Analysis

Backlash Against Trump's Coronavirus Response May Pose an Opportunity for Netanyahu

Trump could greenlight unprecedented steps vis-à-vis Israel to pander to his evangelical base. Is Netanyahu in the mindset to make unilateral moves?

Amos Harel
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President Donald Trump points to a reporter to ask a question as he speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, April 16, 2020.
President Donald Trump points to a reporter to ask a question as he speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, April 16, 2020.Credit: Alex Brandon,AP
Amos Harel

A month and a half have passed since the Knesset election, and one can no longer be expected to buy the claims about the urgent need to create a unity government in order to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Leaks from the Likud-Kahol Lavan negotiations suggest that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is occupied mainly with setting up mechanisms that will guarantee his continued residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, despite the judicial proceedings against him (which have been postponed until at least next month, thanks to the coronavirus miracle that was vouchsafed him).

The premier’s nocturnal speeches to the nation highlight the clear connection between his pessimistic forecasts about the dangers posed by the virus and the situation of the coalition talks on a given day. On Monday, for example, Netanyahu chose, for some reason, to play up an unverified report about 91 South Koreans who supposedly had fallen ill a second time from the virus after recovering from it. The scare tactics, such as the comparisons to horrific medieval plagues, are accompanied by praise of his own performance, based on misleading opinions whose source and motives are dubious.

Another matter is also likely to play a part in the prime minister’s considerations. Together with his campaign of political survival, Netanyahu has been ideologically committed in his terms of office to two major issues: halting the Iranian nuclear project, and preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state, by means of an attempt to annex parts of the West Bank and place them under Israeli sovereignty. In both cases, the political timetable in Israel this summer will coincide with political developments in the United States, where Trump will be seeking a second term this November.

The harsh criticism leveled at the U.S. president for his handling of the coronavirus crisis might leave him trailing behind the Democrats in the pre-election polls. In those circumstances, Trump might give a green light to extraordinary actions by Israel, in the hope of arousing his evangelical base, which ardently supports Netanyahu and the country he governs.

Already now, there are other leaders and governments that are crossing red lines under the cover of the singular crisis created by the coronavirus. Is Netanyahu in the right frame of mind for taking serious unilateral actions in the security realm, despite the immense efforts and huge investments necessitated by the battle against the virus? It’s hard to gainsay this outright.

Paradoxically, his two possible partners in a future government, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, were the two IDF chiefs of staff who, in succession, prevented Netanyahu from attacking Iran a decade ago. But in political life, the Kahol Lavan leaders look like pale shadows of the independent and outspoken leaders they were when they discussed such issues while wearing a uniform.

Netanahu gives a coronavirus briefing, March 17, 2020.
Netanahu gives a coronavirus briefing, March 17, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Corona counterreactions

The almost uniform chorus of ministers and expert and nonexpert commentators that is mediating the authorities’ messages to the public every evening on television, is also generating counterreactions. Professors, retired generals and businesspeople want to show incontrovertibly, in graphic detail, that the threat from the coronavirus is being inflated and that the state should recalculate its plans. Each of them has his favorite model of the dissemination of the virus, but underlying them are similar basic arguments: The threat is already in the containment stage, the proportion of asymptomatic carriers of the virus is far above the estimates – and, hence, the mortality rate is lower than it appears (so there is no need for such drastic restrictions on the public).

The latest article from the critical wing that’s making the rounds appeared on the website Medium, and presents a model of the virus’ spread based on a relatively large population sample from Iceland. The writer, a scientist named Ali S. Razavian, deduces, from identifying a large proportion of carriers who tested positive in Iceland without displaying symptoms, that the virus has already infected most of the world’s population and can be expected to complete its journey of destruction while causing relatively limited mortality (about four-hundredths of a percent) by the start of this summer and will then disappear by itself.

That’s an appealing thought: over and done with. But the loss will be brutal: Razavian offers an interim prediction of several some 600,000 deaths around the world from the virus before the summer – but at least the crisis will end relatively rapidly and we can get back to routine and start to rehabilitate the economy. In the light of the blood, sweat and tears being promised by the experts from Harvard, along with Gottlieb and Balicer, it’s easy to understand why many are clinging to this and similar projections.

One of the leading advocates of this school of thought in Israel is former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who predictably also unleashes lethal criticism of Netanyahu’s performance. But somehow, these ideas recall the same controversy over the bombing of the Iranian nuclear facilities. At the time, Netanyahu and Barak were on the same side of the debate. Barak, as defense minister in the Netanyahu government, was one of the main people pushing for Israel to initiate an attack.

When senior IDF officers warned against the price that move would exact on the Israeli civilian front, anticipating an Iranian response that would include thousands of missiles fired by Hezbollah, Barak said in an interview to IDF Radio that the civilian casualties would amount to “no more than 500 killed.” As usual, the satirical television program “A Wonderful Country” vividly noted the absurdity of such forecasts. The show’s host, Eyal Kitzes, asked the Barak character whether he was serious about floating those numbers. “You don’t understand, Eyal,” Barak, played by Tal Friedman, replied. “You will also be able to choose who the 500 who die will be.”

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