Gov’t announces fresh NIS 10.5 billion virus aid package, pay cuts for lawmakers

The cabinet approved an NIS 10.5 billion ($3 billion) aid package late Monday to try and assist those affected by Israel’s second national lockdown, including pay cuts for lawmakers and senior government officials.

“Expanding the program will enable immediate economic assistance to businesses and the self employed who are likely to be harmed by the current lockdown, said a joint statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office and the Finance Ministry.

The package comes as the government has faced a major pushback from many small businesses, including leading restaurateurs, who have threatened to rebel against the lockdown and open their doors to customers, saying they won’t survive the economic hurt of a new extended closure, and have little faith in government promises of eventual compensation.

“We have announced new grants to retain workers, expanded state guaranteed loans, brought forward paying grants and giving grants for permanent expenses, including for business that have suffered more than 25% losses — and expanded eligibility,” Netanyahu said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to then-Foreign Minister Israel, now Finance Minister, Israel Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, October 27, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP)

The cabinet also unanimously approved a temporary 10% pay cut for Netanyahu, ministers, lawmakers and any civil servant earning 10% more than Knesset members (NIS 45,201 or $13,000.)

“We all have to bear the burden, we, as ministers, have to stand together behind the steps we take and facing a reality that will be harsh,” Netanyahu said.

His comments come after Netanyahu faced an uproar in June after his Likud lawmakers passed a law to give him a retroactive tax-break worth up to NIS 1 million amid an economic meltdown due to the coronavirus.

Finace Minister Israel Katz also vowed that the government would continue to “be ware of the difficulties and present solutions that will provide answers for business and workers harmed by the crisis.”

Several Likud ministers — Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, and Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis — suggested the salaries of top justice officials should also be cut, according to a Channel 12 report.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz reportedly responded that the government should “not mob judges.”

After presenting the latest coronavirus figures, Netanyahu reportedly abruptly left the cabinet meeting, telling ministers it was for “a call of national importance.” A similar scene occurred in August, shortly before the announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates. It was later revealed he had held a phone call with de facto UAE leader Mohammed Bin Zayed.

Israel on Friday entered the country’s second national coronavirus lockdown, marking the first time in the world an advanced country has imposed a repeat closure to curb the pandemic.

The three-week shutdown, requiring the closure of many businesses and setting strict limits on movement and public gatherings, started just hours before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and will extend through other key religious holidays, including Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

Traffic jams in Tel Aviv as police put up temporary checkpoints during a nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus, September 21, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Under the new lockdown, nearly all businesses open to the public will be closed. People must remain within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of home, but there are numerous exceptions, including shopping for food or medicine, going to work, attending protests and even seeking essential pet care. The public is also allowed to attend funerals or circumcision ceremonies, to exercise and more — all under strict limitations.

Although economic activity usually slows during the Jewish high holidays, many in Israel fear the financial fallout of the second lockdown.

Netanyahu’s government had tried various measures in recent months to avoid a full shutdown, such as weekend closures, but has repeatedly backtracked in the face of opposition.

Earlier this month, the coalition attempted to impose localized lockdowns in places with high infection rates, only to downgrade the measure to curfews and school closures after facing major pushback.

Netanyahu has faced weeks of public protests against his leadership and handling of the virus crisis.

The Health Ministry on Monday recorded 36 more coronavirus deaths in 24 hours, bringing the toll since the start of the pandemic to 1,273.

The ministry tally saw 2,641 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed since Sunday night and 24,487 tests conducted on Sunday. The figure was lower than recent days, and may have been the result of fewer tests run over the holiday weekend. Last week saw over 50,000 tests on most days.

Shaare Zedek Medical team member wearing protective gear takes a swab from a woman to test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), outside the coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on September 14, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Hospitals in Jerusalem and Ashdod announced earlier on Monday that they could no longer take in additional coronavirus patients, due to overload.

The announcements by Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center and Ashdod’s Assuta Medical Center came as Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy ordered all hospitals to suspend elective surgeries and dedicate all of their resources to the pandemic response.

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