Gov’t approves total coronavirus lockdown starting Friday

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Protesters to demonstrate, worshipers to pray outside in groups of up to 20 people within one kilometer of their homes

Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020. (photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)

Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020.

(photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)

The country is heading back into a complete lockdown, which is to begin Friday and is likely to last until at least the end of the holidays.

After eight hours of deliberations, the coronavirus cabinet made its recommendations, which were brought to the full cabinet for a late-night vote. By 6:30 a.m. the government had approved the lockdown, too.

The government’s recommendations will be presented to the Knesset on Thursday for a vote.

The lockdown is expected to be more stringent than the one in March, and should include shuttering synagogues, reducing the number of people who can protest, closing all nonessential businesses and markets, reducing public transportation routes and allowing citizens to gather only within their nuclear families.

Protesters are expected to be allowed to demonstrate and worshipers to pray outside in groups of up to 20 people within one kilometer of their homes. Synagogues are expected to open only on Yom Kippur for small groups of worshipers, according to the outline originally designed and implemented on Rosh Hashanah.

A decision on halting flights departing Ben-Gurion Airport as early as Friday was not finalized by press time.

The decision comes on the day that almost 7,000 people were diagnosed with coronavirus in a 24-hour period – unprecedented numbers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed for the total closure during the coronavirus cabinet meeting Wednesday, despite opposition by the Finance Ministry and some other senior officials. They said that a total lockdown was not needed.

The closure will cost an estimated NIS 35 billion ($10b.) if the lockdown lasts three weeks.

“The situation is bad; we’re seeing a steep increase in morbidity rates,” Netanyahu said via a video message during a break from the coronavirus cabinet meeting. “We need to reach decisions, hard decisions. But as prime minister, I’m obligated to protect your lives, and everyone must understand that this is a life-threatening situation.

“That’s why there’s no other choice. We’re going to make hard decisions and save lives – with your cooperation,” he concluded.

There were 6,948 people diagnosed with the virus on Tuesday, the Health Ministry showed Wednesday evening – some 11.7% of the 61,165 people screened. Israel has now had 203,136 cases since the start of the pandemic. Moreover, there were 658 patients in serious condition, including 177 people on ventilators – also a record since the start of the crisis.

According to the ministry, some 32 coronavirus patients have died in the last 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 1,317.

The coronavirus cabinet meeting was expected to result in a decision to stop the pandemic’s spread. When ministers began the meeting, it was built around deciding on new restrictions to stop the coronavirus from burning across the country. But the hours-long meeting turned instead into an intense debate between Blue and White and Likud ministers over demonstrations.

At one point during the meeting, Netanyahu called the room to attention and said, “You will respect the discussion.”

At another, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz convened an emergency meeting of his faction ministers. He told them, “Stop the disproportionate discussion of the demonstrations immediately…. Insist on what is good for the health of the citizens and what will stop the spread of infection – while balancing Judaism, democracy, economy and society.”

And all of this was despite having come to an agreement ahead of the meeting that they would take the advice of health professionals and the police on how to manage prayers and protests.

From the meeting’s start, it was apparent that Netanyahu was planning to push for a complete closure, which Blue and White ministers claimed was in order to stop the protests against him.

Several quotes from the session were leaked, which painted a picture of the chaos that led to the closure.

“Why do we need to close down factories to stop demonstrations?” asked Finance Minister Israel Katz.

“Who is asking for a complete closure?” asked Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. “It is not us – it is the prime minister.”

“I hear the health professionals say there is no reason for a general closure,” he continued. “I therefore want to understand why a full closure is recommended here. A full closure is a last resort and not a solution to demonstrations.”

Ashkenazi said that a closure would destroy the economy and close down businesses for good.

“The decision cannot go against the health professionals,” he stressed, “because of political considerations.”

Added Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn: “We agreed to a closure, but now you suddenly want a decision that will ban only demonstrations on Balfour” Road, in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence.

For his part, Netanyahu explained why demonstrations must be stopped.

“If we can leave home to demonstrate, then people will also be able to go to the beach and call it protesting,” he said. “Who said you have to go far to demonstrate? Let them demonstrate [outside] the house.”

He said that he supports demonstrations, but every week Israeli citizens see that they are required to celebrate the holiday alone, to comply with health guidelines, and on the other hand protesters are coming out in masses.

“Today, 31 people died from coronavirus,” the prime minister stressed. “I am fighting for the lives of the citizens of Israel… We are at war – wake up!”

“The pandemic is spreading all over the world, people are losing their jobs at best and the lives of their relatives at worst, and all they care about is continuing the demonstrations against Netanyahu at all costs,” Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen tweeted against Blue and White ministers. “Does their hatred of Netanyahu outweigh their desire to preserve the lives of Israeli citizens?”

At one point in the meeting, there was also a confrontation between Economy Minister Amir Peretz and Netanyahu.

The prime minister said he wanted to impose a full closure immediately. Peretz responded, “Public confidence has been broken because every two days we make a different proposal. The decisions do not last more than two days. I propose to accept the outline prepared by the attorney-general, the coronavirus commissioner and the director-general of the Health Ministry.”

Added Transportation Minister Miri Regev: “We are prisoners because of these demonstrations. It cannot be that we will allow widespread demonstrations while prayers will be reduced to small capsules.”

Interior Minister Arye Deri, who initiated the idea of opening synagogues only on Yom Kippur, walked out of the meeting early in the day when some ministers discussed shutting them down but allowing protests to continue.

“When the Health Ministry prevents gatherings in closed spaces, we will all pray in the public space,” he said. “During the closure, anyone who wants to demonstrate will do so near his home.”

Recall that on Tuesday, after the cabinet meeting, Deri said, “We are in a life-saving situation. I am willing to go to the rabbis and persuade them to [tell their followers to] pray more in the public space.” But he said he cannot convince the rabbis to give up the tradition of hakafot – dancing with Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah – if demonstrations continue as usual.

“I am accountable to the public; I will do my best for God,” he continued. “We are a Jewish and democratic government, and for me Judaism is first and most important. If the government decides ‘no’ to praying on Yom Kippur and ‘yes’ to demonstrations, I don’t know if I can stay in such a non-Jewish government.”

“We came here to tackle the acute health crisis – how did this meeting become to be about protests?” asked Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay.

Likud MK Haim Katz, who chairs the party’s powerful Central Committee, said the government and Knesset should be dispersed.

“Nothing is working,” he lamented.

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