Prof. Gabriel Barbash refused role after ultimatum not met

Ronni Gamzu, Israel’s next “coronavirus czar” (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / SHIRLEY SHANI)
Ronni Gamzu, Israel’s next “coronavirus czar” (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / SHIRLEY SHANI)


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein appointed Sourasky Medical Center CEO Ronni Gamzu Israel’s “coronavirus czar” after midnight Wednesday night.

Netanyahu praised Gamzu, a former Health Ministry director-general, for developing a strategic plan for protecting Israel’s senior living facilities from the virus. Gamzu’s Magen Avot Ve’imahot program is still being used today.

The move came after Prof. Gabriel Barbash, who Gamzu had praised as the right person for the role hours before, rejected Netanyahu’s offer following a battle over the mandate of the new post in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

“The appointment of Prof. Gabi Barbash as the coronavirus project manager is excellent,” Gamzu said in a Facebook post. “This is the right man in the right place! This is the best decision the government has made since the start of the crisis.”

Gamzu described Barbash as “determined,” “detail-oriented” and a person who does not take no for an answer. He said he knows how to give respect, but also how to get angry.

Barbash had demanded that both Netanyahu and Edelstein come to an agreement about his mandate by late Wednesday, or he would refuse the position.

Senior insider sources said that the hold up in formalizing Barbash’s contract was infighting between Netanyahu and Edelstein, as well as negotiations over certain aspects of his role. It was unclear whether Barbash would report to Edelstein or the coronavirus cabinet, meaning the prime minister.

In an interview with Israeli media on Wednesday, Edelstein joked that the public was waiting “for a messiah and not a project manager.”

It was also being determined what specific authoritative powers Barbash would have and how he would work with newly appointed Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy, who has already said in interviews with Israeli media that he is looking forward to collaborating with Barbash.

Netanyahu had not even officially named the former CEO of Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center and former director-general of the Health Ministry, before experts and politicians began to evaluate the choice, asking whether Barbash the right man for the job.

The role of the czar, or project manager, is to oversee an emergency coronavirus authority that would be given the necessary tools to take responsibility for the pandemic and remove the oversight and implementation of testing and contact tracing from the public health services. This person is also meant to be responsible for the management of real-time data, logistics and procurement, as well as orchestrating coordination between the health funds, hospitals, police, Home Front Command, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and anyone else that plays a role in fighting the pandemic.

“The prime minister needs somebody who will be able to share with him how to handle the coronavirus,” said Hadassah Medical Center chief Zeev Rotstein.
Rotstein said that Barbash has “extreme academic achievements” and left Sourasky a “modern and sophisticated” hospital.

Even MK Naftali Bennett, who himself wanted the role of coronavirus czar, praised the prime minister’s choice: “Gabi Barbash’s appointment is excellent. He is just the right person.”

Barbash is a graduate of Hadassah Medical School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1969-1975). He did his residency in internal medicine at Sourasky and passed his board examinations summa cum laude in 1984.

He holds a master’s degree in public health from Harvard’s School of Public Health.

As director-general of the Health Ministry (1996-1999), he orchestrated all four health funds to cooperate in controlling the re-emergence of tuberculosis in Israel, after a surge of new cases broke out in the country with the arrival of a large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.
He then served as CEO of Sourasky until 2015.

Barbash has published more than 80 original peer reviewed papers in his field.

“Professor Barbash is one of Israel’s premier physicians,” Prof. Dan Ben-David, president and founder of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research said.

But he said that this new position will require dealing with tremendous bureaucratic black holes and bringing a different operational culture to the otherwise extremely inefficient, unorganized and often unprofessional system.

Since Edelstein announced his intention to create such a role, several people were considered for the job and many of them declined because they understood that they might not be given the authority needed for success.

“By the Health Ministry not moving the management to an authority that can handle the crisis, it is putting our health at risk,” Prof. Eli Waxman, who was the prime minister’s No. 1 consultant on the coronavirus crisis during the first wave, told The Jerusalem Post.

“The most important thing is that the manager will have all the responsibility and authority he needs to manage the pandemic,” he said. “I am very worried about the fact that you had very good candidates who had all the required qualifications and they were not interested because the government refused to transfer to them the required responsibility.

“Barbash has not even been formally appointed yet and I think we are dealing with this same issue again,” he said.

Waxman was among the most outspoken voices for appointing an army general or commander to head the authority. He said that he believes the main challenges facing the country now are not medical – “medical should remain with the Health Ministry” – but operational.

“A medical doctor is not crucial for the job,” Waxman said. “But it is an advantage.”

Barbash, however, does have a military background. He served as flight surgeon, deputy surgeon general and physician of the Combined Air-Ground Operations Command in the Israeli Air Force from 1976 to 1984.

And since the start of the pandemic, Waxman said that Barbash has “made some of the right comments.”

“I identify with the things that I have heard him say on the coronavirus,” said Ben-David.

In his near-nightly coronavirus commentaries on N12 and during interviews with the Post, Barbash has been among the harshest critics of the government’s handling of the pandemic.

On April 6, he called out the Health Ministry for “not planning enough” in an interview with the paper. At the time, Israel’s screening capabilities were limited because the country was lacking swabs and then reagents – supplies that would have been available at the beginning of the outbreak.

“This has damaged our capability to understand the situation and have a clear picture of what we are fighting, where we are fighting it and to what extent the enemy is there,” he told the Post.

He condemned the Health Ministry again later in the month when it chose to hand over molecular testing from Magen David Adom to the health funds, just as the country was reopening.

“I would not dare do something like that, to transfer the torch exactly when we are taking such a big step in the community and we need to continually follow up,” Barbash said. “This, in my mind, endangers the whole process.”

But perhaps his most prophetic statement came the weekend before Israel prepared to open its schools under the Health Ministry’s new directives – guidelines that the schools themselves said they would not be able to follow. Barbash said on N12 that night that he did not think the schools were ready to take in children.

“If it were my kid, I would not send him to school,” he said.

Waxman said that if Israel uses the right tools, the country will be able to live with the pandemic “almost normally for a long time.”

“It is up to us to build the tools, and the government needs to make the decision to do that,” he said.

“Can Barbash lead these efforts?” Rotstein asked, responding: “I believe he can.”

As reported by The Jerusalem Post