Sometimes I hate being right

As I sounded the alarm over Israel’s sharp increase in daily coronavirus cases last week, I made a rather gloomy prediction:

I don’t see how Haredi yeshivot can possibly be able to function safely while virus cases are high without making things much worse. But I also see little political possibility that the government, relying on Haredi votes at Cabinet and in the Knesset, will take the necessary action.

Hopefully, ministers stick to the Gamzu Plan and impose targeted measures on the hotspots today or tomorrow. But I think more likely is doing little and opting for a country-wide lockdown later, once things are worse.

The next day, Friday, the Coronavirus Cabinet met and decided to impose a de-facto lockdown on the most serious virus hotspots. Residents of these towns would be forbidden from leaving except for essential needs and emergencies, shops and educational institutions would be closed, visitors would be banned and a 500-metre rule would be in effect for anyone out of the house.

Another thing happened, too. The full list of Red Zones was published and it included, as expected, the Haredi city of Bnei Brak.

The local lockdown was due to come into effect only after a second meeting of the Coronavirus Cabinet which would decide which of the red zones it would apply to, with the suggestion that it would only fall on the 8-10 towns with both a high Traffic Light score and a lot of people. A bit last-minute, but that’s how things always are here.

And then today it all fell apart.

The mayors of Bnei Brak, Beitar Illit, Elad and Immanuel, four Haredi towns, wrote a letter to Benjamin Netanyahu, formally announcing that they would withdraw cooperation with the national government if their cities were locked down. The letter also hinted strongly that the Haredi public, and their political parties, might be done with Netanyahu for good if he proceeded with the plan.

(The Haredi parties used to be a swing bloc in Israel. Since they refused to support Tzipi Livni in 2008, triggering an election, they have essentially transformed into a part of the Israeli Right, supporting Netanyahu and Likud even when excluded from the coalition by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid in 2013. It is the Haredi parties as much as anyone that have kept Netanyahu in power.)

To add even more pressure on Netanyahu, the Rabbinic leadership of Bnei Brak organised a visit tonight by Defence Minister and “Alternate Prime Minister” Benny Gantz. In theory, of course, Netanyahu is supposed to hand over the premiership to Gantz in just over a year anyway, but this visit sent the current PM into reverse.

Netanyahu cancelled this afternoon’s Coronavirus Cabinet meeting where the lockdowns were due to be voted into effect. Instead, he invited the heads of the Haredi parties in for a private meeting, with Prof. Gamzu in attendance. The meeting just ended, and Netanyahu announced that he was “considering alternatives” to the local lockdowns.

What alternatives? The answer is, again, predictable: a total national lockdown for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year which starts in two weeks. This is reportedly what Shas leader Arye Deri is supporting.

A national lockdown helps the Haredi community feel less singled out, of course. But it’s also MUCH harder to police than a targeted closure of a couple of cities. The Haredi leaders probably calculate (probably accurately) that the police are less likely to break up huge indoor prayer services in Bnei Brak if they’re busy stopping people from driving on highways in Beer Sheva.

Waiting until things get worse is not a strategy. The level of infection is now so high that it is crossing into nursing homes and other vulnerable populations. Deri’s New Year lockdown means a two week delay, which could cost hundreds of lives.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s pretty much what I predicted on Thursday. I still hope I’m wrong, and the Government will stick to the original plan, but it doesn’t look like it. Gamzu is now briefing the media that he might resign, which makes sense because cancelling local mitigation and slapping in a national lockdown is precisely the opposite of his plan.

If there’s a national lockdown in two weeks, a lot of the public will blame those Haredi leaders who spent months blocking all attempts to stop the virus in their neighbourhoods.

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