Israel’s response to COVID-19: Strengths, Weaknesses and Opportunities

By Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, NESA Alumnus, Vice President – Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS)

Overall, Israeli society has remained resilient in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are reasons to rate highly key aspects of the government’s response. At the strategic level, the country has once again been able to project the image of a nation capable of facing adversity. Nevertheless, there have been some major malfunctions and glaring failures of judgement, amidst an unresolved political crisis. It is still too early to tell whether the measures taken will enable Israel to avoid the tragic template of Italy, Spain, or even New York.

So far, lethality rate remains low, relatively speaking. The proportion of infected cases has been about one in 1,000 (half the Italian rate); but in Israel (as in Germany), the number of deaths has been a fraction of the rate in several European countries. If the capacity of the hospital system does manage to stay well  above the incoming flood of severe cases – and the nightmare of ventilator triage does not materialize – Israel may emerge from the crisis with a strong reputation for effective response. The Central Bank’s large dollar reserves, nearly 150 billion (which the Bank’s past governor was criticized for amassing) offers hope that the economic turmoil, too, can be successfully weathered when the day comes for a return to work. At the same time, the danger of a regional conflagration may have receded temporarily but has by no means vanished; and a violent eruption over Iran’s nuclear project may still be just around the corner.

Israel went into the Corona Virus crisis with four main things going for it:

  1. To begin with, the Israeli health system has a well-deserved reputation for the quality of medical treatment (notably, Arab doctors, nurses and pharmacists play a major role in the front line of the battle). Infrastructure may be poor, hospitals overcrowded, and investment in services has been declining, but the professionalism and knowledge of the medical staff makes a difference. There is a reason why longevity in Israel has been consistently among the five highest in the world. This may go a long way towards explaining the low lethality rate.
  2. The culture of innovation and improvisation which is one of Israel’s hallmarks – those who may recall the old TV series will understand what is meant by “a nation of MacGyvers” – led to creative solutions for technical problems, ranging from makeshift masks to converting machinery to serve as ventilators.
  3. The robust capacities of the large and well-endowed Israeli security forces were also quickly harnessed. Thus, military intelligence shifted to the the invention of relevant technical devices; the internal security service was asked to assist in retroactively monitoring the movements of infected people (so that others can be warned); and the Mossad foreign intelligence agency was charged with acquisition of vital supplies – not least, through cooperation with unnamed Arab Gulf countries.
  4. Having a passionate professional pessimist as Prime Minister helped as well; all the more so as the escalating sense of crisis well served Netanyahu’s political designs for unity under his leadership. Unlike the misguided optimism shown by some key leaders in early stages of the pandemic (including at least one of Netanyahu’s best friends), “Bibi” was a consistent prophet of doom from day one, and so were the Ministry of Health high-ranking officials who showed up on TV by his side every night. Hence the early application of severe restrictions on international travel, the drastic downturn in economic activity, the pressure for social distancing, and later the internal isolation of towns and areas at high risk.

At the same time, some weaknesses are equally in evidence:

  1. The budget cuts of recent years, and the failure of the political leadership to attend to proper priorities, led to the health system being caught unprepared for the pandemic in some key points: above all, the infrastructure for testing (which is still in difficulty) and the number of ventilators. The noble efforts of the medical profession blunted the criticism, but a damning report by the Comptroller-General – prepared well before the crisis began – about the failure of readiness (when some key documents, nationally and internationally, warned about the possibility of a pandemic) may yet be translated into a post-crisis commission of inquiry, a recurrent and important pattern in Israeli political life since the War of 1973.
  2. Certain social segments, and in particular radical elements of the ultra-orthodox communities (known in Hebrew as Haredim, those who fear G-d’s word) did not readily accept restrictions. Many Israelis were shocked to learn that Yaakov Litzman, the Deputy Minister of Health (representing in the Cabinet an ultra-orthodox party that refuses to take up full ministerial positions – and so nominally the PM is the Health Minister) was infected, along side his wife, after attending – against government regulations – a morning prayer group at the home of his rabbinical mentor. The alarming rate in which the infection spread in crowded ultra-Orthodox areas such as the town of Bnei-Brak near Tel Aviv led to drastic measures – and opened old social and political wounds: elderly people in Haredi communities were now being helped by soldiers, who serve in an Army that the radical Haredi communities revile and refuse to serve in. What all of this will mean after the storm blows over is far too early to tell.
  3. The drastic measures taken to curtail all social interaction – and thus, almost all economic activity – have suddenly transformed a nation which was at full employment (in low single digits) into an economic disaster zone, with a million unemployed and tens of thousands of small businesses dead or dying. A dyed-in-the-wool fiscal conservative, Netanyahu is not well suited for properly managing a huge budgetary outlay. Moreover, it remains vital – as indicated above – to sustain the investment in advanced military capabilities; not an easy balance to strike.
  4. Finally, there remains the lingering suspicion that Netanyahu, while standing firm at the helm (“navigating the Titanic away from the iceberg” was his own phrase) is also using the terrible crisis to force his political enemies into fold and find a place in his cabinet: first Blue and White leader Beni Gantz, then labor leader Amir Peretz. This may well be the right thing to do under the circumstances, but many in Israel feel betrayed by the abandonment of the promise not to serve under a man who faces a trial on several counts of corruption.

Still, there is more to the county than the sum of contradictory political and even policy imperatives. The signs of almost-general social solidarity, to some extent encompassing Arabs in the medical professions, and the economic capacity to recover, based on the impressive foreign currency reserves garnered in the previous decade (as the Bank of Israel soaked up dollars to sustain the rate of exchange at a level compatible with our dependence on export markets), may yet prove once again that Israel is a resilient nation.

At the same time, even as the pandemic seems to absorb the full attention of decision-makers, they need not be lulled into complacency. There has been a distinct decline in hostile activity by Hamas  – but also a threat, cast in words that make Israelis’ blood boil, to “make sure six million Israelis will not be able to breathe” unless Hamas gets a full flow of medical supplies. All this, against the background of the persistent threat of confrontation with Iran. The latter’s nuclear (and subversive) activities have been gaining momentum despite the profound imprint of the pandemic on Iranian society and the legitimacy of the regime. As Iran continues on course towards higher levels of Uranium enrichment, the potential for a conflagration remains in place. Preparing for it will continue to require disciplined and balanced conduct by the incoming Israeli government.