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Is Netanyahu really the coronavirus savior?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is staging himself in the role of savior rescuing the people of Israel from the coronavirus, but how much of all this is true?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 8, 2020. Oded Balilty/Pool via Reuters - RC2MFF94CHHP

It happened almost every day last week, just after 8 p.m., the most coveted primetime slot. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on TV to deliver a special statement about the coronavirus. Inevitably, the various channels aired his messages live during their evening news broadcasts. Each time he appeared on TV, Netanyahu announced a series of new decisions. These began with him canceling all events with over 5,000 people in attendance. Then came his announcement that he was canceling school and shutting down the country’s colleges and universities. Netanyahu also pleaded with people to maintain high standards of personal hygiene, use tissues, avoid handshakes and postpone visits to elderly relatives. He warned of a dramatic rise in the number of people who were infected, and of course, he used the opportunity to make all sorts of political statements.

As conventional wisdom in Israel would have it, the prime minister was managing the current crisis in the best possible way and had succeeded in steering the ship that is Israel to safer shores. This was even the view of the media and publicists, who, under normal circumstances, would not spare Netanyahu their criticism. “You can mock and hate as much as you want. Benjamin Netanyahu is 100% on point with the coronavirus crisis,” tweeted Ravit Hecht, a publicist for Haaretz newspaper, on March 11. Hecht was joined by Barak Ravid, a political commentator for Channel 13, who is known for his uncompromising criticism of Netanyahu, and by Ynet anchor and commentator Attila Somfalvi. It looks like most Israelis identify with this sentiment. Accordingly, all polls published for the weekend show a rise in support for Netanyahu as the person best suited to serve as prime minister. He now has 47% support, while the Blue and White party’s Benny Gantz has just 36%.

Admittedly, there is some criticism that Netanyahu is using his daily TV appearances for political purposes, and that these could easily be replaced by a brief statement by a senior figure in the Ministry of Health, or even by a press release containing the latest public instructions. Nevertheless, there can be no argument that Israel was quick to wake up to the crisis and took dramatic but necessary steps in order to stop the spread of the disease. This includes closing the country’s borders to tourists from countries infected by the virus and the compulsory isolation of anyone returning from those countries.

And yet, at the same time, the number of people infected by the virus has ballooned over the past few days. As this was happening, about 1,000 doctors were placed in isolation after being exposed to the virus, while many patients who show symptoms of the coronavirus have complained that Magen David Adom [Israel's national emergency medical, disaster, ambulance and blood bank service] is refusing to conduct tests to see if they have been infected. So far, only four labs in Israel are even able to conduct the tests to identify the virus, so that only 700 tests are conducted each day. By way of comparison, South Korea does 10,000 tests per day. Though Israel began preparing for the coronavirus as early as two months ago, it turns out that hospitals are dealing with a shortage of masks, medical gowns and medical equipment. In fact, Israel has been forced to use diplomatic tools to “pressure” other countries to provide them with essential equipment. At the same time, there is a heated debate over whether people with light symptoms should be treated at home. Experts claim that this would only increase the rate of infection among the community at large.

Even more serious is the terrible state of Israel’s health system overall. It is being forced to contend with the coronavirus from a very fragile and vulnerable position. For one thing, the country has suffered from a shortage of doctors, and particularly of specialists, for several years now. The number of doctors did not increase at all between 2000 and 2015, in large part because many doctors who immigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s have since retired. The government knew that there was a shortage of doctors, including in the Israel Defense Forces, and even debated the issue in the Knesset. But the steps to remedy the situation were never taken. Now, there are almost 1,000 doctors in isolation, and many more about to be put in isolation because they were exposed to the virus either at work or at home. This begs the question: Who will replace them in the already overcrowded hospitals that are about to be filled with many more patients?

“Departments of internal medicine in the various hospitals have suffered from neglect for decades, with no investments made to ensure that they can provide Israelis with the best possible care — at the standard one would expect in 2019,” professor Avishay Elis told the Knesset at an emergency meeting about the crisis in the health system. Elis is chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine and director of the Department of Internal Medicine at Beilinson Hospital. On the other hand, it does not take an expert in public medicine to realize how poor the situation in Israeli hospitals really is. They suffer from overcrowding, infections and a shortage of beds, and the situation is only getting worse. Overcrowded conditions in emergency rooms have become so intolerable that they have even led to fistfights. In October 2018, nurses went to the Knesset to protest their poor wages and the crisis caused by overcrowding in hospitals. In May 2019, the State Comptroller released a report that was highly critical of Deputy Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman, who now serves as minister of health. The report determined that the government “has no real plans to increase manpower and the number of beds.”

The problem is that throughout that entire period, any criticism of the crisis in the health-care system was completely rejected by Netanyahu and those close to him. Orna Peretz, a social activist from Kiryat Shmona, who protested that there is no emergency room in her city, was publicly disparaged by Netanyahu himself. “Look, you’re simply uninteresting. You’re boring us. You bore us,” the prime minister told the stunned resident of the northern border town in October 2018.

That same year, at a conference to discuss insights and objectives for the Ministry of Health, Netanyahu rejected claims that his government is not investing enough in the health-care system. “Our investment in health care amounts to 7.5% of our gross national product. People tell me it is too little. Who decided that? No such thing, as far as I am concerned,” Netanyahu responded.

If Netanyahu had not been the high-handed prime minister of Israel throughout the last decade, and had he not served for such a long time as minister of health — at a Cabinet meeting in 2019, he actually forgot that he also serves as minister of health, so that the other participants had to refresh his memory — he would rightly deserve all the praise that he is receiving today. But since Israel, like the rest of the world, is only facing the start of this serious crisis, it would probably be best to hold off with the compliments — at least for a little while.