Israel’s Coronavirus Czar Clashes With Ultra-Orthodox, a Netanyahu Ally

Israel’s Coronavirus Czar Clashes With Ultra-Orthodox, a Netanyahu Ally

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 fierce public pressure from one of his most vital constituencies, caved in on the targeted lockdown plan.

His signature initiative was the traffic light plan. It would give mayors the tools they needed to respond quickly to new outbreaks, but also give them the inducement they would need — easing restrictions — to win public cooperation.

If it worked, he said, it could help delay another nationwide lockdown until the army’s contact tracers are ready for an expected resurgence of the virus in the fall.

The problem politically was that nearly all the red cities turned out to be either predominantly Arab or ultra-Orthodox. And every action affecting the ultra-Orthodox sector elicited fierce pushback.

After a public outcry over the planned arrival of 12,000 or more yeshiva students from abroad, Dr. Gamzu said, he whittled the number down to 4,000.

Dr. Gamzu also wrote to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and warned of potentially dire health consequences if tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox were allowed to make an annual pilgrimage to Uman, the burial site of a revered 18th-century rabbi.

Ukraine closed its borders, and Dr. Gamzu was accused of exceeding his pay grade — and of fanning anti-Semitism, no less — by politicians including the coalition whip for Mr. Netanyahu’s own Likud party.

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