Jan 12, 2022 - World

Israel PM gambles on no lockdown strategy as cases climb

Naftali Bennett. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is facing growing criticism as Israel continues to set new records for daily COVID cases, but he's decided to try to ride out the fifth wave without new lockdowns.

Why it matters: Bennett has taken a big bet that the Israeli health system will be able to withstand the Omicron wave.

  • As cases began to rise, Bennett quickly imposed new border restrictions to buy time for the health system to prepare. He has also made a second booster dose available to health workers and people over 60.
  • But Bennett has avoided new restrictions and argued that a lockdown would not be effective against Omicron.

Between the lines: Bennett's political calling card during previous waves was to argue that then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be keeping the country open, so he doesn't have much room to maneuver on this issue politically.

State of play: 65% of Israelis would support limitations on public gatherings, in contrast with Bennett's policy, according to a Channel 12 poll published earlier this week.

  • Majorities disapprove of how the government (63%), Bennett (62%) and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman (66%) — who has opposed compensation for businesses affected by the new wave — are handling the pandemic.

What he's saying: At a press conference on Tuesday, Bennett blamed the media for generating “hysteria” about the Omicron wave.

  • He stressed that it was not possible to defeat Omicron and that, therefore, the correct strategy was to protect vulnerable people while keeping the economy open.
  • Bennett did change course on one issue by pledging compensation for some businesses.
  • He said the next few weeks will be hard but the Omicron wave will pass.

What’s next: Bennett and his advisers are anxiously waiting to see a change in the number of new infections, which they expect to start to fall in 10–14 days.

  • If this happens, they think they'll get a lot of credit from the public, Bennett's aides say.
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