Is Israel’s COVID-19 airport fiasco about to end?

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Can Prime Minister Naftali Bennett end the COVID-19 fiasco at Ben-Gurion Airport – which has left Israelis stranded abroad and barred foreigners from entering Israel even for weddings, bar mitzvahs , births and deaths?

Israel appears to be preparing to ease the entry of more tourists, having banned many from entering the country for the past 18 months in an effort to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also sowing the seeds of a program that could eventually allow the vaccinations of foreign nationals to be recognized in the Jewish state.

On Tuesday, the Health Ministry made two announcements in the Knesset that marked what appears to be a change in policy.

First, the Director General of the Ministry of Health, Professor Nachman Ash, confirmed that foreigners could be released from quarantine under the same conditions as Israelis if they performed a serological test to confirm the presence of sufficient antibodies and called the ministry hotline.

Next, Health Ministry official Ilana Gans explained that Israel was working on an agreement with the European Union and other countries that would make the Israeli vaccination record available abroad with the simple reading of a QR code. It would also allow Israel to easily confirm the inoculation of citizens who were stung outside the country. Such a program would alleviate the need for validation via a serological test.

While an announcement is not final, a source at the ministry said this would also apply to foreigners vaccinated abroad.

The government’s failure to effectively manage Ben-Gurion Airport over the past 18 months has played a major role in exacerbating the coronavirus crisis which ultimately led to many of the more than 7,400 deaths from COVID- 19. It also destroyed Israel’s tourism industry, which in 2019 accounted for 5.9% of the country’s GDP.

While other countries with similar physical attributes to Israel put in place controls that allowed safe overseas travel, Israel’s previous government ignored repeated recommendations to establish effective policies.

In January, then-Knesset Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called the airport “a failure on the dimensions of the Yom Kippur War” in an interview with the Jerusalem Post.

The fiasco began almost at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, when former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waited five days to close Israel’s borders to American travelers, resulting in more than 70% of coronavirus infections during the first wave.

In mid-March, Netanyahu boldly banned all foreigners from entering the country, allowing only non-Israeli nationals who could prove their ability to self-isolate in accordance with then-Health Ministry guidelines. in Israel – a policy he has continually tightened.

For more than a year, with rare exceptions, only diplomats, people with special connections, and those with funds to operate private planes could visit.

It was not until April 2021 that Israel began granting entry permits to first-degree vaccinated relatives of people living in Israel. But even then, the entry process was complicated and convoluted, and many struggled to get permission to come.

Tour guides and operators celebrated in June 2021 when the government announced that Israel would open up to some small groups of vaccinated tourists. The pilot program was supposed to expand in July to allow individual tourists vaccinated, but has been continually pushed back – first to August 1, then indefinitely – and there is still no plan to allow individual tourists. to come back to the country.

Additionally, the group visits were short-lived, as as the infection increased, the government labeled the majority of the world “red” or “orange,” effectively banning inbound travel from most countries or requiring people self-isolate for at least seven days after entry.

The almost empty departures hall of Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on January 25, 2021 (YOSSI ALONI / FLASH90)

Earlier this month, Israel redefined the term “fully vaccinated” based on research showing Pfizer’s vaccines waned about five months after inoculation, but a third injection provides a new dose of antibodies. Around the same time, officials agreed to revive small-group tourism.

Starting September 19, people traveling in groups of five or more – arriving and departing together and who are fully vaccinated – can enter the country under the same rules as Israelis. In general, this means that they should be fully vaccinated with two or three doses supplemented within the last five months with vaccines approved by the United States or the European Union (Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca or Johnson and Johnson). They must take a PCR test within 72 hours of arrival and again at the airport. If everything aligns, these travelers can leave isolation as soon as they receive a negative result or within 24 hours, whichever comes first.

Of course, tourists from “red” countries are still not allowed to enter. And there is still no plan to reopen to individual tourists who are not first-degree relatives of Israelis or who do not receive special permission to enter the country.

The Israelis also struggled.

The previous administration voluntarily renamed countries in red, sometimes even the night before a change took effect. Israelis have been forced to cancel trips or be stranded abroad or isolated if the country they were traveling to or from was now found to be too infected with the coronavirus.

And there was also the nearly two-month period between late January and March when the airport was locked down and only humanitarian and other travel permits were granted.

Even this government, although it has always warned travelers a week in advance, has branded some of the countries Israelis travel most in, such as the UK, as red, banning all visits to family and friends. .

Israel is a melting pot of immigrants from all over the world, so stopping travel has meant missed births, bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.

Trade agreements have been canceled. Tour guides in the best scenarios have changed careers. Others, in the worst case, have committed suicide, unable to support their families during the pandemic.

THE ANNOUNCEMENTS made in the Knesset on Tuesday are preliminary small steps. But they show that the new administration is thinking strategically about the airport.

They show Bennett struggling to align his words with his actions.

Bennett, while in opposition, condemned Netanyahu for locking up Israel when he should instead have learned how to better test, trace and isolate. As prime minister, he strives to learn to live alongside the virus.

Likewise, he also believes that Israel does not need to stop all travel to the country if it manages the airport properly. And as he puts policies in place to do so, he is opening up Israel more and more.

Of course, there are concerns.

First, Israel is still experiencing around 10,000 new cases daily. The reproduction rate fluctuates as schools resume and families celebrate the holidays, pray and eat together.

In addition, the majority of countries in the world have not even vaccinated their health workers and the most vulnerable populations, let alone the rest of their citizens. This means that not only will the pandemic be prolonged, but there is a higher risk of new variants emerging – variants potentially even more resistant to the vaccine than the Delta variant.

Finally, Israel has still not succeeded in properly enforcing the isolation of those returning from abroad. Nearly one million unvaccinated Israelis – along with millions more who were vaccinated more than six months ago and have not received a third injection – are more vulnerable to infection. With the Israeli police only able to check 6,000 isolated people a day, it is likely that huge percentages of travelers will continue to break the isolation and put all Israelis at risk.

Still, many believe the time has come to rethink Israel’s tourism and travel strategy.

Israel is a small country. He needs the rest of the world for business and pleasure. Israel relies on tourism as a means of economic development, but also of connection and continuity.

The government appears to be moving towards developing a way to bring Ben-Gurion back to life. When it does, Israel will truly live alongside the coronavirus.


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