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Mossad’s Quest for Coronavirus Kits

That Israel’s prime minister tasked Mossad head Yossi Cohen with a frantic quest to source coronavirus kit in the Gulf is the most serious indictment of Netanyahu yet

by Yossi Melman

Tasking the Mossad head Yossi Cohen to lead the efforts to procure medical equipment and supplies to battle the coronavirus pandemic is an unusual step, and cause for concern. In a national emergency, it is the duty of each and everyone to help their people and nation to overcome the crisis. Many individuals and firms in the health care, science and civilian sectors are contributing to Israel’s efforts.

Cohen’s involvement is welcome too, of course. But laying the responsibility on Israel’s spy agency with medical procurement of this kind and at this level is a clear expression of Benjamin Netanyahu’s total failure of management.

Israel is the only major Western country to act this way. Neither the CIA nor MI6, nor the French or German security services are involved in this field. They leave the procurement to the civil authorities. But within Israel, the Mossad is not alone. The Defense Ministry has been involved in various forms of procurement since Israel’s independence and has accrued much more experience, know-how and capabilities than the Mossad, which possesses no inherent advantage when it comes to the medical field.

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan is tested for COVID-19 at a mobile test center in Abu Dhabi, UAE. March 28, 2020 Photo credit: MINISTRY OF PRESIDENTIAL AFFAI

However, the Mossad’s expertise is to utilize its quiet contacts, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Israel has diplomatic relations with around 100 countries; the Mossad has undisclosed ties with nearly 140 states. And even more tangibly, Netanyahu chosen Cohen to lead the procurement efforts because the two are very close – and the ever-suspicious Netanyahu trusts him.

It is most likely that Cohen is trying to leverage his contacts to charm his acquaintances - the leaders and heads of intelligence in the Arab world - to persuade them to help Israel’s deteriorating health system. It is likely that the Arab states bought their protective and diagnostic equipment from China. If this is the case, Israel is the only country in the world known to have mobilized its intelligence agency for such a mission. It reflects Netanyahu’s incompetence in managing the crisis.

Netanyahu, more than any other official or minister, is responsible for Israel’s dire situation. His responsibility is threefold. First, as the prime minister for the last 11years; secondly, as self-appointed health minister for six-and-a-half of those years; and thirdly, as appointee of Yaakov Litzman, of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel party, a nomination based on political expediency, who has been given a free ride to further degrade the health care system.

Israel is often seen – and presented – as a financial, scientific and technological powerhouse, and there is no doubt that it punches far above its weight. So the shortage of adequate equipment – not enough beds, especially in intensive care wards, a lack of ventilators, of protective gear for the medical staff at the hospitals and clinics – all of this is a result of Netanyahu’s ideology.

He is an ardent and enthusiastic disciple of Adam Smith, and a great believer in the hidden hand regulating the economy. For decades, even before he entered politics, Netanyahu believed in radical capitalism, the free market, privatization and the private sector. He always opposed the idea of big government involvement in the market, and pushed to marginalize and minimize the role of and investment in the public sector, not least in in physical and social infrastructures.

This is how Israel has found itself in an unprecedented predicament (reminiscent of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel was surprised by the invading armies of Syria and Egypt.)

Then and today, Israel had good intelligence providing early warning of calamity, but the leadership in both cases was complacent. When the coronavirus epidemic broke out more than two months ago, Israel received specific and sufficient information from China and scientists around the world that the danger was spreading. But Netanyahu ignored the signs.

The prime minister could have imposed there and then a nationwide lockdown for two to three weeks. He could have established and deployed, there and then, a field hospital away from population centers to accommodate 1000 coronavirus patients in order to lessen pressure on the hospitals, and to concentrate the contagious in one place with staff who had full protective gear, rather than the current situation in which doctors and nurses face daily exposure with inadequate protection to safeguard them.

Israel’s army certainly has the know-how, equipment and experience - acquired over 70 years of wars and casualties - to operate a field hospital. These were the actions taken by China. The IDF has serially sent its field hospitals to areas hit by natural disasters, from tsunamis to earthquakes, from Armenia to Haiti to Turkey.

It’s true that Netanyahu deserves credit for being among the first world leader to decide to start closing the country’s borders, by partially banning flights to and from Israel. But the criteria were blatantly political. And he didn’t use the momentum to issue additional measures, such as testing Israelis returning from every corner of the globe right there at the airport. He could have demanded that each arrival would go straight to quarantine instead of being asked politely to go home and self-isolate. Israelis aren’t known for being the most disciplined nation on earth; many didn’t go home and self-isolate - and thus spread the illness.

During these early stages, the prime minister was preoccupied with his own political problems. He was dragging the country into a third election round in a year, and he was pre-occupied with dirty maneuvers to escape indictment and trial on multiple corruption charges. His attention was focused on his own welfare, and not on the public’s health.

Furthermore, to appease the ultra-Orthodox part of his political base, led in cabinet by Health Minister Litzman, he allowed to the Haredim to continue congregating in synagogues and in the streets, to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim. The virus continued to spread. Now the ultra-Orthodox community accounts for 30-40 percent of all those infected.

Netanyahu always boasts about his military service in the special forces unit of Sayeret Matkal. He was a good soldier; he was injured when participating as a junior officer in the daring 1972 rescue operation of the Sabena flight hijacked by Palestinian terrorists to Tel Aviv,

What would then-Lt Netanyahu say if an unfit and untrained unit had been sent to rescue the fearful passengers? But that is exactly what Prime Minister Netanyahu has done, by giving free rein to Litzman at the health ministry.

All Netanyahu’s least appealing traits are evident in how he is managing the coronavirus crisis. In 1998, Dr. Shaul Kimchi, a psychologist working for military intelligence (Aman), retired and went into private practice. He drew up a psychological profile of Netanyahu. He wrote about his narcissism, his suspicious mind, his unreliability, how hedonistic and self-absorbed he was and how little empathy he demonstrated to others.

Today, 22 years after, his insights have proven to be more accurate than ever.

Netanyahu's egocentricity and paranoia prevent him from delegating any significant authority or power. He wants to call all the shots - not because it’s the best approach, but to deprive others of credit. He is hesitant, and finds it difficult to make decisions. This is the reason why, for weeks, he could not make up his mind whether to impose a full curfew on the entire Israeli population. Instead he prefers a crippling lockdown and isolation which only confuses the public: what is forbidden and what is allowed.

His hesitations lead to endless cabinet deliberations deep into the night, which exhaust his ministers and himself. Netanyahu is already 70 years old. In some of the cabinet meetings the discussions slide into bizarre minutiae, such as debates about whether to shut down falafel stalls.

Netanyahu prides himself on understanding economics. He certainly cares about his own wealth, buying stocks in foreign markets, but remains apathetic to the current suffering of the public, whose income and savings are being drained dry. Unemployment is rising towards 20 percent. While other western governments, even including U.S. President Donald Trump, have now released huge financial packages and benefits to help workers and salvage the economy, Netanyahu offers empty promises and is still struggling to put forward a clear policy.

Meir Dagan, the late head of the Mossad, once told me that during a discussion about whether to approve a special operation, instead of encouraging and supporting the Mossad operatives - as was expected from the country’s leader - Netanyahu confessed his worries and anxieties.

His well-known anxieties have made the prime minister an alarmist – but an alarmist who seems not to believe his own paranoia and thus fails to act. He always prefers worst case scenarios, even when there is no need. That is how he is dealing with Iran and this is how he is handling the coronavirus crisis. His purpose is to inject bleak fear in the hearts of Israelis, thus, he believes, prolonging his grip on power. Unlike other leaders, Netanyahu hardly ever talks about hope.

His zigzagging and incapability to control the daily infighting between the ministries of health and defense show that, despite his much vaunted image, he is a weak leader and manager. He sees himself as the most successful CEO Israel’s ever had, but in reality, he’s a micro-manager. He is wrapped up in tactics and not in strategy.

Though Netanyahu often talks up the burgeoning Mossad-cultivated ties between Israel and the Arab world, it would be a full-scale irony if it was an Arab state - far less technologically and scientifically advanced - that came to Israel's rescue.

Yossi Melman writes for Haaretz, where this piece first appeared.

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