Prof. Ronni Gamzu. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Israeli Health and Defense Ministries Jockey for Position as New Corona Czar Takes Command

Authorities and powers change hands in fight to contain virus spread

The Israeli government announced on Sunday it would transfer large chunks of the Health Ministry’s responsibilities over the handling of the coronavirus crisis to the Defense Ministry. Per the new decision, declared by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu but not yet revealed in detail, the Israeli army’s Home Front Command and intelligence and technological units will take over the epidemiological investigation apparatus, which was judged by experts to be severely lacking since the outbreak of the pandemic in Israel.

The move, aimed at improving Israel’s ability to effectively severe infection chains, was championed in recent weeks by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who demanded that the responsibilities be handed over to military personnel. Netanyahu, meanwhile, had opposed the move consistently, reportedly cautious of relinquishing authority and power to Gantz’s jurisdiction. But with new coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu supporting Gantz’s position, the prime minister was left virtually no choice.

“The Home Front Command is built to handle emergency situations involving a high number of casualties,” explains ret. Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Gershon in a conversation with The Media Line. “Its focus is on wartime; it wasn’t established initially to handle pandemics or earthquakes. But once it was formed, it became clear that it was the most appropriate body to handle any major catastrophe in Israel.”

[The military] has no parallel in Israel in terms of experience and logistical abilities

Gershon, who was in charge of the Home Front Command during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, is confident in the army’s ability to handle the load better than any other organization. “[It is] capable of leading any operation assigned to it, even if that’s not part of its regular job description,” he says, explaining that the military “is a highly experienced, well-organized system with procedures that enable it to quickly assess the situation, give the cabinet a reliable snapshot and handle the existing and future issues that may arise. It has no parallel in Israel in terms of experience and logistical abilities.”

The use of military forces to assist in the fight against the coronavirus isn’t anything new. The US Army helped set up field hospitals and reinforced medical teams with army staff. According to a study commissioned by the European Union, “Almost all EU member states have mobilized their armed forces in one way or another” in the efforts to contain the spread of the virus. Israel’s domestic security agency, the Shin Bet, has been helping the government identify infected civilians over the past few weeks, using its classified cyber technology.

While many in the military and in government have been pushing consistently for the latest move, officials in the Health Ministry are far from pleased at handing over responsibilities and power.

“I think the Health Ministry has to retain the powers to oversee this operation,” says Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the Epidemiology and Public Health School at Ben-Gurion University and a member of the Health Ministry director-general’s special advisory team. “It can definitely receive some assistance from military personnel and could use a massive infusion of manpower but the entire apparatus must stay in the ministry.”

Noting that the government’s plan to reshuffle responsibilities is not final and has yet to be revealed, Davidovitch explains that it’s merely a question of perspective. “It’s a matter of interpretation, of definition. The way I see it, there’s simply a dramatic increase of manpower, but the [Health] ministry is still in charge of how the investigations are handled,” he tells The Media Line.

Yet others in the ministry sharply disagree with the notion that it should retain command of the epidemiological investigations.

The people in charge didn’t do what had to be done in the little time they had [after the virus first began to spread], so maybe handing over [the epidemiological investigations to the military] is the right solution for the current crisis

A high ranking Health Ministry official, who requested not to be named so that they could speak freely, agreed with the retired general’s assessment. “I think the [health] system is at full capacity” the source explained. “The people in charge didn’t do what had to be done in the little time they had [after the virus first began to spread], so maybe handing over [the epidemiological investigations to the military] is the right solution for the current crisis.”

“What I’m saying now is definitely not the common opinion. Most people here prefer that the authority will remain with the Health Ministry. But I think we have to set politics aside and do what needs to be done for the benefit of public health. What I’m saying isn’t what they want the public to hear. They want to hold on to their powers.”

“Even in normal days, before all this happened, the system was on the brink of collapse,” the source continued. “The public health system has been neglected for years; we have to learn from this. It takes time and effort to fix it.”

What I’m saying isn’t what they want the public to hear. They want to hold on to their powers

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