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Israelis Suspect Country's Reopening Is Connected To Upcoming Election

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Israel appears to be coming back to life after the lockdowns of the pandemic. This week, it reopened restaurants, bars and most of its economy to those who are vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus. But many Israelis think this reopening is temporary and connected to upcoming elections this month. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The Lima Lima dance bar is open again. You need proof of vaccination to hit the dance floor.

KEREN OR: I'm, like, in the sky right now. I waiting for this a long time.

ESTRIN: No masks.

SHANI TARABLUS: All of a sudden, you feel freedom.

ESTRIN: There's even kissing.

YUVAL GODIS: ...Kissed him - and I kissed him.

ESTRIN: Keren Or, Shani Tarablus, and Yuval Godis are all in their 20s. But everyone here seems to think this freedom won't last long.

AMIT: Probably will be another lockdown.

ESTRIN: So why do you think things are open now?

AMIT: Elections.

ESTRIN: Amit withholds his last name to talk politics.

AMIT: Bibi has to get elected again, so he opens everything.

ESTRIN: Bibi is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He's campaigning on Israel's fast vaccination drive and the economy reopening. Health officials say the vaccination numbers and the need for economic relief justify the risk, but they say it is still a risk. Ran Balicer heads the scientific board advising the government on COVID-19.

RAN BALICER: There's a lot of hope mixed with some worries. We are not out of the woods yet, and we shouldn't mistake our position right now as being safe. We are not.

ESTRIN: About 40% of the country is fully immunized or recovered from the virus. That leaves a majority of the country only partially vaccinated or not at all. Balicer worries businesses are flouting the rules and letting in people who aren't vaccinated. Another risk could be Israelis returning from overseas with COVID variants.

BALICER: This is a serious potential threat that I would have liked to seen better handled than it is right now.

ESTRIN: This week, the country lifted many travel restrictions to allow Israelis to come home and vote because the country doesn't allow overseas ballots. But the government has struggled to enforce quarantines on returning travelers.

Israel is still debating how to track them, like maybe using electronic bracelets or a smartphone app. At the airport, Noeet Bachar lands from New York. Her friend picks her up.

NOEET BACHAR: I hope I am tracked. I hope I am.

ESTRIN: While she isolates at home, the rest of the country will enjoy a whiff of freedom just two weeks before Prime Minister Netanyahu hopes to win their vote.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEE'S "LAGUNA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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