Monday, 21 Sep 2020

Israel’s Virus Czar Was Making Headway. Then He Tangled With a Key Netanyahu Ally.

As he moved to slow the pandemic, Dr. Ronni Gamzu kept butting heads with ultra-Orthodox leaders. Then Israel’s top virus fighter was suddenly undercut.

By David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner

JERUSALEM — For a fleeting three days, it looked as if Israel had successfully rebooted its faulty fight against the coronavirus.

Then politics intervened.

In late July, a veteran Tel Aviv hospital administrator, Dr. Ronni Gamzu, was anointed the country’s virus czar and swept in with self-assurance. Acknowledging previous government mistakes, he enlisted the military to take responsibility for contact tracing and pleaded with Israelis to take the threat seriously and wear their masks.

He also vowed to restore the public’s trust, demanding accountability from municipal officials while replacing the central government’s ceaselessly zigzagging dictates with simple instructions that anyone, it seemed, should be able to understand and embrace.

Last Thursday, Dr. Gamzu won cabinet approval for a traffic light-themed plan to impose strict lockdowns on “red” cities with the worst outbreaks, while easing restrictions in “green” ones where the virus was finding fewer victims. The goal was to avoid, or at least delay, another economically strangling nationwide lockdown.

By Sunday, however, Dr. Gamzu was looking more like a victim himself.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders who felt that their community was being stigmatized revolted against the traffic light plan. This time, however, they did not bother to attack Dr. Gamzu, instead directing their ire at his most important backer, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

And Mr. Netanyahu, under rare public pressure from one of his most vital constituencies, caved in on the targeted lockdown plan.

Forget about the harshest new restrictions in red cities, he announced Sunday night. Instead, he and Dr. Gamzu grasped at a watered-down nighttime curfew, something that Arab mayors had proposed to curtail big weddings but that even Dr. Gamzu later conceded would have little effect in ultra-Orthodox communities.

Mr. Netanyahu and Dr. Gamzu took turns at a microphone on Monday to project unity. Mr. Netanyahu insisted that he had not knuckled under but merely done what the professionals had recommended. Dr. Gamzu insisted that even if his professional recommendations had been blocked, he was determined to soldier on.

But the upshot for Israel is a bleak prospect: The pandemic has mushroomed, with Israel’s number of new cases near the worst in the world on a per-capita basis. Yet the odds of stopping its march of seem slim as the Jewish High Holy Days approach.

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