Benjamin Netanyahu’s smile at the end of the briefing said it all. He had just announced that Israel was about to enter a three-week nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, the first and so far only country to do so anywhere in the world for the second time, but he was happy. “I’ve got to fly to Washington now,” he joked to the shocked reporters in the room. “If you haven’t got any more questions you want to ask me.” And with that, he left for his plane at Ben-Gurion Airport.
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Netanyahu had prefaced and ended his briefing with his imminent trip − the first time he’s leaving the country in nearly eight months. “I’m about to leave, on your behalf,” he began the briefing. “I’m going on a historic mission.” Two Arab countries establishing diplomatic relations with Israel is no doubt a historic event. Whether going to a signing ceremony of a document that isn’t the actual agreements with either the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain (those have yet to be finalized), and to which the two other signatories are sending only their foreign ministers, is a “historic mission” is debatable. To do so when citizens are frantically stockpiling and preparing themselves for at least three weeks of lockdown over the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and business owners are wondering whether they will still have a business when this is over, is a shocking detachment from the reality Israelis are experiencing.
It was a briefing devoid of reality. Netanyahu – who less than four months ago had triumphantly announced to Israelis that under his leadership the country had beaten the coronavirus and now they could go out and “have a cup of coffee, have a beer as well. Have fun” – now insisted that it had all been for the best. The hasty emergence from the first lockdown had apparently saved Israel’s economy from shrinking as much as that of other countries, he claimed, quickly pointing to a chart to prove this. This is true if you ignore the fact that only countries whose GDP had shrunk more than Israel’s minus 7 percent had been selected, and that the timeframe was misleading as it didn’t include the last couple of months in which daily infection rates in Israel sky-rocketed to number one in the world. Netanyahu didn’t mention that, of course.
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He also tried to brush off the fact that this is the first time a country has imposed a second nationwide lockdown anywhere, by pointing out that other “areas” are also reentering lockdown, “in Australia, in Victoria, which is nearly as large as Israel.” He also claimed that the COVID-19 death toll has so far been low in Israel – if 1,100 deaths can be counted as low – thanks to his decision early on in the pandemic to close the country’s borders. This elided the real reason medical experts believe Israel’s death toll hasn’t been higher, which has nothing to do with Netanyahu’s real or imagined actions but is instead due to the population’s low median age – thanks to which the overwhelming majority of those infected are not at risk.
He promised that once Israel emerges from this lockdown, there will be an effective contact-tracing system in place. But since the Israel Defense Forces, which is now in charge of making that happen, says it won’t be ready before November at the earliest – and that is only if it gets significant help from the private sector – that means the lockdown isn’t for the next three weeks but for at least seven.
Netanyahu is relying upon the headlines from his “historic” ceremony alongside Donald Trump and the two foreign minsters whose name no one remembers to overshadow his historic mishandling of the pandemic. Either way, he’s taking no other ministers with him, not even Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi as protocol dictates. The glory, and shame, is his alone.