JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pushing on Wednesday for an immediate and strict nationwide lockdown as the country’s raging coronavirus outbreak showed no signs of slowing.
Netanyahu warned the nation that tough measures loomed as he took a break from a stormy session of his coronavirus Cabinet. Members of the policy-making body were reportedly deeply divided over whether the measures would apply to large demonstrations by Netanyahu’s opponents calling on him to resign.
In a video statement, Netanyahu said action was needed to stop the pace of infections.
“The situation is difficult,” Netanyahu said. “There is no choice but to take the difficult decisions and we will save lives.”
The looming lockdown amounts to an admission of failure by a prime minister who just a few months ago had boasted about being a world leader in responding to the global pandemic.
Israel won widespread praise for moving quickly to contain the coronavirus outbreak early this year, sealing its borders and imposing a strict lockdown. But the economy was reopened too quickly and the virus quickly returned. Policy makers have also been criticized for series of confusing and contradictory orders in recent months.
Israel’s Health Ministry reported 6,948 new cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday, a new daily record. A country of roughly 9 million people, Israel now has one of the world’s highest rates of coronavirus on a per capita basis.
The ministry said 658 people were in serious condition, and health officials have warned that hospitals are quickly approaching full capacity. In all, 1,317 people have died from COVID-19 in Israel.
The government last week imposed a nationwide lockdown that closed schools, shopping malls, hotels and restaurants, giving Israel the dubious honour of becoming the first developed country to impose a second closure. But the restrictions included numerous exceptions, including allowing people to leave their homes for work, exercise, prayers and public demonstrations.
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Netanyahu said that in light of the rapid spread of the virus, he would seek a “broad general closure and significant tightening of restrictions immediately,” including the closure of large parts of the economy, his office said.
Israeli media reports said officials were feuding over the anti-Netanyahu protests that have been taking place throughout the summer.
Thousands of protesters have been gathering outside Netanyahu’s official residence each week calling on him to resign, citing his ongoing trial on corruption charges and his handling of the coronavirus crisis. The first lockdown sent unemployment skyrocketing to double-digit levels, and experts warn the new lockdown will cause great damage to the struggling economy.
But Netanyahu’s religious political allies say they are being unfairly targeted if synagogues have to close or limit worship, especially with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, coming next week, while his opponents continue to hold large public demonstrations. Netanyahu has called for an end to the demonstrations, drawing accusations from his opponents that he is using the health crisis to muzzle them.
Netanyahu’s chief rival and governing partner, Defence Minister Benny Gantz, accused the prime minister of “disproportionate” focus on the demonstrators and called on the government to accept the recommendations of health experts. Netanyahu’s Likud responded by accusing Gantz of engaging in “small politics.”
The new measures are sure to be unpopular, after the government forced Israeli Jews to spend last week’s Rosh Hashana at home with their immediate families and to avoid travel. The new measures are expected to last through Yom Kippur, which begins on Sunday night, and throughout the weeklong Succot holiday in October. The High Holiday season is usually a joyous time characterized by mild fall weather and gatherings with friends and extended families.
A new poll released Wednesday by the Israel Democracy Institute, a respected think-tank , found that only 27% of Israelis trust Netanyahu to lead the country’s effort against COVID-19. That compares with 57.5% who trusted him in early April. The survey interviewed 754 adults and had a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.