Israelis just want to fly away.
One meme making the rounds showed desperate hands reaching out of the sea towards a far-off airplane flying high in a deep blue sky, accompanied only by the traditional greeting of “Shana Tova,” a good year.
The greeting felt hollow as Israel entered into the year 5781 as the first country on earth to impose a second national lockdown.
Alone in small home-bound pods, unable to gather or to pray in synagogues, and confused by the government’s constantly evolving, often contradictory guidelines, Israelis feel alienated, angry, and appalled.
They did not feel this way in early March, when Israel went into its first lockdown. The nation, which began to closing its borders in late January, appeared to have the health crisis under firm control. The quarantined Passover and Easter season was greeted with hardiness and even some good humor.
In late May, after the third inconclusive Israeli election in under a year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established an uncomfortable team-of-rivals coalition keeping him in power for a further 18 months, which he called a “corona emergency coalition.”
His government’s handling of COVID-19 resulted in only 250 deaths and was so admired that even countries with no diplomatic ties to Israel tried to emulate its success.
Three months later, tiny Israel—with a population of 9.2 million people—holds a world record no country wishes for: the highest number of new cases of COVID-19 per million.
I’d fly to Abu Dhabi. If we already had direct flights, I’d go there to escape the lockdown.
During the weeks in which Israel precipitously tumbled from best to worst in its handing of the novel coronavirus, Netanyahu blamed the spiraling fiasco on the public, on his rival-turned-political-partner Benny Gantz, on the opposition, and on Ronny Gamzu, his recently appointed corona czar, whose advice has generally been ignored by a government hobbled by rivalries and by sectarian coalition considerations.
The national angst was summed up by Hiba Abu Much, a laboratory scientist interviewed by Israeli radio.
With barely disguised exasperation, Abu Much, a graduate of the Technion, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in Israel, said, “I have two degrees in medical science, ten years of experience in the field, I barely get to see home, all for an hourly wage of $12.50.”
“No new positions are opening up,” she continued, “operations are being canceled, patients are not being discharged from hospital, the coronavirus is raging, and the Ministry of Health’s director general flew to Abu Dhabi.”
Instead of bringing the COVID-19 crisis under control, Netanyahu has presided over a head-turning series of diplomatic coups, culminating with the establishment of diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates, which was celebrated earlier this week at the White House.
But plush, inviting Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital, which Israelis have never before been able to visit, feels farther away than ever for hardworking parents who sent their kids back to school on September 1 for what turned out to be a two-week term.
The shambolic reopening of schools in early summer is considered the trigger that set off Israel’s deadly second wave. Israel is now seeing astronomic growth of new COVID-19 infections, which currently stand at about 6,000 new cases a day.
Amid sniping between ministers who are supposed to define policy, no one knows how the school year will resume after the month of Jewish High Holy days, which end in mid-October.
“I’d fly to Abu Dhabi,” Fares Fahhan, the owner of a hardware store on Hebron Road, a major Jerusalem artery, said wistfully on Friday as a police officer walking by glared at his unmasked face. “If we already had direct flights, I’d go there to escape the lockdown.”
Netanyahu and Trump have trumpeted a new era of direct flights between Tel Aviv and previously unattainable Arab capitals, but as airlines struggle to survive and COVID-19 rages, they have not yet been put into place.
The new lockdown imposes stay-at-home orders on all Israel, allowing citizens to distance themselves from their residences by about half a mile if they need essentials such as food or medicine.
Fahhan’s losses are significant. His income in the summer of 2020 is 53 percent less than it was in the summer of 2019, his landlord refuses to reduce the rent, he hasn’t qualified for any of the meager national schemes intended to help save small businesses, and City Hall has only given him a 25 percent reduction on Jerusalem’s hefty municipal tax.
“It is very hard,” he says. His location in Abu Tor—a well-to-do neighborhood about evenly divided between Jewish and Arab residents who enjoy DIY home improvements—used to be an advantage, but now he’s hobbled with high rent and expenses and “people just don’t leave their houses, and when they do, they have no money. They buy a battery.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been increasingly preoccupied by an economy buckling under the pressure of coronavirus-related layoffs and slowdowns, and a swelling protest movement demanding his resignation, often under the banner “Crime Minister.”
Netanyahu calls the protesters “left-wing anarchists.” On Friday, The Black Flag movement, which has been driving the protests, flew a drone over Tel Aviv’s grand—and now empty—Rabin Square, where they had painted the words, “The lockdown is Bibi’s fault” in huge letters.
The police also took to the air, posting a video showing Israeli highways swirling below, almost completely empty.
Retired General Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former National Security Adviser and a pillar of Israel’s right-wing security establishment, hailed the accord with the UAE as “something unequivocally good for Israel,” but acknowledged that if the political instability persists, “Netanyahu’s problem will not be the Middle East, it’ll be the middle class.”