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Battling the Beast: Israel’s Experience in the Pandemic

By Randy Pinsky

March 2020 will go down in collective memory as the date when the COVID-19 pandemic took over the world. 

From the start, Israel was at the forefront of developing vaccines, more effective medical equipment, and geo-tracking devices to reduce transmission. Yet it experienced its own share of significant challenges. From being the world leader in virus control, to alarming spikes of cases, what has been the Israeli experience? And what accounts for the dramatic ups and downs?

Azrieli Institute Director and Knesset specialist Csaba Nikolenyi, explored this issue in November 2020 in a talk co-sponsored by Montreal’s Adath Israel Synagogue. While much has of course changed since then, it is critical to examine the response approach launched under the Netanyahu administration in order to contextualize the current situation.

A Crisis Unlike Any Other

When the pandemic hit, governments the world over scrambled to find the most optimal means of managing and containing the virus. A coordinated and comprehensive approach necessitates taking into account factors as diverse as health, economy and education with their respective specialists. Restrictions and guidelines for conduct then need to be set out and enforced. 

But to have public compliance, there needs to be a measure of trust in the government. And this was the crux of many of the challenges in Israel. 

Indeed, “the pandemic hit at a time when [the country’s] political class and society were suffering from a tremendous decline of precisely that trust, social cohesion and social capital,” observed Nikolenyi. 

More Than Just a Health Emergency

As Moar (2021) noted, all crises are potential political opportunities, and the pandemic is no exception. Under scrutiny for accusations of fraud and bribery, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struggled to keep his shaky coalition together through calling for a National Emergency Unity government. 

Using a vocabulary of warfare to ‘combat’ the virus, measures included lockdowns and social distancing immediately after the first case was discovered in Israel. The hope was: Go Fast and Go Strong, and the virus would be contained. 

And at first, this approach was impressively successful. 

Conquering COVID-19

From March to July 2020, Israel ranked within the top 10 countries of the world in terms of pandemic management (Deep Knowledge Group). Countries such as Hungary and Austria would publicly express their gratitude for the “Israeli way of battling the pandemic,” with many others modeling their responses on its approach (Nikolenyi).

However, there were significant internal issues with how the crisis was being managed. 

For instance, the government was severely divided, and decision-making positions were allocated more on the basis of political loyalty than expertise or skill. Netanyahu supporter and Minister of Health, Yaakov Litzman, for instance, was considered to be of particular concern. 

Representing the Ultra-Orthodox United Torah Alliance party, Litzman possessed minimal secular education and had no experience in the field of medicine and public health (Migdal 2001:2). In addition to undermining suggestions made by health professionals, he also repeatedly maintained that religious, rather than medical, intervention would resolve the crisis. As Migdal (2021) dryly noted, “this attempt to put people’s minds at ease…did not work (nor did the Messiah actually make it by Passover)” (2).

In addition to openly flaunting restrictions made by his own government, Litzman also attended two illegal public prayer sessions - and this after testing positive. Several high-ranking doctors would demand his immediate removal. 

Beyond this concerning situation, the Ministry of Health was granted almost complete authority over the national response. In addition to burdening an already overwhelmed health system, this decision was ill-advised as the Ministry was politically weak and had little experience in strategic planning or emergency response (Maor 2021:94). 

Resources Available…and Ignored

A further compounding (and to many, bewildering) issue was the fact that a comprehensive National Emergency Authority (NEA) pandemic plan had been preemptively developed in 2007…but was not put into place. Many have speculated that Netanyahu intentionally refused to activate it as his political rival (and ironically, successor) Naftali Bennett headed both the NEA and the implementing Home Front Command (Maor 2021:93).

Such politically motivated decision-making also resulted in the hesitation to involve the Ministry of Defense for obtaining and distributing much-needed medical equipment, in spite of the fact that it had global purchasing power and experience in emergency response. 

Politics additionally came into play with the testing campaign to track and contain virus transmission. Health management organizations were originally not consulted for the government’s ambitious verification goals. As such, targets could not be met as only one of the 27 potential testing labs was initially approved (Maor 2021: 95). It was only once members of the staff fell ill themselves that the other ones were considered.

Populist Politics

So why this political vanity, this hoarding of authoritative decision-making power? Why would Netanyahu settle for an ill-equipped, ununified and uncoordinated emergency response when there were numerous skilled institutions waiting to be used?

For instance, the Ministry of Health was allowed to ease restrictions without first consulting the Cabinet, and publish plans without authorization (Migdal 2021:3). Regulations were confusing and self-contradictory (ex: there were limits of the distance one could leave their house, yet none for exercise).

“The government response was unregulated, unorganized, inefficient, uncoordinated and uniformed” observed Maor (2021:84), with concerning bouts of blame avoidance and crisis exploitation.

Similar to former American President Donald Trump, Netanyahu engaged in populist politics, “bypassing or sidelining established government institutions in favor of personalistic rule involving direct contact with the public” (Migdal 2021:5).

A need to be at the forefront of all actions led to an undermining of opposing views, the promotion of an ‘us-versus-them’ approach, and a suppression of dissent. This was effectively noted by Nikolenyi in regards to Israel’s recently negotiated normalization with Arab states. While most countries would have delegated their Ministers of Foreign Affairs to such tasks, Netanyahu insisted on being the direct mediator. 

Beyond this, “The same divisional paralysis that characterized the government also characterized the ‘Corona Cabinet,’” observed Nikolenyi. In an attempt to reduce the constant bickering and gain internal consensus, the number of ministers was reduced from 16 to 10. The fact that all who were removed were women was an irony not lost on the Israeli public. 

Even when the highly qualified Dr. Ronni Gamzu was nominated to lead the national plan, many felt it was merely an act of tokenism as his advice and recommendations were repeatedly dismissed. 

Challenges Within

Compounding the situation were debates on the best approach for addressing the Ultra-Orthodox Haredi and Arab communities. Due to higher population density, lower average socio-economic status, and less access to social media outlets for directives, these communities quickly became hot spots for the virus, with numbers being up to 3-5 times higher than the general population. 

Haredi leaders openly defied government restrictions on large gatherings and protested the closing of yeshivot (religious schools), and penalties were unevenly administered (Migdal 2001:6). In the effort to curry political favor, double-standards were thus common (for example, not requiring those returning from New York to be quarantined as opposed to other travelers) (Maor 2021:99). 

There were structurally similar issues with the Arab community, although the rates were not as high. With Netanyahu working to normalize relations with several Arab states (UAE, Sudan, Bahrain), the general rule was to tread cautiously, knowing that the Arab members of Israel’s Knesset would vote against such partnerships.

So Where Are We Now?

While Israel dramatically reduced initial rates of infection through quick initial action and a highly successful ‘Operation Warp Speed’ vaccination campaign, lack of political accountability and uneven compliance with regulations plagued the country. 

Current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has worked to address the internal divisions at the government and local level and bring about a more unified front. A critical challenge is that “the pandemic is unlike any of the other wars Israel has dealt with” observed Nikolenyi, but is rather a long-term engagement. The hope is that Bennett will prioritize expertise over political pandering, and regain Israel’s original standing in optimal pandemic management.



Maor, Moshe. 2021. “Blame Avoidance, Crisis Exploitation, and COVID-19 Governance Response in Israel,” Israel Studies Review, Volume 36, Issue 3, Winter: 84-105.

Migdal, Joel S. 2021. “From Worst to Best: The Pandemic and Populism in Israel,” Israel Studies Review, Volume 36, Issue 3, Winter: 1-8.

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