Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s announcement on Sunday evening of additional steps to confront the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus illustrates how easily government policies can be inherently contradictory.
Even when giving the benefit of the doubt to hysterical health authorities—and refraining from the natural inclination to suspect ulterior motives for fanning the flames of a crisis—it’s hard not to be disdainful of the double-speak surrounding anything coronavirus-related. This isn’t exclusive to Israeli decision-makers, of course. No, the hysteria is so infectious that it’s been spreading across the globe faster than the pandemic.
But Israel is what one Pfizer executive called a “sort of laboratory.” Though the pharmaceutical giant’s chief scientific officer, Philip Dormitzer, was referring to the Jewish state’s vaccine drive, the same has been said about other elements of the war against the microbe and its mutations. These include stringent lockdowns, imposed early on and more than once by the previous government, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Ironically, the crushing of businesses and people’s spirits executed in the name of public health contributed greatly to electoral defeats, including Netanyahu’s, and caused serious dissatisfaction with leaders everywhere. This was inevitable.
When the economy and morale sink, the person at the helm is blamed for it. This was true of former President Donald Trump, who was criticized for being too dismissive of the dangers of the virus, and it was equally the case where Netanyahu was concerned, although he took the exact opposite approach to that of Trump.
Indeed, despite his staunch free-market outlook, Netanyahu, like many Israelis, can’t seem to shake the nanny-state mentality when it comes to dictating regulations for the good of the populace. In this respect, the Bennett-led coalition is worse—not necessarily in practice, but in ideology—because contains factions that actually believe in centralism, not merely revert to it out of cultural habit.
Take Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, for instance, who was caught on a hot mic in September admitting that the “green pass” system had no real epidemiological basis, but was crucial to coercing the public to get vaccinated. He said it wasn’t even surprising, since by that time the arbitrary nature of the rules was already on full display for all to see and be cynical about.
The irrationality not only has continued since the introduction of Omicron; it has increased. And you don’t need to be a virologist to grasp that when restrictions aren’t uniform, they’re totally useless.
Nor do you have to be a doctor to distinguish between Hippocrates and hypocrisy, the latter as abundant these days as the hype about Omicron. Two examples come immediately to mind, though they are by no means isolated or characteristic of the current government alone.
One was the trip to the Maldives that Bennett’s wife and children took earlier this month, less than a week after he implored the public to avoid traveling overseas lest they get infected with and bring home Omicron. Furthermore, his plea followed the Cabinet’s decision to forbid entry into the country of foreign nationals, including close relatives of immigrants, whose flights had to be canceled at the last minute and whose plans to spend Hanukkah with loved ones were dashed.
As if that weren’t bad enough, “Miss Universe” contestants from some 80 parts of the world—among them South Africa, where Omicron was first detected—were welcomed warmly into the country ahead of the international pageant, which took place on Dec. 12 in Eilat. The justification had to do with the fact that it was the first time that Israel was hosting the international event.
OK, fair enough, if you consider such a happening to constitute good PR and a slap in the face to the BDS movement, which, naturally, tried to pressure the women competing not to grace the “evil occupier” with their beautiful presence.
But the whole ridiculous episode, like Bennett’s apparent lack of fear about his own family contracting or spreading the malignant virus, belied the true impetus for the travel ban. Ditto for the latest travesty—the addition of many more countries, including the United States and Canada, to an already long list of forbidden destinations for Israelis.
If the aim of Israeli authorities is to promote greater vaccination, they’d better rethink their mixed messages. Otherwise, they will be faced with the inconvenient reality that by harping on the perils of variants—particularly one that’s very contagious but far less fatal—to a widely vaccinated public, they are providing a reasonable argument for vaccine skeptics.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”