Panic over coronavirus has spread throughout the Middle East even faster than the virus itself. But nowhere in this volatile region is the anxiety as broad and as deep as in Israel.
What war, terrorism and economic boycotts of Israel have failed to achieve, fear over Covid-19 seems to be accomplishing: New government measures to combat the virus are poised to isolate the Jewish state from much of the world and depress the region's most vibrant economy.
On Wednesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing coalition just won the most seats in a third round of national elections, defended the draconian steps. Netanyahu called the epidemic "one of the most dangerous we've seen in the past 100 years." He urged Israelis, for whom hugging, touching and kissing on two cheeks is as common as falafel, not to shake hands.
The government also announced a ban on foreign travel for government civil servants. Military chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi deferred a planned trip to Washington and planned joint military exercises. The government ordered all Israelis returning from trips to France, Germany, Spain, Austria and Switzerland to quarantine themselves for two weeks after the last day of their visits there. Non-Israelis from these countries are now barred from entering Israel unless they can show that they have a place to be quarantined for the requisite 14 days.
Travelers to China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Macau, South Korea, Japan and Italy were already instructed to isolate themselves. Israel totally barred all foreign visitors who have recently been in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
More than 70,000 Israelis are reported to be holed up in their homes. Conventions and other large events attended by more than 5,000 people have been canceled. Gatherings of over 100 people of anyone who has returned from foreign travel anywhere in the past 14 days are also now prohibited.
A tour Wednesday night of downtown Tel Aviv reflected the anxiety here. Screening rooms at the city's popular Cinematheque were deserted. So was Tony Vespa, one of the city's most popular pizza parlors. There were few people in the municipal square where thousands of Israelis traditionally gather.
This being Israel, a fierce debate about the likely impact of and need for such measures has erupted, as only 19 cases of the virus have been detected in Israel, and no one has died. Israel's leading TV network quoted government sources unwilling to be identified as saying the new directives "border on hysteria" and warning they could jeopardize economic growth.
While the Israeli Finance Ministry and the Bank of Israel said this week there is no indication as yet that the coronavirus crisis is adversely affecting the economy, the bank acknowledged in a statement that a "significant economic impact" is likely if the epidemic persists.
El Al, Israel's national airline, which was already planning downsizing, announced this week a layoff of 1,000 workers — one-sixth of the airline's workforce — to "ensure the future" of the company.
Although tourism to Israel since January increased 4.1% over the previous year, the epidemic is likely to change that. The number of Israelis traveling abroad is already falling.
A silver lining of the crisis, said one Israeli doctor reluctant to publicly criticize his government, may be closer ties between Israeli and Palestinian health officials. The two governments have been at odds over a new American peace plan strongly opposed by Palestinian officials but endorsed by Netanyahu and his main political opponent, Benny Gantz. On Friday, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett ordered the army, in coordination with the Palestinian Authority, to close Bethlehem after seven cases of the virus were detected there. And in another increasingly rare move, Israeli and Palestinian official met Thursday to coordinate efforts to contain Covid-19.
What politics has divided, a novel virus may bring together.