. At the same time, most recognize the urgency of the situation and are hoping that these measures will slow the spread in Israel and keep the country from getting to the situation that some other countries are now facing.
Last night, Netanyahu announced that the government was in an emergency situation - and that all gatherings of more than 10 people would be barred. He did not mention his upcoming criminal trial (which was scheduled to start on Tuesday March 17, 2020). Instead, his key advisors notified the press at about 1:30 a.m. (more than 3 1/2 hours after his main announcement) that a side effect of his various measures would be the delay of the trial by at least two months.
Today, Netanyahu called for an immediate "emergency government" with the Blue and White Party. He provided his conditions - in the form of two options. Either a temporary government of six months - with Netanyahu at the helm - or a four year government with a two year rotation for each party - and Netanyahu would go first. In both cases, he made the proposals as someone who had won the election and held all of the cards. Mathematically, however, this is not the case. The Blue and White party is still responding to these proposals.
Today was also the day when all of the Knesset party leaders were supposed to meet with the President (following the recent election) and indicate who they were supporting to put together a government. Apparently 62 Knesset Members recommended Gantz, which may give Gantz the right to first try and put together a government, albeit one that is reliant on 15 Knesset members from the Joint List (An Arab party which includes 2-3 anti-Zionist communists). Netanyahu has attacked this type of government wildly and has all but threatened violence to prevent it.
Weighed against all of this, many feel that Netanyahu has handled the Coronavirus crisis well to this point. Netanyahu is hoping that if the general public feels that way (and presumably, if his measures prove successful) - he may be able to muster a few more seats and get to 61 for him and his coalition in a 4th election. This could also allow him to pass legislation that would provide him with immunity for his criminal proceedings. So I would say that there is a definite and growing sense that Netanyahu is hoping that a fourth election in September or October would allow him a shot a forming a government that has eluded him in the first three election attempts.
At the same time, that is only really relevant if the country can succeed in getting the spread of the virus under control and in limiting casualties. If things get out of control, all of the talk about the formation of the government will be a much more minor concern. We can only hope that the measures that have been taken so far and the additional measures that are going to be taken are the proper ones to address this world wide epidemic. We can also hope that, at some point, the different Knesset members will find a reasonable way to resolve this governmental stalemate.