Why does the coronavirus "war" divide Israel so much?

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We are at war, "said Ronni Gamzu, coordinator of government action on coronavirus, on September 3 (GPO photo). The government of national unity has proven incapable of stopping the reactivation of the pandemic, which is fueling internal contradictions within Israeli society.

Israel crossed the symbolic threshold of 1,000 deaths in the Covid-19 pandemic on September 5, half of which had been recorded since the beginning of August. This worsening health crisis has been all the more troubling since Benjamin Netanyahu remained in power by establishing a government of national unity in May dedicated to fighting the pandemic.

Israels death toll, for a population of 9 million, is higher than in the West Bank (225 deaths per 3 million) and Gaza (13 deaths per 2 million). Importantly, neighboring Jordan, slightly more populous than Israel, has recorded only 22 deaths. It is true that the blockades in Jordan and Palestine have been significantly more rigid than in Israel, in part due to Netanyahus political calculations.


The severe restrictions imposed by the Israeli government in March and April 2020, in the name of the health crisis, began to be lifted as early as May, after Netanyahu consolidated the parliamentary majority in his new cabinet. The Prime Minister must acknowledge in July that the reopening of the economy had been "premature", while President Reuven Rivlin, despite his historic commitment to the right, denounces the absence of a "clear and coherent doctrine to combat the virus ".

The resignation of the director of public health fuels the controversy and leads Netanyahu to appoint Ronni Gamzu "Covid-19 coordinator", after the withdrawal of other medical personalities, in open disagreement with the Ministry of Health. Gamzu, director of the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, has publicly assigned himself the task of "restoring public confidence in the governments ability to respond to the pandemic."

The head of the Israeli government was able to benefit during part of the summer from the undeniable personal success for him in normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates, recently followed by Bahrain. But once again he faces the deleterious consequences of his political management of the health crisis. His former right-hand man, Avigdor Lieberman, who has become the spearhead of far-right secularism, accuses religious parties of having taken Israelis "hostages" and calls for non-compliance with the now "illegal" decisions of the government.

As for ultra-Orthodox municipalities, even rejecting the night curfew that went into effect on September 8, is still a dead letter for the 1.3 million Israelis to whom it is supposed to apply. That same night, the ultra-Orthodox deputy minister of education joined hundreds of participants in a religious wedding in Haifa, in violation of his own governments instructions. Netanyahu is forced to travel to Beit Shemesh, with a large ultra-Orthodox population, to call his compatriots to the minimum of discipline.

In addition, the Ministry of Health affirms that at least 20 protesters affected by the coronavirus participated in the anti-government demonstrations during the last month (the distancing measures, in force during the first concentrations, are in fact no longer respected.

Israeli society at the beginning of the pandemic had impressed with its collective determination to overcome the ordeal. Obviously, this seems less so during the second wave of this scourge. The government has finally made a decision in favor of widespread re-containment, effective before the start of the Jewish New Year celebrations on September 18. Details of the plan will be finalized this Sunday under the auspices of Netanyahu, who will thus be able to travel to Washington on September 15 for the official normalization ceremony with the Emirates and Bahrain.

This time, it is merchants and restaurateurs who threaten to stay open, citing a risk of "anarchy." It remains to be seen whether those restrictions, even applied to all Israelis, will succeed in restoring genuine national unity in the face of the pandemic.

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