TEL AVIV—Israel plans to impose nighttime curfews and close schools in dozens of cities and towns hit hard by the coronavirus, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces growing pressure to contain a rapid upsurge in infections.
The restrictions come as Israel prepares for the Jewish New Year holidays later this month, a period of travel and social gatherings that officials fear could further spread the virus after a sharp rise in infections in recent weeks.
Mr. Netanyahu’s government initially voted to impose a full lockdown on the nine or 10 most virus-ridden cities and towns, on the recommendation of the country’s recently appointed coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu. Most are dominated by either ultra-Orthodox or Arab communities, who often live in the poorest and most crowded areas of the country.
But on Sunday night, Mr. Netanyahu changed tack after facing pushback from ultra-Orthodox mayors, who said their offices would refuse to comply with authorities. His government instead decided to impose an overnight curfew and close schools of about 40 cities and towns with high infection rates.
The ultra-Orthodox are an important support base for Mr. Netanyahu, who is under pressure on several fronts at home. He is facing criticism for opening the economy too quickly in May after imposing varying degrees of virus-induced lockdowns since March, adding to the protests over his corruption trial, where he stands accused of fraud, accepting bribes and breach of trust. Mr. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, but the proceedings have raised questions about how effectively he can govern. Israel also faces the prospect of a fourth election within two years if rival camps within the government fail to agree on a budget.
The quick about-turn by Mr. Netanyahu on a full lockdown prompted criticism from opposition figures that the veteran politician was sacrificing the country’s health policy to safeguard his political alliance with ultra-Orthodox voters.
“In order so that they won’t say ‘why is there a closure just for the ultra-Orthodox,’ instead of nine towns entering a lockdown, now it’s 40,” wrote Meretz party leader Nitzan Horowitz on Twitter Sunday night. He called Mr. Netanyahu’s leadership “Garbage…that isn’t able to make a decision.”
Professionals advising Mr. Netanyahu’s government on coronavirus matters expressed fears that the Israeli public’s trust in its leaders was eroding.
“People sit and make plans and then politics intervenes,” said Professor Nadav Davidovitch, who is advising Mr. Gamzu, in an interview Monday on Army Radio. “Public trust is at best cracking, if not completely gone.”
Mr. Netanyahu Monday blamed other politicians for the rise in infections. “Politicians are taking advantage of the virus for political needs and calling for non-compliance [to coronavirus regulations]—this is anarchy,” he said.
With one of the highest infection rates per million residents, according to data provided by Johns Hopkins University, Israel last week passed over 1,000 deaths due to Covid-19 and as of Monday had more than 27,000 active patients. It has recorded nearly 132,000 cases so far.
Corrections & Amplifications
The prime minister of Israel is Benjamin Netanyahu. An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled his last name on subsequent references. (Corrected on Sept. 7)
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