Bennett benefits as gov't stumbles on Covid-19

Naftali Bennett  / Photo: Alex Kolomoisky, Yedioth Ahronoth

In opposition, Naftali Bennett has gained popularity with policies to combat the virus, and is unscathed from his role in the government, which opened the economy.

In a poll published on Israel’s Channel 12 last week, a party headed by Naftali Bennett won 11 seats, the same number of seats as Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party. The Likud received 37 seats, down four seats from a previous poll. The decline in Likud’s standing, and in the public’s satisfaction with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's performance, can be seen in Bennett's personal climb in the polls.

Indeed, in recent months Bennett has become a kind of leading light in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. He has bypassed the government from the sidelines, presenting operational programs, holding press conferences and welcoming tough and genuine questions, demonstrating thorough and proficient understanding of the material.

In June, when Netanyahu was busy despatching his allies to the Knesset to demand personal benefits to fund future refurbishments of his private home in Caesarea on the state’s tab and to petition for a retroactive tax repeal, and preparing to raise funds for his legal defense, Bennett was putting together a plan, consulting with business leaders, touring towns, cities, and hospitals, all the while offering support to businesses to open up, restoring the economy on the one hand, but cautioning against the absence of a comprehensive testing system in Israel.

On June 27, Bennett launched a personal attack in the Prime Minister accusing him of busying himself with only his own personal interests and criminal charges, and not addressing the countrywide crisis in Israel.

"Since the end of the Sabbath you have tweeted 4(!) times about your own issues, about the Left and Right, while in three days tens of thousands of Israelis will stop receiving unemployment benefits. With plans to re-impose movement restrictions due to the leap in the number of infections; a death blow to businesses. Please focus only on the livelihood, on bread for our citizens," he wrote, adding, "If it’s not about livelihood - it’s not interesting".

This behavior bothers Netanyahu, who is a visionary. He likes to talk about the Israeli vaccine (which does not yet exist), about technology (as yet undeveloped) and about setting a target to get test results in a matter of hours.

But when it comes to managing the day to day health situation - Netanyahu is a problematic manager. He does not delegate authority, keeps information close to his chest, and often resorts to the utilization of security services, such as the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the Mossad.

In contrast, Bennett has been busy over the past few weeks publishing a comprehensive plan to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, and thanks to his outspoken public persona, the Government appears to be following after him. However, it is important to remember that Bennett was still a member of the government that decided to re-open the economy in almost one fell-swoop, which may well have caused the second wave of the outbreak to hit sooner than expected.

Here are some of Bennett's suggestions, which led the government to adopt them later:

Epidemiology Recruits

Bennett suggested: A few weeks ago, Bennett proposed retraining Ben Gurion airport security and customs staff to help with epidemiological investigations under the auspices of the Ministry of Health. "There are not enough epidemiological investigations. This is not nuclear physics," Bennett wrote in a pamphlet published on June 22. On July 5, he tweeted, "I have spoken with a number of furloughed workers, one of whom works in security at the airport. He is an expert investigator, trained to question, to derive facts from facts, quietly and tactfully. Why not recruit these investigators to conduct epidemiological investigations and free up nurses to return to their vital work?"

The Government’s response: Within a few days, Deputy Health Minister MK Yoav Kisch announced he was leading a process to involve El Al workers made redundant, in epidemiological investigations. "Globes" sought clarification from the Health Ministry whether there was indeed an intention to recruit epidemiological investigators from among airport and airline employees, to which they responded the matter was being dealt with by Kisch.

Criticism of reliability of Shin Bet tracking

Bennett proposed: Another issue Bennett spoke up on was Shin Bet tracing and tracking. On Thursday July 2, legislation came into effect, allowing the Shin Bet to trace cell phones to track exposure to the virus, and immediately tens of thousands of Israelis received text messages, many of them erroneous. The reason for this is that the Shin Bet pin location by GPS, and so when the majority of the population are out and about - in contrast to the lockdown of April and May - Shin Bet personnel flagged people in error.

A few days ago, Bennett said that "The Shin Bet tracers’ automatic text messages are causing great damage to the Israeli economy and the public’s trust. Tens of thousands of citizens who were certainly not in contact with a coronavirus-carrier were sent into enforced and unnecessary isolation. This has incapacitated thousands of employees and business owners without reason, without compensation, without effective appeal."

Bennett proposed to introduce a level of human oversight to the automated system. As he noted, the tracking system could alert a ‘risk of infection’, which in turn could be verified with a short phone conversation which would enable a decision to be taken regarding isolation. "As I said dozens of times: 2,500 recruits are needed, we could use security staff made redundant, and in three days, it would be up and running."

The government’s response: In the meantime, there has been no change on the issue of Shin Bet tracking, but chairman of the Defense and Foreign Policy Knesset Committee, MK Tzvi Hauser, already stated that he is uncomfortable with the Shin Bet's operations, and that there is no telephone system to enable appeals to erroneous tracking. If the issue is not resolved, he said, "It will lead to an end of the utilization of the Shin Bet".

Appointing a Project Director for the fight against Covid-19

Bennett proposed: Bennett dedicated a number of media interviews to warning of the increase in incidence and the government’s failure to address this. In his plan, Bennett proposed establishing a central public diplomacy body, under the Home Front Command or the National Information Directorate. In his interviews, Bennet proposed his appointment as the national project director. "I am prepared to join the coalition, even without a ministerial portfolio, if I were to be appointed as project director overseeing the fight against Covid-19, but on the condition that I would have the authority," he said in a radio interview on June 24.

The government’s response: The Health Ministry ignored the ideas for a week. But in a press conference the following Monday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he intended to appoint a special director responsible for efforts to combat the virus. At the stage, it is still not known who that special director would be, or when they would be appointed.

Conducting 100,000 tests a day

Bennett proposed: Bennett has continuously tweeted and commented in the media, as far back as April, about the need for an extensive system of tests capable of conducting 100,000 tests each day. In the second half of May, and throughout June when the Israeli economy opened up entirely, Bennett’s main activity was on Twitter, holding press conferences, and giving press interviews. Yet the issue of expanding the system of tests was left almost entirely unaddressed.

The government’s response: In recent weeks, there has indeed been an increase in the number of tests conducted. In the first few days of July, Israel carried out 22-25,000 tests daily. Prior to this, the daily number was between 11-18,000.

Transferring control of coronavirus-hotels to the Ministry of Defense

Bennett proposed: During the first wave, Bennett waged a public-relations campaign to transfer maximum powers to the defense minister, to mobilize the Home Front, the public diplomacy infrastructure, and to allow the IDF to be integrated into the battle against Coronavirus. Netanyahu ignored his calls, and only at the later stages did the Defense Ministry receive responsibility over opening and running quarantine hotels for Covid-19 carriers.

From the beginning of June, Bennett noted that this it was a mistake to suspend the hotels, and that there was a need for methodical monitoring of patients, and remove them from the homes. This week Bennett wrote that people were waiting in their homes to be evacuated to the hotels. "This is an abysmal and outrageous policy, send those infected to coronavirus hotels that absolutely prevent further infections! The hotels were greatly successful. Why stop something if it is succeeding?"

The government’s response: Indeed, within a short period of time, the Defense Ministry announced that it would be increasing the scope of the Corona-hotels by 50 percent as soon as this week.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 13, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Naftali Bennett  / Photo: Alex Kolomoisky, Yedioth Ahronoth
Naftali Bennett / Photo: Alex Kolomoisky, Yedioth Ahronoth
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