Israel has been the world’s whole-country experiment to establish how, and how fast, Covid vaccination can return life to normal (as much as life is ever normal in a country where there is constant tension over the rights and future of Palestinians).
I am in Jerusalem, trying to understand the implications for stability in Israel and peace in the Middle East of a new government where prime minister Naftali Bennett is opposed to any kind of Palestinian state, and the alternate PM Yair Lapid passionately believes a two-state solution is the only answer.
I’ll return to that in later reports, though the short answer – according to members of the government – is that nothing formal or constitutional can and will change during the uncertain life of this coalition to bring peace with the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank.
That said, the government will continue a process started by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of normalising relations with the external Arab world (Lapid is set to do something next week never before done by an Israeli minister, which is that he is making a formal visit to the UAE).
But back to Covid-19. The striking thing here is that there are no masks, no social distancing, no restrictions on going to restaurants, or to football matches or to places of worship. The last of the restrictions – having to show a 'green' pass proving vaccination to go to social settings like bars, mandatory mask wearing – have all gone since the beginning of June. Life is again as bustling, frenetic and crazy as it used to be in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
I spoke to Yuli Edelstein, who was health minister until a few days ago, about all this. Much of the success stems from a vaccination programme that was the model for the UK’s: 60 per cent of everyone over-16 has been double-dose vaccinated, says Edelstein, and almost 90 per cent of everyone over-50.
There are differences with the UK though. I – and everyone else coming in – was only allowed out of quarantine after having a blood test that proved I have Covid-19 antibodies. Israel does not trust my NHS record that shows I’ve had two doses. And no one can leave the airport on the way into the country without having a PCR test, which meant spending 90 minutes in a shouting and screaming mêlée. (By the way, the price of the test at £18, with no government subsidy, perhaps shows that the price of private tests in the UK is obscenely high.)
But however tedious the tests and bureaucracy were for admitting me, the dividend is that – unlike in the UK – there are no Covid-19 restrictions on what I do here. I’ve even shaken hands!
Happy ending? Probably, but it is too early to say. Because the Delta variant has turned up in localised outbreaks and there is a risk some social distancing could be reimposed if it’s not checked. The way that the highly infectious variant entered the country is relevant to an important debate taking place in the UK, namely whether to vaccinate children. Because Edelstein told me the variant came here when Israeli holidaymakers returned from abroad with their unvaccinated children, who refused to quarantine on their return as they were supposed to do.
This shows the risks for Boris Johnson if he presses ahead with allowing double-vaccinated Brits and their unvaccinated kids to holiday abroad and then skip quarantine when back. As it happens, Israel has been vaccinating 12-to-15-year-olds for just over a fortnight. But so far only about one in 30 have had a single dose.
I have two other reflections. The first is the fight against Covid-19 always seems to shine a light on other inequalities, unfairnesses and tensions. Here in Israel the new government – and especially its health minister, Nitzan Horowitz, from the left wing Meretz party – tried to make a gesture to the Palestinians of the West Bank by donating 1.4 million surplus doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The doses were rejected by the Palestinian Authority, because of mistrust that they are still useable – even though the Israeli government has warranted the doses don’t expire till the end of July. Rebuilding a relationship with the Palestinians will be long in the making.
Second, vaccine success does not guarantee political success or longevity for a leader, whatever Johnson may have concluded from Tory victories in the recent local elections and by-election.
Arguably Netanyahu’s vaccine achievement was greater than Johnson’s. But he’s been turfed out, and is being prosecuted for abuse of power and corruption.
The Israeli people feared Netanyahu was undermining confidence in the judiciary, the police, the essential underpinnings of the state. That felt like a more serious threat to their way of life than Covid-19.