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.

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 seem slim as the Jewish High Holy Days approach.

Ordinarily, the New Year, Yom Kippur and Sukkot are a festive and unifying time. Instead, there are fears that by Sept. 18, when the holidays begin, Israel will be either overrun by the pandemic or under a full lockdown. And the deeply polarized country appears to be warring with itself along religious, cultural and political lines that may sound familiar to many Americans.

Secular Israeli Jews accuse the ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens of spreading the virus in their overcrowded areas. The ultra-Orthodox point to the relative normalcy of life in Tel Aviv and complain that they are being singled out.

Joined by their right-wing allies, they ask why, if crowds are so dangerous, liberal-leaning protesters are allowed to gather by the thousands to demand Mr. Netanyahu’s ouster.

And a growing chorus of frustrated Israelis across the political spectrum accuse Mr. Netanyahu of working harder at holding onto power than on bringing infection rates down. Indeed, in dumping Dr. Gamzu’s lockdown plan, critics said Mr. Netanyahu had subverted his virus czar’s authority to mollify his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

“It shows that fighting the pandemic is not his first priority,” said Orit Galili-Zucker, a onetime Netanyahu strategist.

In effect, she said, the other crises that have weakened Mr. Netanyahu’s standing — his ongoing trial on corruption charges, and the anti-corruption demonstrations denouncing him — are inhibiting his willingness to let the professionals dictate how to combat the pandemic.

“The political story of Israel is affecting its fight against the virus,” Ms. Galili-Zucker said. “It’s very sad.”

Dr. Gamzu became Mr. Netanyahu’s virus czar after pioneering a program to protect the elderly from the virus at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. He addressed the Israeli public energetically and emotionally in frequent television appearances and Facebook videos, asserting that he would now make the decisions.

Others had refused the job because its powers were undefined. But Dr. Gamzu, exuding confidence, tried to turn that to his advantage.

“I have a natural authority,” he said on Aug. 31, at the start of an interview that took three days to complete because of repeated urgent interruptions. “I was director-general of the Ministry of Health, I know all the politicians, I know all the ministers. I know all…

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