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Israel had coronavirus firmly in its grasp, only to see it slip away

For months, Israel appeared to be an international model of coronavirus success.

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Oren Liebermann
CNN — For months, Israel appeared to be an international model of coronavirus success.

With early travel restrictions and sweeping closures, the Startup Nation had largely contained the spread of Covid-19, recording a mortality rate that was far better than many countries in the Western world. As coronavirus tore across the United States and Europe, Israel was comfortably moving towards reopening.

Lest there be any doubt about who led the country through these difficult times, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu routinely held evening press conferences to remind everyone, warning about the newest challenges and taking credit for the latest victories.

On April 18, almost exactly two months after Israel discovered its first case of coronavirus, Netanyahu declared that the country had succeeded in its fight against coronavirus, setting an example for the world "in safeguarding life and blocking the outbreak of the pandemic." He predicted Israel would set an example in restarting the economy as well.

If only the story ended there.

Israel's first wave of coronavirus was a success story, but the second wave its health experts are cataloguing appears to be on track for a very different ending.

Just weeks after reopening restaurants, malls and beaches, Israel is now seeing a 50-fold surge in new coronavirus cases. From approximately 20 new cases a day in mid-May to more than 1,000 new cases a day less than two months later, Israel is rushing to once again close venues it so recently rushed to open.

On Monday, Netanyahu announced that gyms, pools, event halls, pubs and more would close indefinitely, while restaurants and houses of worship would operate with limited numbers. Desperate to avoid a complete lockdown with unemployment already at more than 20%, Netanyahu issued a stark warning.

"Today, there are around 90 severe cases and the number is doubling every four days. If we do not act now, we will have hundreds, and perhaps over 1,000, severe cases in the coming weeks, which will paralyze our systems," Netanyahu said. "All citizens of Israel know, or need to understand, that we must now take limited actions, with as minimal an economic impact as possible, in order to avoid those extreme measures that will paralyze the economy."

Public confidence in Netanyahu's handling of the coronavirus is fading fast. From a high of 73% in mid-May when the country appeared to have Covid-19 well under control, Netanyahu's approval has plummeted to 46%, according to surveys conducted by Channel 12 News.

The top public health official in the Ministry of Health, Prof. Siegal Sadetzki, resigned Tuesday, issuing a scathing criticism of the government's handling of the pandemic. In a Facebook post explaining the reasons for her decision, she wrote, "To my regret, for a number of weeks the handling of the outbreak has lost direction. Despite systemic and regular warnings in the various systems and in the discussions in different forums, we watch with frustration as the hour glass of opportunities runs low."

The national unity government, established in May specifically to deal with coronavirus, appears more interested in political squabbling between Netanyahu and erstwhile rival Benny Gantz.

The two men have fought over who would best handle the fight against coronavirus -- Prime Minister Netanyahu with the terror-fighting tools of the Israel Security Agency, or Defense Minister Gantz with the reach and order of the country's military.

One thing about which the two can now commiserate: they have both spent time in self-quarantine after potential contact with a coronavirus patient. On Wednesday, Gantz announced that he would enter isolation after a family member tested positive for Covid-19. Gantz's office said he was "feeling well" and would continue to work from isolation.

Netanyahu has entered isolation at least twice -- once in late March when an aide tested positive and again in early April when the Health Minister at the time tested positive. But if there is brotherly bonding over a shared experience, it is bound to be short-lived.

The distrust between the two men has become palpable, but critics charge that what has not emerged from the government or its coronavirus cabinet is a lucid, definitive plan for containing the second wave of coronavirus.

In the unvarnished words of former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, a perpetual right-wing thorn in Netanyahu's side, "This government is crap, and the Prime Minister is full of crap."

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