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New Coronavirus Cases Surge In Israel As Employment Crisis Worsens

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For months now, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been saying he was going to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, and he was going to do it on July 1. That date has come and gone. The status quo is unchanged. So why? We've got NPR's Daniel Estrin with us from Jerusalem. Good morning, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning to you.

MARTIN: Why hasn't the prime minister followed through with this promise?

ESTRIN: Well, he says he hasn't ruled it out yet and that he'll continue talking with the U.S. about annexation. But there are so many hurdles now that with every passing day, annexation seems more and more unlikely. First of all, the White House has not given Israel a full green light yet. Reportedly, the U.S. wants Israel to offer something to the Palestinians in return for annexing parts of the West Bank, like handing over other parts of the West Bank to the Palestinians. And Netanyahu's base is not at all onboard with that. And Netanyahu knows that his window of opportunity is limited. Joe Biden could become president, and Joe Biden opposes annexation.

Then you have European countries who are opposed. Even Netanyahu's close ally, Boris Johnson of the U.K., published an op-ed in an Israeli paper and said annexation would be against international law. And Netanyahu's own government is divided on annexation, and his own defense minister said anything that's not related to the coronavirus needs to wait.

MARTIN: That's interesting. I mean, I imagine the coronavirus has taken up a lot of lawmakers' time in Israel. Israel was one of the few countries that had early success - right? - mitigating the spread. Just give us an update. What's happening right now?

ESTRIN: It did have early success, but now it's like what you see in some states in the U.S. Infections are spiking. The numbers in Israel now are higher than during the peak of the pandemic this spring when Israel was on lockdown. And Netanyahu is facing criticism. At first, he was praised for his treatment of the coronavirus; now criticism that he didn't do anything to stop this recent spike and instead focusing on things like annexation and even seeking tax breaks for himself. Now Israel has reimposed some restrictions. But the Israeli public has lost a lot of confidence in Israel's handling of the pandemic.

And I'll give you one example. Israel is, once again, tracking cellphones to try to stop the spread of the virus. And so in the last few days, tens of thousands of people have gotten text messages saying you have crossed paths with a virus carrier. You are ordered to quarantine at home for two weeks. And now Israelis are claiming that they got that text message in error, and a lot of people are saying, you know, I was sleeping at the time. They're complaining. So a lot of people are losing faith that even this tracking system is working. Their biggest concern is the very high unemployment rate here.

MARTIN: Yeah. I'm curious, though. In the occupied territories, I mean, how have Palestinians dealt with the virus?

ESTRIN: Officials there are dealing with it very differently. They've imposed a five-day lockdown now because the virus is spreading there. They say weddings and funeral gatherings have been the big driving factor; infections also coming from Palestinian day laborers catching the disease in Israel. So right now, most businesses are closed, no more moving around. The Palestinians have a very different view of this. Their health system is weak. They can't afford a high number of cases. And, you know, so they went from worrying about Israeli annexation plans and wary about the fact that this annexation seems like it's already on the ground with so many Israeli settlements in the West Bank - now their focus is the very much the here and now. How am I going to make ends meet under these very strict lockdowns?

MARTIN: And just circling back to where we started, Netanyahu still says he intends to move on annexation. How do Palestinians - I mean, how is that playing out there?

ESTRIN: I think that many Palestinians will say we already see annexation on the ground. Settlements are - more than 100 settlements are in the West Bank. And they say they don't see any window of hope, any light at the end of the tunnel for this long-held hope for independence.

MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting from Jerusalem. Thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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