TEL AVIV — As Israel outpaces Western nations in its Covid-19 vaccination effort, it has become a role model for a world aching to return to life as it once was.
The country has inoculated a third of its population of 9 million in little more than a month, and over 80 percent of those 60 and older.
But if you ask most Israelis, the country’s handling of the coronavirus has been anything but a success story. A recent poll by the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute found that just 24 percent of Israelis approve of the government’s management of the crisis.
While Israel boasts the world’s highest vaccination rate, it is also battling the world’s third-worst infection rate.
Despite the vaccination campaign, January was Israel’s deadliest month, with 1,433 people dying from the virus — a third of the 5,000 fatalities since the pandemic began. Israelis have also experienced some of the world’s strictest and longest national lockdowns, with residents mostly confined to their homes for a cumulative four months.
In late December, Israel became the first country to enter a third lockdown. Meant to last two weeks, it is still in force.
Much of Israel’s successful vaccination rollout rests on its small size — roughly equivalent to New Jersey in both land size and population — and its centralized universal health care system that enables virtually all Israelis to be vaccinated quite seamlessly.
Yet there is another element driving Israel’s sprint toward becoming the first country to vaccinate a majority of its population: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running for re-election, again.
“Many Israelis feel that the management of this crisis has been very much affected by Netanyahu’s own political considerations,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said.
In previous elections, Netanyahu was fighting corruption charges; now, ahead of the March 23 election, he faces trial on those charges, a challenger from his own party, and a pandemic that has killed thousands of Israelis and left many feeling that he has failed to safely navigate this crisis.
Netanyahu, whose trial has been delayed several times due to the lockdowns and is scheduled to appear in court Monday, seems to be counting on a successful vaccination operation to not only enable Israel to emerge from the coronavirus, but also to help win him re-election.
“He thinks the vaccine is going to help him, but I don’t, because the situation in Israel is only getting worse,” said Orly Almog, a member of the Black Flag movement, an anti-Netanyahu protest that began in March 2020 and has been demonstrating against Netanyahu since the pandemic began.
Experts say the vaccine has not been as effective in lowering the caseload as some expected because not enough Israelis have been fully inoculated—35 percent have received the first dose, while 20 percent have received both.
Also, according to Itamar Grotto, associate director general at the Ministry of Health, the vast majority of new cases in Israel are associated with the British variant, which is potentially more contagious and difficult to control with the current vaccines.
Political opponents and anti-Netanyahu protesters aren’t the only ones criticizing his handling of the pandemic.
Some 200 leading Israeli doctors and scientists have established two groups — the Common Sense Model and the Public Emergency Council for the Coronavirus Crisis (PECC) — to speak out against what they say is the mismanagement of the crisis. Members of these groups include former directors of Israel’s Ministry of Health, heads of Israeli hospitals and medical schools, and recipients of the Nobel Prize and the Israel Prize, the country’s highest distinction.
According to these experts, Israel’s reliance on national closures has been both unnecessary and ineffective.
“Lockdowns can lower the prevalence of disease, but in the end, they do not affect the number of sick or dead people,” said Dr. Yoav Yehezkelli, member of the Common Sense Model and the PECC who helped design Israel’s programs for dealing with an epidemic.
Lockdowns, he said, “can be taken in an extreme situation where the health system is flooded as we saw in the beginning of the pandemic in China or Italy.”
But the Israeli health care system “has never been close to collapsing” said Yehezkelli, who lectures on emergency and disaster management at Tel Aviv University.
Not all medical experts share this perspective.
Lockdowns “have been very very useful in reducing morbidity and mortality in the first two rounds,” said Ronit Calderon-Margalit, a professor of epidemiology at Hebrew University, who has been advising the government, referring to Israel’s previous lockdowns.
It’s the steps taken getting out of lockdowns that can cause problems.
“There hasn’t been a clear strategy of the government, and even when there was, in the case of the traffic light strategy, it was never carried out,” Calderon-Margalit added, referring to the model in which lockdowns are enforced in “red” areas with high infection rates, and “green” areas with low infection rates have more freedom.
“We wasted the arsenal of the lockdowns,” she added.
Even government officials say the latest lockdown has been a failure.
“The forecasts were wrong,” Ran Balicer, the chairman of the national expert panel on Covid-19 said minutes before a Cabinet meeting Thursday.
“Lockdown as a means of magic … is dead,” added Balicer, a professor in the Department of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University.
Ahead of this meeting, Netanyahu was pushing for another lockdown extension. In the hours before the lockdown was supposed to end on Friday morning, the government announced that it would be extended until Sunday.
As in other countries, some experts also decry the overwhelming economic costs of closure.
According to Aaron Ciechan over, recipient of the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry, “four hours of lockdown is worth the annual budget of the Israel Cancer Association.”
Yehezkelli and his colleagues worry most about the devastating long-term effects on Israelis’ physical and mental health.
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These medical experts also believe the government’s decisions have been driven by politics. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein is a Netanyahu political appointee with no background in health. His predecessor, Yakov Litzman, who served until May 2020, had no medical background, flouted his own ministry’s coronavirus guidelines, and tested positive for Covid-19.
Critics cite as a prime example of politically driven decision-making the lack of enforcement of Covid-19 guidelines in many ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, where schools often remain open, and huge weddings and funerals continue to take place.
Israel would be in a much better place, many medical experts say, had Netanyahu not abandoned the so-called traffic light strategy to enforce lockdowns.
Israel’s previous coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, tried to implement that strategy, but was blocked by Netanyahu because many of the red areas are ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that are strongholds for the embattled prime minister. Not wanting to alienate the ultra-Orthodox, who represent 12 percent of Israel’s population, Netanyahu opted for the current across-the-board approach.
The resentment created by this double standard will be a factor for many voters in March, Plesner said. “Enforcement is highly skewed in favor of the ultra-Orthodox population,” who according to government statistics constitute nearly 40 percent of virus cases, and receive just 2 percent of fines for violating lockdown rules.
According to Calderon and other medical experts who are not part of the Common Sense Model or the PECC, virtually every health professional in Israel agrees that the traffic light policy is preferable to the all-out lockdown, which has led to a fatigue that hinders compliance, making this lockdown less effective.
Grotto, the Health Ministry official, said there is truth to criticism that Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic may be driven by political interests.
“But it’s also cultural. Even if the ultra-Orthodox community was not part of the [governing] coalition, still there would be a problem with the enforcement,” he said, noting that despite the high death toll among them, many religious leaders and their followers continue to rebel against restrictions.
The prime minister’s office declined to comment on the record for this story.
For most democratically elected leaders, these challenges could present an existential threat to any hope of re-election.
Yet Netanyahu is known as a political wizard, or “King Bibi” to his base, for good reason.
According to the latest polls, Netanyahu has the best chances of forming a government, though he is favored by just about 30 percent of voters.
Second behind him in the polls: “Don’t know” or “None of them.”