With many vaccinated, Israel reopens economy before election

FILE – In this March 8, 2021 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, speaks to journalists after meeting the Israeli citizen, who is the 5 millionth person to be vaccinated in Israel, at a ceremony in Tel Aviv. As Israel heads to the polls next week for the fourth time in two years, Netanyahu has sought to capitalize on his new partnership with the United Arab Emirates in his desperate campaign to stay in power. (Miriam Alster/Pool via AP)

JERUSALEM — Israel reopened most of its economy this month as it removed many of its remaining coronavirus lockdown restrictions, lifted by its successful vaccination campaign and giving a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election hopes.

The easing of restrictions comes after months of government-imposed shutdowns and less than three weeks before the country’s fourth parliamentary elections in two years. Israel, a world leader in vaccinations per capita, has fully immunized nearly 40% of its population in just over two months.

Bars and restaurants, event halls, sporting events, hotels and all primary and secondary schools that had been closed to the public for months were permitted to reopen. Some restrictions remained on crowd sizes, and certain places were open to the vaccinated only.

“We’re very happy that this day came. We’ve been preparing for this day for a very long time,” said Assaf Obsfeld, a Jerusalem coffee shop owner who was checking customers to ensure they had been vaccinated.

“It’s a stressful situation because we really don’t know how to handle everybody,” he said.

Netanyahu is campaigning for re-election as Israel’s coronavirus vaccine champion at the same time that he is on trial for corruption.

Over 52% of its population of 9.3 million has received one dose and almost 40% two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, one of the highest rates per capita in the world.

Nearly 90% of the country’s over-50 population has either been vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus. With that high-risk population largely innoculated, decision makers have concluded it is safe enough to reopen more parts of the economy.

Netanyahu appears to be banking that some semblance of normalcy will lift his re-election prospects. Opinion polls show him locked in a race against a field of challenges that is too close to call.

While vaccination rates continue to steadily rise and the number of serious cases of COVID-19 drops, Israel’s unemployment rate remains high. As of January, 18.4% of the workforce was out of work because of the pandemic, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.