After three stalemate elections and seventeen agonizing months, Israel has formed an emergency unity government to lead the country’s response to the global pandemic. As new cases of the virus taper off in Israel, plans to reopen the country are emerging with caution.
Israel Forms Emergency Unity Government
Israel’s seventeen-month political lurch has concluded.
On April 20, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political rival, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party, signed a deal to form an emergency coalition government that will give Israel desperately needed leadership during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The deal comes after both main parties, right-wing Likud and centrist-Blue and White, failed to gain the majority in three exhaustive elections. The long-awaited agreement isn’t the result of simple negotiations. Instead, both parties agreed to the deal, and its concessions, largely due to Israel’s need for unified leadership during the global pandemic.
“We prevented a fourth election. We will safeguard the democracy, we will fight the coronavirus, and we will take care of all the citizens of Israel,” Benny Gantz tweeted.
But the compromise is clear. Gantz has promised many times that he would not be part of a unity government with Netanyahu, who is facing several major corruption charges.
“I promised the state of Israel a national emergency government that will act to save the lives and livelihoods of the citizens of Israel. I will continue to do everything for you, citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu said, echoing Gantz. But both sides made tradeoffs.
Gantz was forced to renege on his promise never to share leadership with Netanyahu, and Netanyahu will remain prime minister for only another eighteen months before being replaced by Gantz in October 2021. Until then, Gantz will serve as vice prime minister. There is controversy over which side got the upper hand in the emergency deal. Among the more controversial stipulations in the agreement is the beginning of the annexation of parts of the West Bank—a move promised by Netanyahu.
Despite the complications of Israel’s strict quarantine measures, critics of the deal made their voices heard. Thousands of Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on April 19. Nearly all of them wore masks and stood exactly six feet apart from each other, creating an impressive display.
The chairwoman of left-wing party Meretz, Tamar Zandberg, represented one criticism saying that the unity deal felt like a betrayal.
“The man who was supposed to be the prime minister who would bring change decided to raise a white flag instead of winning,” she said. “Gantz destroyed the hope of a majority of Israelis and sold the mandate that the majority gave him to a corrupt inciter. This is not an emergency government, but there is an emergency situation for our democracy.”
Health Minister to Resign
Israeli Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman, announced that as a new government forms, he would leave his post as health minister.
Litzman was deeply embattled over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but his resignation letter made no mention of his performance or the criticism of it. Instead, he said he was ready for a new challenge and that it’s clear things have changed for the better in Israel. He will take on a new role as Israel’s housing minister.
Litzman, an ultra-Orthodox politician with no formal medical training, was diagnosed with coronavirus for allegedly violating his own ministry’s orders to avoid public prayer; he has since recovered.
As of April 26, 15,298 people in Israel have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 199 people have died. Globally, 2,970,705 have tested positive, 865,549 who tested positive have recovered, and 206,495 who tested positive have died.
After weeks of a strict lockdown and other preventative measures, Israel’s health ministry is reporting progress, with only 145 new infections recorded over the previous 24 hours—the lowest daily count since March 20. Israel was one of the earliest nations to employ strict measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but now that new cases seem to be decreasing, some of those measures are being freely lifted while others are challenged.
On Sunday, the government announced that some businesses could reopen and that it would consider allowing children back to school. Israel’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism, was devastated by the virus. Unemployment in Israel hit 27 percent last week. Bringing those jobs back too fast, however, could force a new shutdown and make the situation even worse.
Economic concerns aren’t the only worry disrupting Israeli life. Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, has utilized cell phone tracking data to track and contain the spread of the virus by recording location data of coronavirus carriers. It’s an effective tool, but the privacy violation of using it pushed the issue to the highest level. Israel’s supreme court ruled that without further legislation permitting it, the Shin Bet can no longer track coronavirus patients.
Hopefully, such extreme measures won’t be necessary for much longer. Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov said with the proper procedures Israel will be able to return to a sense of normalcy—with a warning.
“If we are diligent about three rules—masks, social distancing, and hygiene—I believe that we will succeed in combining routine life with preventing the spread of the disease. Do not be nonchalant,” he said.