Israel Pulse

Intel: Coronavirus fears soar in Israel a week ahead of elections

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Exactly one week before upcoming legislative elections set for March 2, there are fears in Israel that the coronavirus scare could disrupt voting.

Contrary to prior reassuring assessments that diagnoses in the country were limited to Israeli nationals returning from a cruise, it now seems that the virus may also have been spread by Korean pilgrims who crisscrossed the country some two weeks ago. Authorities in Seoul reported on Feb. 22 that nine South Korean tourists who had recently returned from Israel tested positive for the virus. The group visited hotels, churches and numerous tourist attractions.

Following these revelations, Israeli health authorities entered into emergency mode. The Ministry of Health issued warnings and banned foreign travelers coming from South Korea and Japan. Some 200 nationals who returned from Asian countries such as China, Japan, Thailand and South Korea are currently under quarantine, and the Israeli public has started to panic.

Why it matters: There is concern that fake news about the virus may spread to lower voting rates in specific areas and thus impact the election. Also, quarantined citizens would be unable to reach polling locations. Authorities are now considering different options to enable them to vote, including putting up quarantined voting stations.

Fake news, real problems: Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan emphasized yesterday at an emergency meeting that spreading fake news constitutes a criminal offense, and he instructed the police to prepare for such eventualities.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the Shin Bet to thwart any attempts by foreign agents to interfere with the elections by spreading fake news about the virus. Speaking to the press, Netanyahu insisted that the situation is under control and the elections should not be canceled.

What’s next: While the Ministry of Health is constantly updating assessments and has prepared for mass hospitalization of people diagnosed with the virus, the spread of fake news conspiracy theories is more difficult to confront.

Professor Leonid Edelman (Avigdor Liberman’s candidate for health minister after the elections) has already accused Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of generating public panic in order to lower voting rates, a situation that should benefit the right-wing camp.

Could fake news really disrupt elections? Yes. With the third elections in a year and the continued political deadlock, Israel is facing a crucial vote. Thus, voter turnout rates will likely determine this election’s outcome.

Know more: Read Ben Caspit’s piece on Netanyahu’s three options ahead of the elections, and see Hassan Ali Ahmed’s story on how the virus is prompting fears in Iraq.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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