Prime Minister Naftali Bennett rebuked Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton for her criticism of top Health Ministry officials and an escalating feud between the ministries over reopening schools, Channel 12 reported on Wednesday.
“Stop treating the Health Ministry and the professionals in this way,” Bennett was quoted as telling the Education Minister, after she had reportedly been arguing with health officials over the plan to reopen schools in September.
Shasha-Biton reportedly fired back to Bennett: “With all respect, I have my own opinion.”
His rebuke came a day after Channel 13 quoted a source accusing Health Ministry’s director of public health, Sharon Alroy-Preis, of acting “like she’s crazy. She’s always screaming and when she’s asked to provide figures, she stammers and is evasive. There is no data behind this hysteria.”
In an interview with Channel 12 on Wednesday, Shasha-Biton repeatedly declined to disavow or condemn those remarks. “You’ll have to ask whoever said that,” she told the network.
“We have disagreements about the approach, but I work with the decision-makers and not with the Health Ministry professionals,” she added.
She also denied she had been rebuked by Bennett or been in a heated discussion with him.
But she caused further controversy when asked why she was so opposed to vaccinating kids in school, she replied by saying that such a move is “a crime.”
“Anyone who can, go out and get vaccinated,” she said, but added: “But doing so at school is a crime in my opinion.”
Children currently receive a number of vaccines throughout the school years, with their parent’s permission. Shasha-Biton tried to explain why she won’t do the same with COVID-19 vaccines by saying kids may face bullying if their parents are anti-vaccination.
“We are talking about children who have been at home for a year and a half and are in emotional distress. It is a very sensitive subject,” she said.
“We would put the children in an impossible situation. With all our desire to overcome the virus, we know that the vaccine is effective and efficient… [but] we need to see how to do it correctly,” she said.
“A scary, and dangerous thing to say,” former director-general of the Health Ministry Moshe Bar Siman-Tov tweeted on Wednesday following the interview.
With the opening of the school year little more than a month away, the government has not yet finalized a plan for how to operate the education system while preventing a wave of infections from spreading through schools.
Although a plan was agreed on by the health and education ministries, then presented to Bennett, media reports have said there are still serious differences on some key aspects of the plan, including the vaccination of students and quarantine arrangements.
Israel recently began vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds, but the majority of school students have not been inoculated. Some ministers are said to be irked at Shasha-Biton’s opposition to vaccinating children in schools and, reportedly, even to allowing schools to encourage vaccination.
Shasha-Biton also faced anonymous attacks in the media following the dispute. Earlier on Wednesday, Channel 12 quoted an unnamed minister as calling branded Shasha-Biton as a “coronavirus denier,” after the apparent sharp disagreements in government meetings.
“Two million Israeli school children are being held captive by a coronavirus denier,” an unnamed minister was quoted as saying to Channel 12. “Refusing to vaccinate in schools? Has she gone mad?”
Amid the dispute, the prime minister came to the defense of health official Alroy-Preis, but not Shasha-Bitton’s.
“Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis is a devoted and professional public servant who works day and night for the health of Israeli citizens and the personal attack on her is inappropriate and unacceptable,” Bennett tweeted.
He added that “there is full backing for her actions,” citing Alroy-Preis’s role as a leading official in the government’s pandemic response.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, of the Meretz party, also tweeted his support of Alroy-Preis saying she has his full support and the backing of the ministry.
The education minister got some backing from her party leader, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, whose office put out a statement saying he “condemns the anonymous and cowardly attacks.”