The Jerusalem Post
Corona minister crowns his tenure successful
Future Likud contender and ex-health minister Yuli Edelstein takes his share of credit for the country’s COVID-19 victory
uli Edelstein said he has “no regrets” about the 13 months he spent as health minister, overseeing Israel’s response to what was arguably the country’s most serious health crisis since its founding.
“We got this chance to really save lives,” he told The Jerusalem Post this week. “For what else am I in public and political life, if not for this chance to influence the whole country, no exception?
“It is something I am very proud of,” he said, “a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Going forward, I could be in all kinds of positions, but this year will still be part of the story. It was about making hard decisions... that not everyone understood in real time. But look around now.”
Edelstein spoke passionately about his role as health minister this week, on the same day that Israelis ceased wearing masks indoors and only days after the Interior Ministry announced that it is working on a plan to allow individual tourists back into the country – at least from some states – after more than a year.
Daily cases are generally less than 30, and as of Thursday there were only 25 people in serious condition from the virus.
Edelstein chose his role as health minister with the formation of the previous government – but only after he was ousted from his position as Knesset speaker by the High Court two months prior.
In an address to the Knesset in March 2020, Edelstein accused the High Court of being “one-sided” and “extreme” and claimed its decision to require Edelstein to leave his role “undermines the foundations of Israeli democracy.”
But looking back now, he said “gam zu le’tova,” meaning, this, too, is for the best.
At the time, Israel was at the peak of its first wave of COVID-19, a disease neither the country nor the world fully understood. The country was locked down and dozens were dying – a number that would become thousands.
Before Edelstein, the health minister position lacked the clout of other cabinet posts. Politicians would vie for the defense, foreign and finance portfolios and leave health to those deemed less important. For years, the country did not even have a health minister but a deputy health minister.
As the coronavirus surged, Edelstein said, he felt an obligation to run the ministry, which would be at the center of any efforts made by that government.
There were long days and sleepless nights, he said, but “we managed to strike a decisive blow at the coronavirus and free the Israeli economy from its shackles.”
A poll published last week by N12 showed that 60% of Israelis think Edelstein did a good job in his role, though when asked if he would make a good replacement for Netanyahu as Likud leader, only 5% said that he would.
“There is no doubt right now that we are by far the best in the world,” Edelstein said, comparing the country’s level of infection to Singapore and Vietnam, which went through the first couple of waves of the pandemic with very few cases but are now once again sick and locked down.
“I would dare say we are corona-free,” Edelstein said.
However, he admitted that the year was “not a piece of cake.”
Under his tenure, Edelstein increased daily coronavirus testing from 30,000 to 130,000, which played a key role in tracking and bringing down infection. He used coronavirus funding to add 2,000 nurses and 600 doctors to the strikingly starved health system – although it is still unclear whether these positions will continue to be funded. And he also put a spotlight on mental health, making an investment of NIS 150 million in post-coronavirus emotional and mental therapy.
But it was also under Edelstein that the country’s children sat out of school more days than in any other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country. Some 6,139 people died of COVID-19 from June 1 until today while he was health minister, in comparison to only 289 between the start of the pandemic and May 31, 2020.
Israel experienced two lockdowns, one of which was a two-part extended closure that kept people out of work but did little to bring down infection. Just last week, the Finance
Ministry reported that Israel was harder hit by COVID unemployment than the OECD average, and that the pandemic left more people in the country out of work than several previous crises, including the Second Intifada and the bursting of the dot.com bubble.
“I don’t think we were sharp enough or fast enough in introducing the second lockdown,” Edelstein admitted. “We started with only mild measures, and then the numbers continued growing. Then, when the climate was right in the coronavirus cabinet, the government and the Knesset, only then did we have a strict lockdown. Had we been more persistent, implemented a stricter lockdown, it would have caused less damage to public health.”
THE HIGHLIGHT of Edelstein’s tenure for him and the country was Israel’s stunning vaccine rollout, for which he takes a lot of credit. He glossed over Netanyahu’s 30 conversations with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, who provided the country with enough doses to inoculate all eligible Israelis, and stressed, “There were a number of components” involved in securing the country’s vaccines.
“First of all, the early bird gets the worm,” he said, “and Israel started checking the market and negotiating and getting in contact [with vaccine makers] through all kinds of channels as early as April of last year.”
Health Ministry professionals identified potential suppliers and analyzed which they believed Israel should sign contracts with. Three out of the four managed to produce a US Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccine.
“When I was presented with the information about the vaccines, I said two things: One, we are a small market and the moment any of these guys will have a vaccine, they will not even look in our direction. They will be interested in the EU, US, India – definitely not Israel with its buying potential of 15 to 16 million doses. The only chance we have is to buy a place in line.
“Second: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. As you can imagine, some nice people in the Finance Ministry, the moment we signed the first agreement, it was with Moderna, they said that is it, we don’t need anything else. I think it was for like three million doses, something that sounds funny today. We had a fight each time and, thank God, we prevailed.”
When it became clear that there would be a vaccine, Israel started pitching to its potential suppliers that Israel may be a small country, but it would be able to administer all of its vaccines in no time at all and to broad segments of the population, with proven data and proper records of everything because of the country’s health funds and electronic health records.
Pfizer was the first company to be convinced – “and the rest is history, as we say,” Edelstein said.
But he was nervous. He recalled the first meeting with the four chiefs of the health funds.
“We were pressuring them to tell us how many jabs they thought they could give per day,” he said. “They came up with 60,000, and we said it is not enough. Then they said that if they made an effort, got additional staff, maybe they could get to 80,000.”
Ultimately, as many as 230,000 people were inoculated in a single day.
Yet, Israel never agreed to vaccinate the Palestinians. For this, Edelstein blamed the Palestinians.
“Health ministers, foreign ministers, prime ministers, everyone who had met me in my previous capacity as Knesset speaker, would call me and former national security chief Meir Ben-Shabbat, Netanyahu, and try to fish for medicine, equipment or vaccines,” he said. “The Palestinians sat on their hands and bad-mouthed Israel for not buying vaccines, but my Palestinian counterpart never called, emailed or WhatsApped” and asked.
Ultimately, Israel did provide vaccines to inoculate Palestinian medical professionals and more than 100,000 Palestinians who work
“To present that Israel did not vaccinate the Palestinians because of racism or hatred of the Palestinians or punishment or whatever is absolute nonsense,” Edelstein contended. “We were acting like any other normal country. We were first and foremost responsible for our own citizens and their health.” WHILE EDELSTEIN’S marks were high in the N12 poll, throughout the crisis he and his colleagues were accused of politicizing the pandemic, but the former health minister said that was just media bias and not reality.
“It is very nice to write in a newspaper that because of the haredim the government decided to give up the traffic light model, for example. But this is absolute nonsense,” Edelstein contended. “The whole year I did not make one decision because of political preferences or to help myself politically or whatever. This never happened.”
He admitted, though, that there is a “political reality,” which meant that sometimes when Health Ministry regulations were brought before the Knesset, they “got out of the Knesset in pieces.
“My political influence and power were limited,” he said, “when the whole Knesset, coalition and opposition alike, would become like Robin Hood and were not ready to accept what the Health Ministry experts proposed.
“In that sense, there was a lot of politics involved,” he continued. “And that is why I am so happy that I was health minister during that period of time, after being Knesset speaker for many years and spending 25 years in politics. I think my political influence was the reason for my success, not because I am a professor of epidemiology and I am going to start lecturing at leading universities on the subject.”
EDELSTEIN DOES have some advice for his successor, Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), who took up his post Sunday. He listed priorities for the new health minister:
The first is to not be too quick to open the airports. While new Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov has said his top priority is getting more tourists into the country and fast, Edelstein cautioned that the Health Ministry should work closely with the Tourism and Interior ministries to ensure any new regulations do not put Israel at risk for variants that could bring back COVID-19.
He said Horowitz must ensure that the Health Ministry is not defunded in the aftermath of the pandemic while Israel focuses its state budget on security and schools. The Health Ministry has been starved for decades, Edelstein said, and if “this will be the approach that prevails, it would be a real disaster for the health system.”
Other issues, he said, should be training more doctors and nurses, and ensuring their working conditions are optimal.
“We’re talking about building a new hospital in Beersheba, about building one in Kiryat Ata. If they will just build a hospital without first and foremost [hiring more doctors and nurses], it will be moving doctors from one hospital to another; it will not improve anything in our health system,” Edelstein said.
He said the shifts of residents needed to be shortened – something on which everyone agrees but would cost plenty.
“We’re talking about a lot more positions for different hospitals, but still it has to be done,” he said.
Third, he said that gaps in care between the Center and periphery should be solved.
“The very fact that people are being sent from Safed to Haifa to get an MRI is not something that should happen,” Edelstein stressed. “That people living in Dimona or Ofakim have to wait 30 or 40 days for an orthopedist is not something that should happen.”
What will Edelstein do next?
“The plans are numerous,” he said. “One thing I can tell you is that I am not resigning and not taking my pension quite yet.”