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March 23, 2020 6:34 am

Israel’s Critics Distort the Country’s Coronavirus Response

avatar by Sean Durns


Health Ministry inspectors speak with a woman in self-quarantine as a precaution against coronavirus spread in Hadera, Israel, March 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

At a time of a global pandemic, Israel is taking drastic measures to prevent COVID-19 from potentially killing thousands of its citizens. But while the world is changing — and changing fast — Israel’s critics aren’t. At a time of crisis, the usual suspects are seeing an opportunity to single out the Jewish state for opprobrium.

Take, for example, the Global Opinion page in The Washington Post, and a March 19 op-ed by Gershom Gorenberg, entitled “With a pandemic as cover, Netanyahu is carrying out a coup in Israel.” And the inflammatory and sensationalized headline is only the beginning.

Gorenberg charges that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “carrying out a palace coup. Under the cover of a pandemic, he is transforming himself from lame-duck prime minister to unelected strongman. He and his henchmen have shut down parliament, enacted extreme ‘security’ measures without legislative oversight and shelved the courts just as Netanyahu was about to go on trial for corruption.”

Taking a conspiratorial tone, he claims that “the coronavirus arrived at just the right moment to provide pretexts for seizing authoritarian powers.” Elsewhere, he adds that the “exponentially rising number of confirmed coronavirus infections” gives “Netanyahu new opportunities.”

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Gorenberg protests: “I don’t use the word ‘coup’ lightly.” But unfortunately — given the rapidly developing crisis and the need for calm and reasoned thinking — he does.

It is perfectly reasonable — indeed it is imperative — for all citizens to continue to question their government’s actions and to continue to voice their criticisms and concerns. A global pandemic mustn’t stop that. And it’s perfectly reasonable to ask if the actions of the Israeli government, or any other government, are for the best. That is part of a well-functioning and healthy society.

But Gorenberg omits essential context.

The chief problem with Gorenberg’s argument, aside from his reckless and hyperbolic language, is that he fails to place Israel’s actions in either global or local perspective. To be sure, Israel’s political circumstances are unique: the Jewish state has held three democratic elections in the last year, each with inconclusive results. It has been unable to form a government. And Netanyahu is facing corruption charges — charges that the Israeli premier and his supporters argue are flimsy at best, and politically motivated at worst, but which others, including some of his political opponents, believe to be legitimate.

Suffice it to say, these are not ideal circumstances for a tiny nation with a significant elderly population to be handling a global pandemic. Indeed, it could be reasonably argued that these circumstances, including political gridlock, make decisive action more imperative.

Israel itself is in a very unique predicament when it comes to confronting the virus. In a March 10, 2020 interview with Dr. Tomer Hertz, an immune system researcher and head of microbiology, immunology and genetics at Ben-Gurion University, The Times of Israel highlighted the dangers. Reporter Nathan Jeffay noted that “If not controlled, coronavirus could paralyze Israel’s health system in a way that didn’t happen as a result of swine flu or any other health crisis.”

As Hertz told the Times: “Even with 10% of the people with corona needing medical treatment,” an occurrence that he said was quite possible, “there might not be enough beds. … Hospital wards in Israel right now are at about 80% capacity and there are not a lot of free beds.” Also of note: “One in four households in the country included an elderly person age 65 or more,” according to a 2015 study. Given the virus’ high transmission rate, and its proclivity to lead to more problematic and lethal outcomes for senior citizens, this statistic also provides cause for increased concern.

There is reason then for a small country the size of New Jersey to take decisive action.

From the beginning, Israel has reacted more forcefully than many other countries, quickly initiating border controls and quarantines. As Gilead Ini, a senior research analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), has documented, these moves enabled some, such as New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbinger, to showcase their anti-Israel biases. But although Israel was among the first to take drastic steps, it is far from alone.

Gorenberg cites Netanyahu’s use of broad executive powers and orders, as well as the temporary closing of the courts and Knesset, to buttress his argument. But this singles out Israel, treating the Jewish state as if it were the exception. It is not.

South Korea, a fellow democracy, and one that has won some plaudits for its handling of the coronavirus, closed both its legislature and its courts as early as February 25. Unlike Israel, South Korea wasn’t always a democracy. Indeed, the country has been a democracy for less than four decades, having had periods of both coups and military rule, and the reign of strongman Syngman Rhee among others. Yet, one doesn’t see pundits taking to news pages and calling South Korea a “coronavirus dictatorship.”

Canada, Scotland, South Africa, and local governments within Australia and the US, are just some examples of democratic entities that have temporarily suspended, in some form, activities of parliament and/or postponed upcoming elections. Several governments, including Israel, have had legislators test positive for the coronavirus. Gorenberg omits this context. 

Gorenberg also cites as evidence the Israeli government’s use of advanced technology, used to counter terrorists, to monitor outbreaks of COVID-19. Gorenberg is not alone in expressing these concerns. But as the Times‘ editor in chief, David Horovitz, noted, “Furious rights groups and political activists, profoundly worried about the possible abuse of the monitoring capabilities, not to mention data falling into dangerous hands, immediately petitioned the Supreme Court, which on Thursday ruled that the potentially life-saving surveillance would have to stop if appropriate parliamentary oversight is not introduced by this coming Tuesday.”

Gorenberg omits this last and crucial detail about the Court’s ruling; instead he ominously writes that “Netanyahu enacted it under emergency regulations.” Well, yes. That can — and perhaps must — happen in a fast-moving pandemic unfolding in a country with political gridlock. But it seems clear that Israel’s parliamentary oversight and courts are working to, as much as possible, ensure public safety while being mindful of civil liberties. This is not evidence, as Gorenberg would have it, of a “coup.”

That hyperbole serves no one. It is, however, an example of how welded to a narrative many reporters and pundits are. Gorenberg, for example, has spent years casting many Israeli politicians as authoritarian. A front-page March 21 Washington Post report on the impact of the coronavirus on the Middle East offers other examples.

The Post correctly notes that the Middle East is particularly vulnerable to bad outcomes from the coronavirus, citing Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip, among other countries. But, when it comes to Gaza, the newspaper fails to explore why. The Post omits that the enclave is ruled by Hamas, a US-designated terror group which has a long and documented history of investing in rockets, missiles, and terror instead of healthcare, education, and infrastructure for its people. If, as the Post writes, Gazans are “packed within a quarter-square-mile of density and despair ready made for a coronavirus explosion” and are “ill-equipped to respond,” the role of Hamas, which has misused aid money and used concrete meant for buildings to construct terror tunnels, should be detailed.

Regrettably, the newspaper also omitted the steps that Israel has taken to help Palestinians and others. To date, Israel has delivered hundreds of medical kits and supplies, including coronavirus tests, as well as protective gear, to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which rules the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). Indeed, the PA and Israel have established a “joint operations room to combat the virus,” as The Jerusalem Post reported on March 18 — days before The Washington Post’s report.

During the time of a global pandemic, Israel, like other countries, is taking drastic action. The world is changing — fast. Regrettably those who seek to single out the Jewish state aren’t.

Sean Durns is a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

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