The coronavirus cabinet on Sunday decided to allow up to 2,000 people into Israel every day under Health Ministry restrictions, and tasked the Defense Ministry with preparing hotels to accommodate the arrivals for their quarantine period. No substantial decision on when to reopen businesses was taken, however.
Israel is emerging from its third lockdown, which began late December and lasted for some six weeks. The current restrictions include a moratorium on scheduled flights in and out of Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel's primary port of entry, as well as limitations on businesses, schools and hospitality.
While coronavirus infection rates are falling among the age ranges that have been vaccinated against COVID-19, they still remain high among younger people, causing some concern.
Netanyahu started Sunday's cabinet meeting by saying any decisions on reopening should be made without political interests being taken into account.
"You see what happened the last time we listened to those who called for a swift opening, there must be no political considerations," he said.
The prime minister told the cabinet that any major lifting of restrictions can only take place when at least five million people have been vaccinated in Israel.
Ministers, however, continued to be at loggerheads Sunday over the pace of further easing of lockdown restrictions.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz's Blue & White party was pushing for the first phase to be implemented this week, accusing Netanyahu of delaying the easing of restrictions to push the rollout closer to the March 23 elections.
Gantz said that he would not accept anymore delays in reopening and dismissed Netanyahu's claims that calling for swift lockdown exit puts lives at risk.
"I will not forgive you for saying that I am endangering human lives only because I did not agree with you," Gantz said, referring to a recent stormy exchange between the two that was leaked to the media.
"I have fought for the citizens of Israel all my life," the former IDF chief said.
This prompted Netanyahu to declare that he would not entertain "irrelevant" remarks and reiterate his previous position on a staggered exit from lockdown.
"We are seeing the beginning of a decline in infections and that is a good sign," he said.
"However, we must be careful and open up the economy gradually. We must not push for a quick and irresponsible reopening, which would endanger the lives of many Israelis. We need a responsible plan."
He ended the discussion early, however, telling ministers he had to attend a meeting with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, who was visiting Jerusalem.
In a later press conference with his guest, Netanyahu said Israel would be the first country in the world to be rid of the pandemic.
"I am receiving calls from leaders around the world telling me that that is so," the prime minister told reporters in Jerusalem.
The government last week began discussions on approval of the "Green Pass" outline that's supposed to see culture and trade industries reopen for Israelis who had been inoculated with both vaccine shots.
Coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash, mastermind of the pass outline, told ministers on Sunday that he recommended passing legislation that would make vaccines obligatory for those who work in sectors with a high risk exposure to the virus, including teachers and medical workers.
According to the Health Ministry outline, the first stage of reopening is set for Feb. 23 and will see grades 5-6 and 11-12 return to schools and street shops resume operations. The cabinet has not approved the plan and schools are currently set to reopen according to levels of infection in each community.
This stage also includes the reopening of malls, shopping centers, gyms, cultural and sports venues - including limited live shows - museums, galleries, libraries and hotels with no dining areas.
The final stage, which is set to begin on Mar. 9, will see grades 7-10 return to schools in all low- to mid-level infection municipalities. Cafes and small restaurants will also reopen to all public, including those not vaccinated.
Entry to restaurants (with a prior reservation), hotels with dining areas, event halls, attractions and conferences will still only be permitted to those holding a green passport.
First published: 20:15, 02.14.21