Will Netanyahu renege on his promise to re-open Israel’s skies?

Israel’s skies are not really opening on May 23 because the restrictions are so prohibitive that only a select few would actually be able to visit and unvaccinated returning Israelis might find themselves once again in coronavirus hotels.A combination of vaccine diplomacy and fear of variants might keep the idea of open skies a far-off dream.Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen agreed last week on a framework for allowing vaccinated groups of foreign tourists into Israel. However, the only way for the tourism industry to return in any significant capacity is for Israel to extend recognition of vaccination certificates from other countries.But Israel’s need to make nice with the United States and its newest friend, the United Arab Emirates, could lead it to delay such recognitions.On Tuesday, UK Cabinet Minister Michael Gove visited Israel to learn about the country’s green passport system and to take a tour of the testing facilities at the airport with the goal of creating a flight corridor between Israel and the UK – similar to the one that exists between Israel and Greece.Israel is also in the final stages of negotiations with Italy and Spain, The Jerusalem Post has learned.Yet during his talk on Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alluded that Israel’s entry points may not be so easy to penetrate as it might have seemed.

“There could always be a surprise by a new variant, the Indian or some other,” Netanyahu said. “One of the ways to prevent these surprises is to tighten our outer envelope.“We have discussed this at length, the various possibilities… We are also discussing them vis-a-vis our foreign relations and with several countries. My approach and that of the health system is that it is necessary to tighten because we are in a reality that is still completely unclear.”Israel has a stricter policy on tourists entering the country than almost any other country in the world that is permitting visitors. While other countries, like Iceland or Estonia, are similarly opening only to people who vaccinated, Israel is requiring a serological test at arrival for all visitors.A serological test proves that you have antibodies against the virus.It is just a month until Israel claims to want foreign travelers to return, but rapid serological testing has not been initiated at Ben-Gurion Airport – although an official connected with the Tourism Ministry told the Post that such a test should be available within the week.And even with rapid testing, Israel will have to drastically contain the number of visitors who can enter per day due to the capacity to manage the load at the airport. If at its peak, Israel had 30,000 incoming passengers, Israel can likely only manage about a fifth or so of that number with testing, social distancing and hygiene rules.Stricter: Israel is looking for an independent way to confirm foreign vaccination certificates, many of which are not electronic. Such a process will be extremely complicated in general, and even more so when Israel will not recognize all the world’s vaccines as viable.According to sources in the Tourism and Health ministries, the Health Ministry is considering not recognizing as effective only those vaccines that were verified either by the US Food and Drug Administration or the European Medicines Agency.In other words, those who got the jab with Russia’s Sputnik V or the Chinese SinoVac vaccine, for example, could be on the do-not-recognize list for now.Who might that disqualify from traveling easily to Israel – meaning to Israel without a required serological test?Residents of Dubai would be OK because they got vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. But in the United Arab Emirates capital, Abu Dhabi, most people were jabbed with the SinoVac.
IMAGINE A SITUATION where some of Israel’s newest friends are unable to enter Israel because health officials do not think their vaccination is good enough.Shortly after Israel made peace with the UAE, Netanyahu encouraged Israelis to travel to Dubai and celebrate the agreement, despite the high level of infection there and the professional recommendation that the country should be labeled as “red,” requiring isolation upon return. Instead, Israelis traveled unbridled for months, until it was revealed that a third of the coronavirus cases from abroad coming into Israel were from Dubai.Leaving the gates open to Dubai allowed entry into the country of the South African and British mutations that ultimately led to Israel’s third lockdown.Some said that Netanyahu pushed to keep the corridor open and free to make the sheikh happy.At the same time, the United States uses a paper vaccination certificate that is simply signed by either a doctor or nurse, making it easy to forge.Netanyahu is unlikely to want to take the risk of undoing Israel’s vaccination campaign. But he is equally unlikely to sign agreements with other key allies that have more verifiable certifications in order not to anger recently elected US President Joe Biden.In March 2020, when the pandemic started, Netanyahu waited five days to shut Israel’s borders to American travelers, resulting in more than 70% of the coronavirus infections during the first wave.Would he choose differently this time?What’s more: A Health Ministry official said that the government is considering reopening state-run coronavirus hotels for non-vaccinated Israelis, at least those returning from countries with especially high coronavirus infection rates.This could include countries like Mexico and India, the latter of which is seeing more than 250,000 new cases per day.A source in the ministry said that a final decision has not been made.So, while Israelis took off their masks and flung them to the open skies with joy on Sunday, Netanyahu’s words likely foreshadow there are more hurdles still to overcome.

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