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A nation must think before it acts.
While countries around the world continue to wrestle with how best to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel acted quickly to contain the virus, a decision that has resulted in comparatively better results than countries in Europe and North America. As a virtual island with few entry points, Israel closed its borders on March 9, 2020, and has, in stages, instituted fairly rigorous social distancing and economic restrictions.
These actions were carried out originally under the “People’s Health Law,” which is based on British Mandatory regulations from 1940 and grants the Health Ministry wide powers to preserve public health. Because of Israel’s continued political crisis, most policy steps have not been brought before the Knesset, but imposed through government decrees under Israel’s state of emergency, in place since 1948.
The population has by and large obeyed the decrees and, out of a population of 8.6 million, there have so far been approximately 11,000 confirmed cases and 110 deaths. The crisis in Israel is cresting currently in the ultra-Orthodox community, which was late in adopting social distancing behavior.
An interesting, and contentious, part of Israel’s handling of the crisis is the government’s predilection to use security and military assets to handle the response, amid continual pressure within the government and large parts of the public to “securitize” the response even further.
An early sign of this securitization was the government’s March 15 decision to request that the Israel Security Agency (Shabak) and police provide cellular phone metadata—to which they already have access for security purposes—and analytical capabilities to map the movements of those diagnosed with COVID-19. This measure enable health authorities to identify through geo-location those who come into close contact with infected persons and instruct them (via SMS) to enter quarantine. In addition to its privacy ramifications, the issue raised controversy because the government chose not to wait for the approval of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (which it ultimately received), but instead implemented these measures under emergency regulations.
Another striking example of securitization is the prominence given to the efforts of the Israeli Secret Intelligence Service (Mossad) in combatting the pandemic. These began with a dramatic announcement on March 19 that Mossad had obtained testing kits, which were in short supply, apparently through procurement from countries without diplomatic relations with Israel. Since then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen responsibility for pandemic-related procurement. The press has also carried stories of international derring-do by Mossad personnel searching and competing for vital equipment.
It seems that Mossad and military intelligence are competing for the spotlight in the country’s response effort. There is a concerted effort to highlight the contributions of the most secretive and sensitive military units to the national pandemic response. Unit 81, a little-known “MacGyver” unit that provides technological solutions for the intelligence community and special forces, is adapting BiPAP home ventilation systems for ventilating virus patients, fashioning special protection systems for ambulances, and developing advanced information management software to improve efficiency of lab checks for testing kits.
Press reports also abounded about the “Information and Knowledge Center” established at Tel Hashomer by the 8200 Signal Intelligence Unit and the Research Division of Israeli Military Intelligence. The joint center is tasked with obtaining accurate intelligence about global events and creating a universal database—something that did not exist in the Israeli health system—which will be analyzed using advanced analytical capabilities, including artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Perhaps the most curious report was that Sayeret Matkal, the Israel Defense Force’s most secretive and prestigious special operations intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance unit, was analyzing the medical testing process, to identify bottlenecks and streamline the process. IDF Special Operations Command has posted an officer at each medical center as an immediate liaison.
The IDF generally has a much larger and more formalized role to play during civilian emergencies. The IDF’s Home Front Command (HFC) is central to the governmental outbreak response. HFC troops are currently assisting civil authorities and volunteer organizations in distributing food and other necessities to homebound civilians, especially the elderly and other vulnerable populations. It has also helped set up “quarantine hotels” for COVID-19 positive patients who do not require hospitalization. Small detachments of HFC soldiers assist senior citizens’ facilities in delivering food and aid supplies, helping residents with errands, conducting activities for staff members’ children, distributing protective equipment, administering tests, and carrying out disinfecting operations.
A major uptick in the military contribution came with the imposition of curfews in the mostly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. The headquarters and two active duty battalions of the 98th Airborne Division, under HFC command, now assist the police in enforcing the curfew and the local population with evacuating the elderly and sick to treatment and quarantine centers and distributing food and essential goods. Separately, 6-12 combat battalions are earmarked for assistance to law enforcement in implementing distancing and quarantine orders, should it become necessary; the majority of these personnel are unarmed. In total, there are 15,000 troops and 3,000 military vehicles assisting in Israel’s anti-COVID-19 efforts.
The proclivity for securitization exists as a feature of Israeli political culture and stems largely from the image of the country’s military and security forces as a can-do, disciplined organization with the singular capabilities and resources to execute crucial national missions. Public confidence inspires the high regard of Israelis for the security forces, and the perception of the defense establishment—as opposed to most other public institutions—as being above politics. The security services and the IDF, with their proactive and operational ethos, are eager to adapt and apply their resources and capabilities to the “battle” against an unconventional enemy.
Prime Minister Netanyahu leads the government’s response to the pandemic, which is overseen by the National Security Staff in his office. The Health Ministry—micromanaged by Netanyahu—manages the crisis on the epidemiological, treatment, and public affairs levels. While staffed by high-caliber professionals, the ministry has been starved for resources and attention. It faces criticism in this crisis, especially regarding the slow pace of testing and after its minister—from one of the ultra-Orthodox coalition partner parties—was alleged to have flaunted his own social distancing regulations and subsequently contracted COVID-19. This reality is another contributing factor in the public’s desire to increase the role of the defense establishment.
At the same time, anti-virus policy, and the inclination toward securitization, are not immune to political agendas and aspirations of senior officials. On April 1, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett demanded unequivocally that he and his ministry be given overall responsibility for pandemic response, stating that Israel is in a state of war.
Netanyahu seems loath to give such authority to Bennett because he recognizes that his own role in overseeing the pandemic response strengthens him significantly—his approval level is at 68%—in his political duel with Benny Gantz. Netanyahu has resisted convening a “coronavirus cabinet” or transferring responsibility to the Home Front Command and the Defense Ministry’s National Emergency Authority (which was set up in 2007 exactly for such purposes).
The debate over the role of the Defense Ministry and the IDF, and the high profile given to Mossad, also reflect the complex personal dynamics within the interim government. Netanyahu’s disinclination to transfer responsibility for combatting the pandemic to the Defense Ministry and the IDF likely reflects his longtime animosity toward Bennett, who he views as a grandstander. The latter was a vocal opponent of government national security policy from within the security cabinet for many years, pushing for more aggressive policies and “unleashing the IDF” from excessive civilian and legal oversight, until he finally achieved his longtime dream of becoming (acting) Defense Minister in November 2019.
In recent weeks, he has stood out as a key skeptic of Netanyahu’s efforts to form a government with Gantz and has indicated that his Yamina party (which has only six seats now) may join the opposition. Since the beginning of the crisis, Bennett has been a vocal critic of government (i.e., Netanyahu’s) policy, terming the Health Ministry’s handling of the response a failure; calling for a massive expansion of testing in order to enable rapid return to regular economic functioning; issuing his own statements and action plan uncoordinated with Netanyahu; and, as noted, pressing for his ministry to assume responsibility for the government’s response. Apart from what seems to be authentic concern that the response is being mismanaged, it may be that Bennett, understanding that his term as Defense Minister is approaching a likely end, is interested in cultivating a record of leadership and achievement for future use in the struggle to inherit Netanyahu’s mantle (at 65%, Bennett’s approval ratings are close to Netanyahu’s).
By avoiding the creation of a more exclusive “corona cabinet” and approving policy steps through his full transitional government of 24 ministers, Netanyahu seeks to dilute the influence of Bennett and other possible in-house critics. It appears that the Prime Minister wishes to give the lead roles to the National Security Staff, Mossad, and Shabak—which report directly to him—and to publicly highlight their (and thus, his own) influence. Netanyahu may also be trying to promote Mossad Chief Cohen, whom he named last year as one of two people he considers fit to lead Israel in the future. But it may also reflect Netanyahu’s desire and long-held preference to keep the handling of national crises firmly in civilian (and especially his own) hands.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
 These include: enforced 14 day quarantine for anyone arriving in the country or exposed to a COVID patient; restriction of movement to 100 meters from the home, except for grocery or pharmacy shopping and going to and from work; banning of all groups or gatherings of more than 10 people; closing of all houses of worship and banning of group prayer; no more than 10 people at a time in supermarkets; keeping 2 meters from all non-relatives at all times; closing all schools since March 14; all nonessential establishments, including restaurants, closed or allowed delivery only; and reducing employees present at work by 85%.
 The prominence given to Special Ops is not surprising,since Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) served as an officer in these units, a milestone that has figured as an integral part of his political cachet. One commentator noted, “There is nothing like making Israelis feel safe then pulling out the defense icons – the Mossad, Sayeret Matkal and 8200.”
 As an illustration of the respect given to military expertise, Bnei Brak, the current hotspot of the outbreak, brought in recently retired Major-General Roni Numa to head its Emergency Corona Response Team. Other ultra-Orthodox cities have also brought in retired generals as well to head their pandemic response crews.
 Notably, he sent a tweet encouraging government officials to “ignore the rules and get things done” and has pressed for the involvement of the controversial Israeli cyber company NSO in the government surveillance program, without a tender.
 It is worth noting that for the past year, and even more since the beginning of the COVID crisis, there has been a series of laudatory “PR” articles about Cohen, including regarding his political ambitions.