Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Corona Politics (January 19, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.


Q. Israel is leading the world in its Covid-19 vaccination rate. Is the term ‘corona politics’ meant to suggest that there are shady or problematic political aspects to the government’s handling of the pandemic crisis?

A. Definitely, beginning with PM Netanyahu’s highly political management of the entire crisis including lockdown policies and vaccination issues, all with the objective of getting reelected on March 23.

Second, if despite Netanyahu’s efforts challenger Gideon Saar ends up forming a post-Netanyahu coalition, corona considerations will to a large extent dictate its composition.
And third, official Israel’s attempts to explain why it is not at all responsible for inoculating the West Bank and Gaza Palestinian population are, rightly or wrongly, proving less than convincing in many quarters.

Q. Let’s start with Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis. Where is the politicization?

A. It is almost easier to ask what is not politicized. The entire corona timeline in Israel appears to be engineered by the prime minister to produce a relatively healthy post-corona population by the date of Israel’s fourth consecutive election, March 23. The timing of rapid vaccinations and the current third lockdown seems to many to be directed toward that end. Grateful Israelis will, Netanyahu hopes, vote for him.

Of course, it is hard for politicians or the public to object to the rapid vaccination program, which benefits everyone (full disclosure: yours truly is now already after his second Pfizer vaccination). From the standpoint of both Netanyahu and the population at large, this is a win-win deal. The prime minister correctly identified Israel’s vaccination-management capabilities, based on its health system, and astutely persuaded Pfizer pharmaceuticals to supply Israel on a priority basis.

Or, perhaps, this is all the doing of Israel’s four healthcare organizations (roughly the equivalent of HMOs in America, except that in Israel enrollment is mandatory and service is cheap and comprehensive), with Netanyahu just taking the credit and spinning the narrative. No one seems to know for sure.

One way or another, the lockdowns are another matter. Did Netanyahu delay the current third lockdown, and is he now extending it, solely with March 23 in mind? In a recent pirated zoom recording, Netanyahu is seen and heard telling an organization of small business owners how he manages this: “The disease decreases, the mandates go up. You decide on a lockdown, the mandates decrease.” That points to a scheme to end serious lockdowns well before elections, meaning in February.

There is only one big fly in this covid ointment formula from Netanyahu’s standpoint, and it too is political. His next coalition, like those before it, will if it happens depend on around 17 mandates from two ultra-Orthodox parties, the Haredim. But the Haredi life-style of intensive religious education and indoctrination and mass gatherings has proven antithetical to virus restrictions (two meters apart, no congregating in closed spaces) and lockdowns.

Israel’s current count of covid-infected is around half Haredi. The Haredim make up only 11 percent of Israel’s population. The rate of infection in Haredi towns and neighborhoods is roughly 20 percent whereas in Tel Aviv it is under four percent.

The obvious solution--lockdown and tough enforcement in Haredi areas but not in secular areas where schools are closed and the economy is ailing--is anathema to Netanyahu, because that would alienate the Haredim and cost him politically when he needs them for his next coalition. Instead, we have lockdown everywhere so as not to anger the Haredim by singling them out, and little lockdown enforcement among Haredim as they flout regulations and open Torah education, again so as not to anger them.

In other words, it’s all political. Here and there, others on the political spectrum are learning from Netanyahu. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who has formed The Israelis party to run against Netanyahu, just announced that he will flout regulations and reopen the city’s many cultural attractions, albeit while insisting on masking and distancing. Of course he knows that here Netanyahu’s domestic security minister in charge of police will crack down and prevent these events. After all, few in Tel Aviv are Netanyahu voters. But maybe now Tel Aviv will reward Huldai at the polls.

Q. Apropos, why is the government only now getting around to properly policing Ben Gurion Airport to ensure proper virus testing on incoming Israelis and others, ten months too late to prevent importing the pandemic?

A. Here we encounter a combination of government sloppiness, mismanagement (which ministry is responsible? who is in charge of airport testing?) and, again, yielding to interest groups. Haredim were allowed to fly to and from a shrine in Uman in Ukraine at Rosh Hashana last September for political reasons. Haredi-institution students were allowed to arrive unchecked from New York. Airlines and travel lobbies that are going broke have argued the need to keep Israel “open”. After normalization with the UAE, the government wanted to encourage Israeli tourism to Dubai, even when it was “red” covid-wise.

Note that Israel is a small country with only one primary entry point. Closing off Ben Gurion Airport at an early stage of the virus would have positioned us in the “island” category of Taiwan, Singapore and New Zealand, where the pandemic is almost non-existent and economic and societal damage is negligible. Instead, Netanyahu and his health spokespersons are constantly comparing us to European countries that have dozens and even hundreds of entry points because in comparison to them Israel’s pandemic situation looks relatively good.

Q. And why is the government sharing vaccinated Israelis’ medical data with Pfizer, its principal vaccine supplier?

A. That, along with highly inflated vaccine prices, is what we are paying Pfizer in return for early and constant delivery of the vaccine to Israel. Pfizer is interested in all this data (names omitted, we are told, but who knows) because Israel’s efficient national health system holds everyone’s medical record going back decades and this knowledge facilitates Pfizer’s monitoring of its vaccine’s effectiveness. Israel is Pfizer’s pioneer test case. When I respond to my healthcare organization’s query and report that the first vaccination slightly exacerbated my back pains, Pfizer knows.

When Netanyahu made these commitments to Pfizer he neither consulted with the public nor informed it. He is giving Pfizer our most intimate medical data and, the experts say, enough personal data to identify us if Pfizer wants to. And all because he wants us all healthy, quickly? Or appreciative so we will vote for him.

Q. If Netanyahu loses the March 23 election and Gideon Saar succeeds in forming a coalition, how will the virus affect Saar’s calculations?

A. Netanyahu’s mismanagement of the pandemic over the past year is saddling Israel with a considerable financial debt. The next government will need broad support for belt-tightening budget cuts.

In parallel, Haredi behavior during the pandemic has seriously angered the other 89 percent of the population. Accordingly, Saar’s coalition considerations will likely comprise virtually all sectors of the population, possibly including the Arab Joint List, but not the two Haredi parties.
Unless, perhaps, the Haredim undertake to accept radical new restrictions on their lifestyle and reductions in the government subsidies that sustain that lifestyle. But that, we all know, would be Haredi harakiri, since mass religious indoctrination and Israeli government money are largely what keep the Haredi cults afloat.

Q. Apropos the Joint List, Arab citizens of Israel and Jerusalem Arabs are being vaccinated like Jewish citizens. But West Bank and Gazan Palestinians are not included in Israel’s vaccination program. Palestinian and international protests are growing . . .

A. There are two ways of looking at this issue. Both have a degree of validity.

The Israeli government position is that the Palestinian Authority health establishment is independent of Israel. Under the Oslo Accords 1995 Interim Agreement, Annex III, Appendix 1, Article 17, “Powers and responsibilities in the sphere of Health . . . will be transferred to the Palestinian side . . . [which will] continue the vaccination of the population.” The PA has already signed deals to purchase millions of vaccine doses from AstraZeneca and Russia. After Biden’s election, the PA undertook to again receive customs and excise taxes collected for it by Israel; nearly NIS four billion were recently transferred, so it has funding available. And if the PA still lacks funds due to Trump administration sanctions, that will soon change under Biden.

Further, the World Health Organization has undertaken to vaccinate Palestinian health workers and endangered sectors, some 20 percent of the population, by April. Nor has the PA actually asked Israel for vaccine assistance.

On the other hand, the Oslo Accords long ago ceased to function in many respects; they were designed for five years, meaning until 2000. The Fourth Geneva Convention still designates Israel an occupying power, with responsibility “to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics”. Further, there is an Israeli vaccination program in the West Bank, but it is meant only for nearly half a million settlers--not even for the Palestinian day-laborers who work in settlements.

So surely there is at least some sort of moral obligation here, at least toward the West Bank if not to Gaza where there is no access to Israelis and the Hamas regime is openly hostile. At the practical level, an unvaccinated West Bank adjacent to Israel and whose population interacts in numerous ways with Israelis is a liability for Israelis as well as Palestinians.
At least the PA has a vaccination plan of its own and the initiative to implement it. (Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border, is currently a failed state with no vaccination plan at all.) Regardless of the validity of one argument or another regarding Israel’s possible obligations, the Netanyahu government would be wise to address the issue seriously. Even here, by the way, there is an Israeli political angle: Netanyahu is campaigning for the votes of Arab citizens of Israel. He won’t get many if he appears to be punishing their Palestinian brethren across the green line in the West Bank.

Yet Israel should not actually offer to vaccinate Palestinians with the Pfizer vaccine. Because of the vaccine’s highly sophisticated storage and logistics requirements, this would require an Israeli medical presence in the West Bank, which could be highly provocative. Indeed, such is the nature of Palestinian-Israeli relations at the grassroots level that any proactive Israeli vaccination effort is liable to encounter Palestinian claims that Israel is exploiting the corona crisis to poison Palestinians. The Trumpists in the US do not have a monopoly on conspiracy theories.

There must be other ways to help. Merely citing rules and regulations based on the Oslo accords from 25 years ago is ludicrous. This is a humanitarian issue that Israel should address empathetically, not bureaucratically.