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As number of infected surges, political war ensues over closures

While Israel’s coronavirus infection rate rose at an alarming rate this past week despite a dip over the weekend, the government has found itself essentially in a civil war between proponents of shutting down and those who are fighting to keep the economy open.

Israel has nearly 20,000 people who have tested positive and are currently fighting COVID-19. Some 260 of them are in serious condition, 78 patients are on ventilators and 422 have died from the virus.

Nevertheless, many in the government are fighting to keep segments of the economy open while Health Ministry officials insist on more closures to help stop the virus from spreading.

Knesset Member Yifat Shasha-Biton, head of the coronavirus oversight committee, is leading the charge against the cabinet which has made sweeping decisions in the last week to close institutions. One by one, the committee has reversed those rulings, citing a lack of evidence for closing restaurants, pools, beaches and gyms where very few people have become infected.

The committee reversed the government’s decision to close restaurants and only allow takeaway and delivery services on Tuesday and before that voted to keep pools and beaches open on weekends, contrary to a cabinet decision last week that would have closed them just on weekends.

“The decision to not close public pools and beaches is the right one,” Shasha-Biton said. “Mental and physical health are extremely important to all of us. Beaches and swimming in the pool provide vital positive value.”

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to fire Shasha-Biton—who is from his own Likud factions—after she backed the reopening of gyms. But she has yet to back down.

Aside from the tourism industry, the entertainment sector — including restaurants — has suffered immensely from lockdowns imposed during the spring in order to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses have barely recovered, and some are already on their way to bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu presented a stimulus plan last week to give every Israeli $220 (750 shekels) and families with three or more children $877 (3,000 shekels). He said the main distribution of money was supposed to stimulate the economy, but his plan was quickly disparaged by many politicians and economists for its broad scope while failing to help those who are most desperate. He made this decision without any council from others in his party or outside. Most Israelis mocked the plan and many pledged to give their 750 shekels to those who actually need it.

“It is a surreal decision to give money to people who don’t need it, instead of people who are crying out. The self-employed sector is bleeding. Enough with the cheap populism,” Roee Cohen, head of Lahav, Israel’s Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses, told Channel 12. “The streets are on fire. We need real solutions.”

His revised plan excludes those earning over $186,000 annually (640,000 shekels) and senior civil servants earning more than $8,700 a monthly (30,000 shekels).

Netanyahu’s own head of the Finance Ministry’s budget department, Shaul Meridor, said Israel needs “to be careful not to become Venezuela.”

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