Skies between SA and Israel could open soon, says Israel’s COVID-19 chief
South African Jews and their relatives in Israel are battling yet another travel ban implemented by Israel at the beginning of May, which forbids travel to South Africa and seven other countries. Yet Tomer Lotan, the executive director and policy chief at the Government of Israel National Coronavirus TaskForce, told the SA Jewish Report it might shift soon.
“I think it will change pretty soon. The policy is based on the idea of opening as much as we can inside Israel, but being very strict with our borders. We call it the ‘inverse watermelon’ – the inside is green and the outside is red. It sounds much better in Hebrew!
“We went through two to three months of relief in daily activity and opening our economy,” he says. “This was mainly through the ‘green pass’, a project that I was privileged to lead [allowing those who are vaccinated access to daily life, sport, and cultural events]. There were about six to seven phases of relief to get our economic activity as close as we could to daily routine.
“But the other side of the equation has been to keep our borders as strict as possible. It’s a challenging balance. We’ve been more conservative about our borders than before because we want to maintain the achievements of our vaccination project. We don’t want to risk it with a ‘variant scenario’ [a COVID-19 variant entering the country.]”
He says an Israeli High Court decision two months ago ruled that “we cannot block Israeli citizens from travelling back to Israel. This means we had only one option left: to have a differentiated approach to different countries. This is why we created these criteria, focused on countries that are more dangerous for Israel because of the presence of variants of concern. We also looked at the traffic between these countries and Israel.”
In the case of South Africa he says, “the South African COVID-19 variant is still a concern according to our Ministry of Health. However, I must say, over the past week or two, we have seen more evidence that the South African variant may be less dangerous than we originally thought. So I’m more optimistic that in the short term, Israel will update its knowledge on the South African variant. We hope that the evidence will give us confidence that it won’t affect those who are vaccinated, and then the policy [on travel between South Africa and Israel] might change. But we’ve been very conservative because no one wants to make the mistake of ‘reading the map’ incorrectly.”
Lotan says South Africa’s recent low COVID-19 numbers don’t have a big impact on Israel’s assessment of its travel ban. Rather, the traffic between the two countries and strong family ties between people has more of an impact.
“But we want to emphasise that the health ministry and Israeli government are very aware of the need to reconnect communities and families. We hope to make sure that over the coming weeks and into the summer, there is more traffic between South Africa, Israel, and other countries, not only for the Israeli economy, but also because of the very important ties to these Jewish communities. We are making an effort and it’s ‘on our table’. We are putting a lot of effort into updating policies.”
So is Israel’s fight with the pandemic coming to an end? “Most Israelis feel that ‘corona is over’. They act like it’s over, and there is much sense in that as we are really close to normal routine,” he says. “And our numbers are dramatically, fantastically low. The only question mark is the fact that the world is still suffering terribly from COVID-19. So it’s still premature to say that it’s over.”
He says the Israeli government will soon “pilot groups of tourists to start tourism again in Israel. That’s the next step. We’ve done things gradually, in a cautious way. We aren’t running forward [without thinking things through].”
Regarding sectors of Israeli society that may have been resistant to vaccines, Lotan says “the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] do vaccinate. They are at least 60% vaccinated, which is high compared to the rest of the world.” He points out that they haven’t experienced an increase in COVID-19 numbers after the large gathering at Mount Meron for Lag B’Omer.
“Arab Israeli citizens also have very high vaccination numbers. It took a while to increase numbers – it started slowly, but after we adjusted our messaging and created greater accessibility in Arab villages, there has been increased compliance.” These efforts have extended from East Jerusalem to Bedouin families in the Negev. Lotan says Israel has also vaccinated 200 000 Palestinian workers that come in and out of Israel. Although it’s in Israel’s interest that all Palestinians are vaccinated, this responsibility falls to the Palestinian Authority.
Regarding the large numbers gathered at Mount Meron, Lotan says, “for so many years, the event has been unmanaged. It’s like a ‘no man’s land’. We concluded COVID-19 restrictions for Meron based on the green pass –allowing only those who are vaccinated to attend, restricting numbers, and so on. The plan was agreed with the relevant ministries and the police.
“But then it was disputed at operational level. Who would enforce it? Who would check the green passes? And then the formal restrictions weren’t voted in by the government. It was a very good plan, but no one signed it. So the event was unmanaged.”
He says this failure is a symbol of “the failures of the Israeli system. It’s not just political, it’s about the weakness of authorities. So the miracle [of Lag B’Omer] didn’t happen this year.”
Telfed under strain from SA aliyah wave
Telfed, the South African Zionist Federation in Israel, has resorted to a fundraiser as its resources come under strain because of the volume of people making aliyah from South Africa.
“We have a situation on our hands. Last month, Telfed welcomed the highest number of South African immigrants to Israel in one month in 44 years [since 1977]. Our resources are under intense strain,” said Telfed Chief Executive Dorron Kline in the fundraiser message.
Kline told the SA Jewish Report, “We are a small team dealing with a large wave of South African aliyah, which we are delighted about. People need a lot more assistance due to corona[virus], and we have limited resources. As our community grows, we have more people to assist. There’s an increase in the number of South African olim applying for Telfed’s financial assistance.”
Telfed provides two types of services: klita (absorption) and social welfare. These include financial assistance and “food cards” for more than 400 needy South African olim every month, social-work counselling, and higher-education bursaries – the organisation receives more than 1 000 applications every year. Klita services include pre and post-aliyah advice from a klita advisor and social worker, employment counselling, subsidised rental apartments, and social events.
In the fundraiser, members of Telfed said there had been a “300% increase in the number of South Africans wanting to move to Israel”. Elaborating on this, Kline says “the 300% relates to the rise in aliyah enquiries that Telfed received over the past 1.5 years. Liat Amar Arran from the South African Israel Centre also spoke about a dramatic increase in opening aliyah files – from 300 to 1 000. In addition, the Kaplan Centre report from 2019 highlighted growing interest in aliyah.”
They also describe a “10% increase in the number of South African immigrants battling to make ends meet in Israel”. Kline explains that “the cost of living in Israel is high, and it’s unreasonable for most to replicate the standard of living that they had in South Africa. Yes, education and healthcare are comparatively inexpensive, but salaries in Israel can be lower. Our South African olim deal with an unfavourable exchange rate, and property prices are significantly higher in Israel. We want those who are making aliyah to have a realistic expectation of what lies ahead.
“Israel is a wonderful country, and the advantages of living here are significant, but it’s expensive,” he says. “As long as people know what to expect, they can prepare accordingly. Sadly, some olim take out loans that they cannot repay or they haven’t saved up for an unexpected expense. Some have fallen ill, and aren’t able to work. Some have left unhealthy marriages, or are dealing with mental-health issues.
“Telfed doesn’t replace the financial assistance provided by the Israeli government and municipality; we augment it,” he says. “We have limited means, so we carefully assess each case before deciding how best to help. In many cases, we will provide financial planning to help ensure that olim won’t fall into the same position again. We try to empower our olim with the skills to be self-sufficient. Sometimes, all they need is a little extra guidance.”
The fundraiser also mentions that there is a 50% increase (70 families) on the waiting list for housing in Telfed community buildings. “Telfed’s subsidised rental housing is available for South African olim who wish to live in either Tel Aviv or Ra’anana,” says Kline. “We give priority to new olim and former lone soldiers. The apartments are appealing because the tenants live in a community of olim with the same background. Tel Aviv and Ra’anana are highly sought-after locations. The olim deal with an English speaking property and maintenance manager. These seem like small advantages, but when one arrives in a new country with limited language skills, it makes settling in so much easier.
“Seventy percent of rental income is used to assist olim with their absorption and to help those in financial need. Thirty percent is used for building maintenance, renovation, and upkeep. The increase in the waiting list is as a result of the rise in the number of aliyah applications and new olim,” he says. “Olim will rent apartments on the open market until the Telfed apartments become available. Olim may live in Telfed subsidised rental housing for up to three years.”
There is an urgent tone to Telfed’s campaign, and it feels like an unprecedented situation. Kline says “all non-profit organisations have felt the impact of the pandemic, and the need for our services has grown. Up until now, we haven’t highlighted the welfare role that Telfed plays. The primary reason for this is because our community is small, and confidentiality is imperative. For decades, we have provided emergency support to those in dire need.
“Telfed received generous funding from the Jewish Agency for many years, but it stopped in the late 1990s, and the need for our services didn’t. We are here to assist olim, but we do need to cover our operating costs. In addition, there is a greater need amongst olim for financial help.”
Kline emphasises that “South Africans should come here because of their love of Israel and not because they are running away. Israel isn’t always an easy place to live. We want South African Jews to move for the right reasons.
“We have a significant number of committees [comprised of dedicated volunteers] and professionals who ensure that we can best assist those who need our assistance and guidance. For more than 70 years, we have had South African trained lawyers, accountants, and businesspeople onboard to ensure good governance and transparency,” Kline says.
“Our next most significant project is constructing a new Telfed subsidised rental housing unit in Tel Aviv. We will build 74 new rental apartments to provide for the dramatic increase in South African aliyah. It is a 100 million shekel (R442.2 million) building project, and we need to raise the funds from generous donors,” Kline says.
Israel eases quarantine for Israelis after third jab
Israel made the surprise announcement on Monday, 30 August, that from 3 September, Israelis who are a week after their third dose of COVID-19 vaccine won’t have to do a week of quarantine upon returning from overseas.
This could increase travel to South Africa, as some olim told the SA Jewish Report they would consider a trip if they don’t have to quarantine on their return.
According to Dov Lipman, a former Knesset member and the founder of olim assistance organisation Yad L’Olim, Israelis who have had their third inoculation will have to quarantine only if they are returning from a “red listed” country. For countries on the “orange list” like South Africa, they will need to quarantine for 24 hours or until they receive their negative PCR results from a test when they land.
This also applies to non-Israelis who received a third dose in Israel which has been recorded in the Israeli health system.
In addition, from 3 September, anyone who is within six months of their second dose of the vaccine won’t have to do a week’s quarantine upon entering Israel. Instead, they will need to quarantine for 24 hours or until the post landing negative PCR comes back.
The country also opened up third vaccine shots for anyone over the age of 12 if five months have passed since their second dose.
“At the moment, there’s no change in policy for those vaccinated outside of Israel. They are still required to do seven days of quarantine with a negative PCR test upon arrival, and a negative PCR test on day seven,” says Lipman.
“Starting from 1 October, the green passports [allowing people into public places if they have been vaccinated] will expire six months after the second or third dose. This is to encourage people to get a third shot.”
Does all this mean that more Israelis may choose to travel to South Africa? One oleh, Robin Nussbaum, says it may convince him to make the trip. “I haven’t seen my parents in nearly two and a half years or my twin brother in four years, and I miss them. Last week, my colleague lost her mother in Turkey, and it made me want to get onto the soonest flight to Joburg to go and give my mom the hugest hug. But I couldn’t just go because it would have meant doing bidud [quarantine] while my kids start school this week.”
He says the change in quarantine rules may convince him to go, “because it would mean being away from my wife and kids for just my time in South Africa. Whereas before I would’ve had to take extra leave from work to isolate from my family for another week.
“Ideally, I’d love to take my kids to South Africa as my parents haven’t seen my daughter since she was a few weeks old, but that’s still not a possibility,” he says. “I have two sisters in Sydney, and they can’t see an end to their travel ban, which makes me feel more inclined to go, as I guess we’re lucky, and should take advantage of the situation. On the one hand, I think that I should go now before things change again and on the other, I want to wait to see if Israel will cancel isolation for vaccinated foreigners or first-degree relatives. It’s still not an easy decision.”
“I imagine that more people will leave Israel to visit family due to this change,” Lipman says. “However, I do caution everyone that given the reality of new variants that are popping up around the world, the rules are always subject to change.”
Israel hasn’t seen the back of Bibi yet
Just a few months ago, it was unfathomable that Israel would ever have a prime minister that wasn’t Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the wily politician who always landed back in the hot seat over the past 12 years.
But then, an unlikely coalition was cobbled together, and Naftali Bennett became Israel’s new head of state. Does that mean that Israel is in a post-Netanyahu era?
This is the question that Israeli political journalist Anshel Pfeffer attempted to answer in a talk at Limmud@Home, hosted by Limmud South Africa on Sunday 22 August.
Speaking to a large online audience, he revealed that this was the first time he was addressing this subject. “It’s been two and a half months since Netanyahu left power. The fact that the new government is still here is an achievement. Many people didn’t think it would last this long. Yet are we in a new era? When we talk about someone who was prime minister for so long, to what degree does he leave his stamp, personality, and agenda on the nation?”
He proposed that “in Netanyahu’s case, there is no doubt that we are still feeling the effects because of the length of time he served [as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister] and his style of governance. He tried to make it a ‘presidential style’ of governance, meaning that he ruled almost on his own.”
Pfeffer argued that in considering the new government, one must look at who is heading it up. “Bennett joined politics as a close aide to Netanyahu. He hero worshipped Bibi, even though Netanyahu pushed him away so many times. Even now, although the break between Bennett and Bibi is irrevocable, Bennett is in many ways still influenced by him. In that sense, I don’t think we are in a post-Netanyahu era.”
On the other hand, “Bennett’s nature is much more collegial. He includes all of cabinet in governing, he listens to them, and he has good relationships with them. So, it’s an actual cabinet government, not a ‘presidential-style’ one.” In addition, Bennett is the leader of a small party and became prime minister as part of an agreement to break the deadlock of Israeli politics. This is very different to Bibi’s leadership as head of a large party.
Pfeffer noted that a “coalition builder” is someone who brings people together and smooths over differences. However, “Netanyahu was a coalition builder of a different kind. He built his coalitions on groups of angry, resentful, and fearful people. This government is different. It has eight political parties from across the spectrum. They came together with one purpose: to replace Netanyahu. They still need to find a shared purpose, but they are doing better than expected.”
All this could have an effect on Israeli society and change the discourse from one of division. “When I talk to people, they seem less motivated or angered by daily politics. They are thinking about where we are going next.”
Pfeffer said the biggest impact of the Netanyahu era was how he “gradually downgraded the Palestinian issue on the national and global agenda. Netanyahu managed to exhaust all international interlocutors so that they felt they couldn’t do anything [to resolve the conflict]. It became an afterthought.”
Though this new government will engage on the issue to some extent, essentially there isn’t much it can do due to the radically different views of the coalition parties. “These range from annexation of the West Bank to a two-state solution. So there is no way they can reach an agreement. Therefore, the issue will remain on the backburner. They will manage, but not try to solve, the conflict. In that way, it’s a continuation of the Netanyahu era,” Pfeffer said.
He believes it’s the same with the pandemic – Bennett will follow Bibi’s path of “putting all efforts and hopes in vaccines”. When it comes to the economy, “there also won’t be any major difference”. And regarding Iran, Bennett will continue Netanyahu’s opposition to the Iran deal. “There will be the same kind of shadow warfare against Iran. The difference will be that he won’t try to bring these differences with the Biden government out into the open. He’ll keep it quiet. Bibi was much more confrontational.”
Pfeffer has noticed one major shift, namely in foreign policy, especially towards Europe. “Future Prime Minister Yair Lapid [if the rotation deal goes ahead] is already making his mark as foreign minister. For example, he has confronted Poland on its possible restitution law making it impossible for Holocaust survivors to reclaim property.” Pfeffer thinks Lapid is doing this because it’s close to his heart, but also to show that Israel is now trying to align itself with more liberal European countries as opposed to its former close relationship with the right-wing governments of Poland and Hungary.
“Hungary and Poland aren’t major players, but they’re seen as standard bearers of illiberal nationalist populist politics. Lapid is saying that Israel isn’t doing that anymore.”
Pfeffer said it was unlikely that Bennett would be prime minister beyond the next two years. “I’d say Bennett is a transition figure, but Lapid has more of a chance of being prime minister in future. With a large party, and a reservoir of centrist and left support, he has the potential to grow. He is already seen by many Israelis as a saviour for cobbling together this new government.”
He said many Israeli journalist and pundits – himself included – have always underestimated Lapid. But he now believes Lapid could “usher in a new era of Israeli politics and emerge as the unlikely potential leader of the next era”.
Finally, he considered if Netanyahu could one day return as prime minister. “He would definitely want to be prime minister again. He’s nearly 72, but is fit and healthy, and his ambition, drive, and stamina are still there. But it doesn’t look like he has a path back to power for the next two or three years. In addition, his court cases could affect his political fortune.”
At the same time, “In Israeli politics, anything can happen. Even this new government seemed outlandish three months ago. In spite of his loss of power, Netanyahu has firm control of Likud. It remains the largest party in the Knesset. He also has a strong alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties. So even though at this moment, I can’t see him returning to the premiership, he does have springboard,” Pfeffer said.
“Are we in a post-Bibi era? Not yet in the sense that he’s still here, challenging the government. He may not be prime minister, but he sees no reason to retire and go write his memoirs.”