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As Israel virus cases surge, government weighs new lockdown

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel’s prime minister said Thursday he is meeting with senior officials to discuss “interim steps” to try and contain a coronavirus surge without having the country return to a general lockdown as the number of new cases reaches record levels.

Large demonstrations have erupted in recent days over Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic. Adding to his troubles, a new economic bailout plan announced by the embattled premier came under tough criticism from some of the government’s top economic experts.

Netanyahu garnered widespread praise after Israel appeared to have largely contained its outbreak by late May, following a two-month lockdown. But within weeks of most restrictions being lifted, the number of new cases began to soar, marking a dramatic turnaround for the prime minister.

With over 20% unemployment, the pandemic’s economic impact is generating domestic unrest and Netanyahu’s approval rating is plummeting.

Later Thursday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem to protest against corruption and vent their anger at the economic downtown.

“You are out of touch, we are fed up,” one poster read. “If there’s no democracy, people will get 750 shekels (about $200),” another one said, mocking the prime minister’s relief package.

Netanyahu said he has spoken with his main political rival turned coalition partner, Benny Gantz, along with other officials, to discuss “interim steps to prevent a general lockdown in light of the gigantic jump in morbidity to around 1,800 cases and the doubling of the number of severe cases every seven days.”

The Health Ministry on Thursday reported 1,898 new cases of the virus. The country has registered more than 44,500 total cases. At least 380 Israelis have died of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

The virus causes mild to moderate flu-like symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients and those with underlying health problems.

Netanyahu announced a plan Wednesday to give out hundreds of dollars in economic aid to every Israeli citizen to help the flagging economy as health officials warned the country could be headed toward a second general lockdown.

Whereas the initial virus outbreak was concentrated predominantly in the country’s ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities, whose populations often live in poorer, crowded conditions, the Health Ministry has warned that the disease is now spreading more widely.

Hezi Levi, the ministry’s director general, told Army Radio that Netanyahu would be pushing for more stringent movement restrictions, including a possible nationwide lockdown on weekends.

The prime minister’s economic stimulus proposal, which still requires government approval, would give single individuals one-time payments of just over $200, and families between $600 and $900, depending on how many children they have.

Netanyahu announced the grant a day after large protests outside his official residence calling for his resignation, and less than a week after thousands of self-employed Israelis staged a massive demonstration in central Tel Aviv. Tuesday night’s protest outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem spilled over into violence and scores of protesters clashed with police.

Public approval of Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis has plummeted. A Midgam Research & Consulting poll published by Channel 12 last week found just 46% of respondents approved of Netanyahu’s job performance, down from 74% in May.

On Thursday, the aid package drew criticism from top economic experts. The head of the central bank, Amir Yaron, said there were better ways to stimulate the economy. The Finance Ministry director, Keren Terner Eyal, said the Netanyahu administration was going ahead with the stimulus despite objections from the Treasury.

“The public does not need to receive the stipend,” she told Israel Radio. “The prime minister and finance minister are the ones who ultimately make the decisions. We implement the decisions of the elected officials.”

A government minister from Gantz’s Blue and White party said she opposed the stimulus package in its current form. Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash Hacohen told Israel’s Ynet news she would vote against the proposal “unless there are significant changes to the plan.”

“Throwing six billion shekels ($1.7 billion) on poor and rich alike, at those who need and those who don’t, is not an economic plan, it’s populism,” she said.

By ILAN BEN ZION
Associated Press

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