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Israel Prepares for COVID-19 Elections

Israel’s parliament on Tuesday dispersed yet again, plunging the beleaguered nation into its fourth election cycle in less than two years, after the government failed to pass a national budget.

While Israelis may feel stuck in an endless Groundhog Day-like loop, this time around Election Day is expected to feel entirely different, as citizens head to the polls on March 23 under the strains and fears of the coronavirus pandemic.

Israel’s three consecutive election cycles in 2019 and 2020 – brought on by parliament’s repeated failure to form a viable government – while exhausting and costly, occurred in the days before COVID-19 swept the globe.

On Tuesday, hours before the Knesset’s dissolution, the committee in charge of outlining the rules and guidelines for Election Day convened for a marathon session. With the deadline nearing and tensions running high, lawmakers passed a series of resolutions intended to enable the country to elect the next parliament amid the health crisis.

“There was real friction between health officials and the political side,” Prof. Hagai Levine, a member of the government’s coronavirus task force who attended the crucial meeting, told The Media Line.

“On the one hand, the health ministry essentially said ‘we’re in charge – it’s a health issue, we’ll make the rules,’” said Levine, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Hebrew University- Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

“On the other hand, election committee members explained that this is a democratic issue, that everyone’s right to vote must be upheld and everyone should adapt to make that possible,” he said.

You’re talking about tens of thousands of confirmed patients coming out to vote. That poses a grave risk

In one tense exchange, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s head of Public Health Services, accused the committee of endangering the public. “You’re talking about tens of thousands of confirmed patients coming out to vote. That poses a grave risk,” she warned.

Orly Adas, the director general of the Central Election Commission, which is responsible for carrying out national elections for the Knesset, replied that “while some here today try to paint us as not caring about public safety, let’s be clear we’re concerned about it just as much as anyone else. We will do the best we can to prevent infections on Election Day.”

Levine explained that much of the pressure was a result of the time constraint.

“You can’t change the rules of the game midway through. The Knesset had to decide how to conduct these elections before it dissolved itself. You can’t invent new voting methods or protocols after elections were called,” he said.

The decisions reached by the committee include: placing designated polling booths in every city and town for infected voters only, and that other, separate booths will be used by those in quarantine.

Approximately 350 nursing homes also will be equipped with their own polling stations, to enable the elderly to vote without coming into contact with the general public.

The last round of elections was held in early March 2020, less than a week after the nation’s first patient was diagnosed with COVID-19. Just over 5,000 quarantined voters cast their ballots in 15 designated polling booths, with no disturbances or difficulties reported.

This cycle, things will be entirely different.

More than 380,000 Israelis have been infected with the virus since the pandemic’s outbreak. Nearly 3,200 have died. The country is currently in the midst of its third wave of mass infections, and is expected to enter its third national shutdown in the coming days, with test positivity rates spiking and the number of serious cases steadily rising.

“We want people to be safe when voting,” Giora Pordes, spokesman for Israel’s’ Central Election Commission, told The Media Line.

“The coronavirus is a huge factor making things unknown. We’re just starting the process to get things in order, figuring out exactly how to do this. We’re working on it and expect to bring a budget for approval in mid-January 2021.”

We want people to be safe when voting

On Tuesday, the commission estimated the cost of protective gear and the addition of thousands of voting stations and poll workers would reach at least 65 million NIS, or more than $20 million.

While the imminent shuttering of schools and businesses yet again may prove effective at curbing the spread of the virus in the short run, officials are hopeful that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which has been administered to medical teams and the elderly over the past week in Israel, will enable the country to finally put the pandemic behind it.

Levine, who chairs the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, projects that “in the best-case scenario, three million people will have been vaccinated by Election Day. In that ideal situation, we’ll be in a much better place, but the virus won’t disappear.”

Israel is currently second in the world in vaccinations given per capita, with tens of thousands of citizens making appointments in recent days to receive the inoculation.

Yet officials fear not just Election Day, but also the weeks leading up to it. Warily eyeing the latest United States presidential elections, election commission members will have to decide whether to limit political rallies and other events prior to going to the polls.

“Do you ban those and hurt the democratic process, or allow them and exacerbate infections? It’s a very difficult balancing act of two basic rights,” Levine said.

“The most important thing is keeping people safe and taking precautionary measures as much as we possibly can,” Pordes said.

Health officials remain optimistic that with proper preparation and planning, Israel can get through the coming months with minimal damage.

“But that demands professionalism, and unfortunately due to the political side of this, any decision will be affected by political considerations, or at least suspected as such,” Levine concluded.

Josh Shuman contributed to this report