Israel might be turning a corner in the fight against COVID-19 and is slowly opening schools and considering lifting other restrictions, but the fight isn’t over.
To speed the path toward victory, Israel has pledged $60 million to find a vaccine. As the virus battle progresses, so does a political one. The Supreme Court is deciding the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As some Israeli schools resumed in-person classes for the first time in nearly two months on Sunday, the government also lifted additional pandemic.
The opening of some schools marks a major turning point in Israel’s aggressive state response to the pandemic. Only grades 1 through 3, and 11 and 12 will be resuming in-person classes, but the rest are scheduled to return later this month, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Israel has seen a consistent drop in cases in the last two weeks after months of extreme measures to curb the spread of the virus, including controversial citizen tracking, shelter in place orders, and mass decontamination efforts. As of Monday, May 4, Israel reported 16,237 cases, 9,858 recovered, and 234 deaths. That count plays a small role in the global 3.53 million infected, 1.13 million recovered, and 248,000 deaths.
Even though Israel has seen a drop in the number of cases, the restrictions aren’t all lifting at once. Even in the schools that are opening, students will have to follow new rules: no pencil sharing, no games that involve touching, no taking books from the library, etc. Despite the extra precautions, not all schools are reopening.
Ha’aretz reports that some districts refused to reopen because of what they say is an absence of clear health guidelines from the Education Ministry. Guidelines have since been published, but only after many schools reopened. Because of that delay, schools in Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva, and Bnei Brak are still closed, along with schools in Arab districts that have asked to delay reopening until after Ramadan.
Reopening schools isn’t the only sign that Israel may be easing restrictions. Ynet reports that malls, gyms, and markets could open as soon as this Friday. The government will decide on what pace to reopen public life, but the Health Ministry said it supports opening large parts of the economy within a week. Again, that’s not without restrictions. Once malls are reopened, for example, visitors will be required to submit their ID number and other personal details in an attempt to continue tracking the spread of the virus. Fines could apply to businesses not following guidelines, and people are still required to wear masks and social distance in public.
What About Tourism?
One of the strongest pushes for reopening comes from the hospitality and tourism industry. Tourism is a huge source of Israel’s GDP, and the global lockdown has brought that economic sector to its knees. Israel has barred the entry of all foreigners during the pandemic, and any Israelis returning from overseas must quarantine for two weeks.
Israel isn’t the only country facing the collapse of the tourism industry, but they’re also not the only country that has made significant strides in curbing the spread of the virus. Joined by that common progress, Israel is joining a tourism compact with seven other countries to potentially adopt joint coronavirus protocols that would allow for the limited opening of tourism and trade with each other. The Times of Israel reports that the initiative, proposed by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, could come to fruition in the next few weeks. First, participating countries, including Israel, Austria, New Zealand, Greece, the Czech Republic, Australia, and Denmark, would have to establish agreed-upon procedures including masks, safe distances, and testing. To help speed the process along, Austria has announced a three-hour test at the Vienna airport that would let travelers avoid a two-week quarantine. Procedures like this could allow a slow reopening of vital industries, but the Israeli government is hoping to speed along the return to normal life.
Israel Pledges $60 Million to Vaccine Research
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday that the government pledged $60 million USD to the global hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Like all countries, Israel is now trying to find the right balance between protecting the health of our citizens by preventing another spike in infections, and enabling the reopening of our economy, but, ultimately, to ensure both the public health and national prosperity, we must all work together on improving diagnostics, accelerating therapies, and ultimately developing a vaccine,” he said in a prerecorded message at a fundraising event featuring dozens of world leaders.
Netanyahu warned that the current epidemic is far from over, but that he has confidence in Israel’s leading research institutions and world-renowned scientists. Netanyahu’s confidence is not misplaced. The Jerusalem Post reports Israeli scientists have said that they are weeks away from developing the first vaccine against COVID-19. Israel’s Galilee Research Institute was already researching a vaccine for coronavirus in poultry and has shifted their research to treating the virus in humans. Their effort is joined by dozens of other vaccine trials now in progress around the world.
Even if a vaccine is found to be effective, it will take at least 90 days to enter the marketplace and even more time to scale production nationally and then globally.
“I am confident that Israel’s leading research institutions, its world-renowned scientists, and our unique culture of innovation can enable us to play an important role in advancing solutions,” Netanyahu said.
Israel Supreme Court to Rule on Netanyahu Government
Israel is closer to having a stable government than they’ve had in more than a year, but they aren’t there quite yet.
It’s true, an agreement was reached between Blue and White and Likud to share power over an emergency coalition government to fight the pandemic, but there’s a stumbling block in the way. The new government deal allowed for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold his seat for at least a couple more months, but he is facing several criminal indictments for corruption, and that could be a problem.
The Associated Press reports Israel’s Supreme Court began discussions on Sunday on whether or not someone facing criminal indictments can form a new government. Their decisions will be critical; some are calling it their most important verdict ever.
If they rule that Netanyahu can’t assemble a government or rule for another term, a fourth consecutive election would almost certainly be triggered. A ruling in favor, however, would be criticized as weakening the country’s already-rattled democratic institutions and checks and balances. Amid all this is the global pandemic that places Israel and all countries in desperate need of clear leadership.
“The High Court of Justice is facing its most important verdict ever,” former Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote. “The High Court can make its name for generations in one moment’s brave decision. On the other hand, should the court opt for legalistic niceties, irrespective under what intricate pretexts, it too will be crushed further down the road.”