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July 21, 2020 1:08 pm

Netanyahu’s Top Coalition Partner Wants IDF to Front Anti-COVID Campaign

avatar by Reuters and Algemeiner Staff

Israeli Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz speaks to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi as both wear masks during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, May 31, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

The military should take over responsibility for keeping Israel‘s spreading coronavirus epidemic in check, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main coalition partner said on Tuesday, in comments likely to fuel tensions within the government.

Israel lifted a partial lockdown in May, but a second surge of infections has seen cases rise above 50,000 and deaths above 400, while Netanyahu’s approval ratings have plunged to under 30% and employment soared to 21%.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, of the centrist Blue and White party, said he expected a decision “this week” to hand the running of anti-coronavirus containment measures from the Health Ministry to the armed forces’ Homefront Command.

“This virus will not leave us for an entire year. Therefore there needs to be a change in management,” Ashkenazi told Ynet TV. “Put ego aside … I am saying this to Bibi (Netanyahu) … I am saying we need to shift responsibility to the defense establishment.”

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Netanyahu’s office had no immediate comment, but he may be reluctant to empower Defence Minister Benny Gantz — who is also the Blue and White leader — when they are already at odds over budget issues and proposed Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank.

Formed primarily to protect citizens from missile attacks, the Homefront Command is also trained to help during natural disasters and well equipped to communicate quickly with Israel‘s ethnically-diverse sectors.

Its troops have already helped out during the epidemic with evacuations and food distributions. A Blue and White source said Gantz and Ashkenazi want that role expanded to include testing and contact tracing.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kish warned against drawing the conscript military into controversy among Israel‘s 9 million population akin to what met the use of counter-terrorism technologies to track coronavirus carriers.

“You understand what it would mean if soldiers were to begin questioning people, with: ‘What have you been doing, who have you been meeting with?'” Kish, of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, told Army Radio.

“This is a super-sensitive matter, a health issue … There’s no ego element here,” he said, calling current cooperation between the Health Ministry and the military “excellent.”

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