(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Israel is a country that has known more than its share of national emergencies. Over time its citizens have weathered Arab invasions, ballistic missiles and terror bombing campaigns. In every case, Israelis have counted on three essential beliefs: a mortal enemy is determined to destroy the Jewish state; there is a military solution to the threat; and their elected leaders can be counted on to do the right thing.
The sudden attack of coronavirus is something new. Military hardware can’t repel the virus, and nor can it be blamed on the usual suspects. For once, we and the rest of the world are on the same side. As for the elected leadership, that is an open question.
In the first stages of the virus, Israel’s aggressive instincts have kicked in. It has adopted emergency measures exceeded only by those of China. Tourists from countries affected by the virus have sent home. Foreigners from “contagious” nations such as Italy, South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong Macau and China itself were banned.
This week, the blacklist expanded to visitors from Germany, Switzerland, Spain, France and Austria.
Israelis who visited these banned countries in the last two weeks are now under mandatory self-quarantine in their own homes for 14 days after their return. Also quarantined are those who may have come in contact with suspected carriers. In all, an estimated 70,000 Israelis are presently confined — a staggering number of people for a nation of 9 million — and number is growing exponentially.
So far, Israel is coping. Last Monday, it became the first country to hold elections in the time of corona. Special polls were set up in isolated tents to accommodate the sick and confined. This was an impressive display of Israel’s commitment to democracy, but the video of vote-counters in special anti-viral suits signaled panic. So did the ruling by Israel's chief rabbi that people should no longer ritually touch or kiss the mezuzah on the doorpost of their homes.
Avoiding panic is central to the government’s strategy. Officials want to contain the virus as much as possible to avoid a breakout that would overwhelm the public health infrastructure. It appears to be working. No Israelis have yet died from corona and less than two dozen are hospitalized.
“We are in control of the situation, thanks to the great caution we have adopted,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the country on Wednesday. “We have been forced to take very severe steps to slow the spread of the virus in Israel and that is what has happened. We have ordered quarantines and mass checkups that many other countries haven’t done.”
This boast is vintage Netanyahu, and predictably it has caused a backlash. Critics point to the small number of victims as proof that the government has overreacted and the price has been high. The tourist industry, one of the pillars of the national economy, has collapsed. Hi-tech executives who travel back and forth to Europe and the Far East find themselves unable to do business.
Parents are also unhappy that many schools have sent home seemingly healthy children on suspicion that they may have been exposed to a carrier. This is especially bad timing. Purim, Israel’s happiest children’s holiday, is threatened by the virus. It will not be celebrated this year with the customary parades and public festivities. There is a ban on events of more than 5,000 people (the reason for that particular number is unclear) and parental concern will put a damper on smaller events gatherings.
Critics are perhaps right to say that the hardline virus defense policy is exaggerated. But like all security decisions, that is unknowable in advance. The direction, duration or precise lethality of the virus is a mystery. Risking lives to placate treasury officials, tourist agencies, business travelers or disappointed children is a step responsible officials can’t contemplate.
Unhappily, Israeli politicians cannot be accused of a similar sense of responsibility. A national emergency such as this requires a united national leadership that is wholly absent in the contentious aftermath of yet another stalemated election.
Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White party, campaigned on a promise not to serve in a Netanyahu-led government. But circumstances alter courses. He needs to break his promise and join with Netanyahu in a broad, temporary government coalition. Unless he does so, the governing stalemate threatens to undermine public confidence and the effectiveness of a caretaker government.
There is no alternative. Gantz has no chance of forming a government on his own and Netanyahu’s chances are hardly better. If they remain dug into mutual hostility, the result will likely be yet another bitter, divisive and ultimately inconclusive election.
The public, left on its own in the face of such selfish disregard, will never forgive either one of them. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, the time has come for the two rivals to hang together for the good of the country. If they refuse, they will hang separately, and they will deserve to.
To contact the author of this story: Zev Chafets at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Therese Raphael at email@example.com
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Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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