Netanyahu coalition ally wants military to front anti-COVID campaign

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The military should take over responsibility for keeping Israel’s spreading coronavirus epidemic in check, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main coalition partner said on Tuesday, in comments likely to fuel tensions within the government.

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Israel lifted a partial lockdown in May, but a second surge of infections has seen cases rise above 50,000 and deaths above 400, while Netanyahu’s approval ratings have plunged to under 30% and employment soared to 21%.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, of the centrist Blue and White party, said he expected a decision “this week” to hand the running of anti-coronavirus containment measures from the health ministry to the armed forces’ Homefront Command.

“This virus will not leave us for an entire year. Therefore there needs to be a change in management,” Ashkenazi told Ynet TV. “Put ego aside ... I am saying this to Bibi (Netanyahu) ... I am saying we need to shift responsibility to the defence establishment.”

Netanyahu’s office had no immediate comment, but he may be reluctant to empower Defence Minister Benny Gantz - who is also the Blue and White leader - when they are already at odds over proposed Israeli annexations in the occupied West Bank and budgets.

Formed primarily to protect citizens from missile attacks, the Homefront Command is also trained to help during natural disasters and well equipped to communicate quickly with Israel’s ethnically diverse sectors.

Its troops have already helped out during the epidemic with evacuations and food distributions. A Blue and White source said Gantz and Ashkenazi want that role expanded to include testing and contact-tracing.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kish warned against drawing the conscript military into controversy among Israel’s 9 million population akin to what met the use of counter-terrorism technologies to track coronavirus carriers.

“You understand what it would mean if soldiers were to begin questioning people, with: ‘What have you been doing, who have you been meeting with?’” Kish, of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, told Army Radio.

“This is a super-sensitive matter, a health issue ... There’s no ego element here,” he said, calling current cooperation between the health ministry and the military “excellent”.

Writing by Dan Williams; editing by John Stonestreet