We're almost done with COVID curbs, Netanyahu says as Israel reopens restaurants

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eats a piece of cake as he sits with Jerusalem Mayor, Moshe Leon, at a cafe while Israel further eases coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in Jerusalem March 7, 2021 REUTERS/ Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has almost emerged from its COVID-19 closures, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on the campaign trail, said on Sunday as restaurants reopened under an exit plan fuelled by fast-paced vaccinations.

But health officials cautioned that rising contagions could trigger another lockdown - a possible dampener on Netanyahu's hope of parlaying his pandemic policies to victory in a March 23 ballot.

"Restaurants are coming back to life," Netanyahu said after he and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion clinked mugs and tucked into pastries outside at a park cafe.

"We still have to watch ourselves, we have to wear masks, keep distances that people require, social distances - but we're coming out of it, and there's not much more," he told Reuters.

As 53% of Israelis having received at least one dose of the Pfizer Inc vaccine, according to Health Ministry data, the government has been gradually reopening businesses, schools and the country's main airport with caps on capacity.

Some leisure venues have limited access to customers who can prove COVID immunity with a so-called "Green Pass" issued by the Health Ministry, in what officials hope will win over Israelis still reluctant to get vaccinated.

Nachman Ash, the national pandemic response coordinator, voiced concern the public might not observe the remaining curbs.

"We are worried by the rise in morbidity in recent days, and the possibility of reverse measures certainly exists," Ash told 103 FM radio. Asked if that may include a lockdown, he said: "We may have to decide to do this before the election, certainly."

Israel emerged from its third lockdown last month. The Netanyahu government has pledged there will not be a fourth.

Polls see Netanyahu's conservative Likud party taking the most votes in the election. But his biggest challenger, Yair Lapid of centrist Yesh Atid, could muster more like-minded allies and be tasked with forming the next coalition government.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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