Israel the Week Ending January 29th
Covid, Politics, Economy, and Defense
It has been a very frustrating week in Israel. The hope was that after five weeks of lockdown— with three under tightened lockdown restrictions, and with a quarter of the population already vaccinated — the numbers of new daily Coronavirus infections would have decreased substantially. While there has been a slight decrease, it has been nothing like the drop in the numbers reached following either of the previous lockdowns— and nothing like what was expected.
The number of severe cases has remained steady at around 1200, with 80-100 deaths each day.
Israel ranks in the top five countries globally, for its number of new cases per million, and its number of severe cases per million. There is continued pressure to reopen the economy and schools, but as Minister Health Yuli Edelstein stated, with infection numbers like these, doing so would be extremely dangerous. The number of children who have the disease continues to grow, with a steadily increasing subset exhibiting symptoms.
On Monday, the government took an extreme step, closing Ben-Gurion Airport to the arrival and departure of all passenger jets. Until further notice, only freight flights will be permitted to land in the country. A minimal number of compassionate exceptions will also be allowed. The reason for the decision was to stop mutations of the virus from entering Israel. Unfortunately, there has never been a more straightforward case of closing the door after the horses have left the barn. According to the Ministry of Health's estimate, 60% of current new cases are the British variant, which seems considerably more infectious and even more deadly. Cases of the South African and Los Angeles variants have also been found in the country already.
Some of the initial vaccine results appear to show promise, but not yet as much as people had hoped. The most promising result has been seen in nursing homes. The national number of new cases rose to over 1400 a week during the first two weeks of January. However, two weeks later, after almost all nursing home patients received their second shots, the number of new cases has dropped to 362 in Israel. This would indicate an effectiveness rate of 75%, which might be even a little higher, as not all nursing home residents have reached seven days after their second dose.
In the meantime, problems seem to exacerbate relations between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of the country. Attempts by law enforcement to administer lockdown regulations in the ultra-Orthodox world, where a significant percentage of schools remain open, and where community members continue to conduct mass events, have resulted in rioting, attacks on police, and bus burning. The ultra-Orthodox sector continues to have the highest rates of Covid–19. Events of the last week have frayed whatever shared values between might have existed the ultra-Orthodox and the other sectors of Israeli society, and made it extremely difficult to enforce the lockdown in the rest of the country.
This past week was undoubtedly the week the nearly dead Labor Party came back to life. The election of Merav Michaeli has brought about a rebirth. The party now polls above the election threshold for the first time in this election cycle, while TLV mayor Ron Huldai’s The Israelis party has fallen below the required threshold. Huldai hoped Michaeli would join him, but current dynamics make that impossible. Now, either Huldai joins Michaeli, or decides to pull out of the race. Michaeli wasted no time showing who’s in charge, announcing that Labor was pulling out of the Netanyahu government — which she never joined. She demanded that Amir Peretz resign as Economic Minister and that Itzik Shmuli resign his post as Labor Minister. Peretz chose to resign from the Labor Party instead; and it is rumored Shmuli will join Blue & White.
There seems to be a mini-groundswell for Michaeli at the moment, certainly here in Tel Aviv. Michaeli is the only woman currently heading a party, and will gain some support just because of that. The Labor Party is having primaries early next week and some surprising people are running including the former Director General of the Health Ministry Moshe Bar Simon Tov. By the end of the week the final lists have to be submitted, and all decisions on mergers or dropping out will take place next week.
In the meantime, Prime Minister Netanyahu is worried that his main campaign plan is going to fail. He had hoped that Israel would be back to normal by Election Day. However, right now, that looks like a very dubious proposition.
The Israeli high-tech market continues to do exceptionally well, receiving over $10 billion in investment, for two years in a row … And Israel now has 45 unicorns. Part of the Israeli economy is doing very well. But the nearly 1 million unemployed are not doing so well. As is the case in many other countries, Covid has been further exacerbated the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a multi-billion-Shekel economic plan that would include direct payments to everyone, as well as additional grants to businesses and self-employed. This aid program was created without input from the professionals in the Finance Ministry, or the Bank of Israel. Nevertheless, this whole plan is likely a nonstarter, as less than two months before the election, it probably constitutes illegal electioneering.
Alongside the thriving of the high-tech sector, Elbit, Israel's leading Defense manufacturer is another company that has been doing well through the Covid Crisis. Elbit continues to report new sales of an incredible range of weapons. This week Elbit announced a $172 million contract to sell light tanks to an unnamed South Asian country.
The major military news this week came from a speech delivered by Aviv Kochavi, IDF Chief of Staff. Kochavi stated that if a war began between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, hundreds of missiles would no doubt fall on central Israel. He indicated that its time to change the rules of war. According to Kochavi, almost all of Hezbollah’s missiles are located under residential housing. And as such, in case of conflict, Israel will have no choice but to destroy those homes and anyone in them, if missiles start falling on Israel from these locations. Kochavi made other news by stating that if the US reenters to JCPOA agreement with Iran, with only minor changes, it would be dangerous for Israel. Kochavi's assessment seems to be at odds with others in the security community. I hope to address this matter further in a Newsweek article next week.