Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Vic Rosenthal's weekly column

It’s been an interesting week for Israelis, mostly in the bad sense of the word.
The news about the application of civilian law (not “annexation”) to parts of Judea, Samaria, and the Jordan Valley is that there is no news. Whatever Netanyahu is planning, if anything, is a secret. Unlike many “secrets” in this country (e.g., the contents of police investigations of Netanyahu), there are no leaks. Naturally, the European Union, the American Reform Movement, the Palestinian Authority, and others continue to react to what hasn’t happened in ways ranging from alarm to death threats. Meanwhile, nothing is still nothing.

A somewhat bright (and loud) spot is a series of explosions and fires in Iran, almost one a day, some in locations critical to its nuclear and missile programs. Did Israel have anything to do with them? Who knows? There are highly speculative reports from various sources that mention everything from cyberattacks, to local regime opponents, to F-35s. Maybe the US is doing it? Regardless, it’s wonderful to wake up to reports of advanced centrifuges wrecked and missile factories burning.

Also loud but not so wonderful have been the rocket attacks on Israel’s south from the Gaza strip. Nobody was hurt, and the IDF bombed underground rocket launchers belonging to Hamas in retaliation. It could be that Iran-linked factions in the strip were responsible, in retaliation for what Israel did or didn’t do in Iran, or perhaps for a recent IDF strike on a weapons convoy in Syria. The “War Between the Wars” continues with little letup. In fact, right now (Wednesday morning) I’m hearing military aircraft. Training or operational? Yes.

In the “I can’t believe she’s still here” department, Australian sex criminal Malka Leifer, who escaped to Israel in 2008, has now appealed to the Supreme Court to delay her extradition yet again. Her extended saga of court hearings and political interference has caused great embarrassment to Israel and pain to her victims in Australia. When a district court judge recently ruled that she was mentally fit to be extradited, we thought we’d finally seen the last of her. Not yet.

The biggest (and worst) news is the explosive growth of the second wave of Coronavirus infections. Yesterday there were 1,473 new cases, by far the greatest number since the start of the epidemic. New deaths and serious cases are up. And the percentage of positive results from the tests being performed is rising. There are outbreaks in nursing homes and a mental hospital.
Yesterday, the Director of Public Health in the Ministry of Health, Prof. Sigal Sadetzki, resigned. In her letter of resignation, she sharply criticized the government for creating layers of bureaucracy that made a quick response to changing conditions impossible, and for making decisions based on political considerations rather than professional ones. She was especially critical of the way the public schools were reopened after the first wave, in many cases ignoring guidelines for separating students and teachers into small groups, and almost all at once instead of more gradually as her ministry had recommended. She also noted that the government has adopted guidelines for the number of people at weddings and other events that far exceed the ministry’s recommendations. With the new government, we got a new Health Minister, and a new Director-General of the Ministry (Sadetzki’s boss). They are not up to speed yet, and it shows.

Another example of politicization: MK Moshe Gafni of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party threatened to withdraw his party from the coalition if yeshivot – which have experienced a wave of Corona cases – were closed, as the Health Ministry and National Security Council had advised. The yeshivot stayed open, Gafni’s party stayed in the government – and Sadetzki quit.
Naftali Bennett, the former Defense Minister (whose party, Yamina, now sits in the opposition) established his own private “civil corona cabinet” which has already made several very sensible suggestions. Unfortunately, some years ago when he was Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff, he reportedly told Sara Netanyahu that “I work for your husband, not for you.” Netanyahu, following his wife’s instructions, has carried on a vendetta against him ever since, and does his best to prevent Bennett from having influence or getting credit for anything.

Sadetzki’s complaints about the government are on target, but her own ministry is also guilty. The Health Ministry was charged with managing the epidemiological part of the Corona response – researching the people and places with which confirmed patients had contact, tracking down and quarantining those who have been exposed. They couldn’t keep up, and so breaking the chains of infection has been impossible. The Ministry claimed that this work can only be done by qualified public health nurses, and there aren’t enough of them. Bennett suggested that trained and supervised students could do much of this work, and finally they are starting to do this. I am reminded of how Israel won its War of Independence with soldiers that had only months ago been released from internment camps, and before that had been in Nazi concentration camps.
El Al, Israel’s flag airline was privatized in 2003. Known for high prices, excellent security and safety, indifferent service, and very high labor costs, it suffered a massive financial blow as a result of the epidemic. Now it will be bailed out by the government, which will probably result in its re-nationalization. There is simply no alternative, because Israel cannot depend on foreign airlines for its transportation lifeline to the rest of the world.

In short, the economic situation of most Israelis can be described as rotten. Official unemployment numbers after the beginning of the second wave of the epidemic aren’t available yet, but some analysts say it is probably close to 10% now. In January, it was only 3.6%. The restaurant and events (weddings, etc.) sectors are crushed, all retail is suffering, and tourism is close to zero. The increasing Corona numbers imply that things are not going to improve any time soon. Government programs to compensate those without income have been slow in starting and have many gaps. Workers in performing arts have been holding demonstrations and blocking traffic to protest. Even where businesses are operating, customers are scarce – they are worried about exposure to the virus or they just don’t have extra money.

Last week I said that I hoped the overconfidence acquired by our success in dealing with the first wave of Corona would be replaced by intelligence. I don’t see that happening yet. On the other hand, someone is doing a great job blowing up stuff in Iran and Syria.


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