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Captain Netanyahu Sets the Passengers Against Each Other as Mother Ship Israel Sinks

As the coronavirus lockdown tightens, businesses are collapsing, the health care system is tottering, the right to demonstrate has been eroded, and Bibi has no cure

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Netanyahu just before Yom Kippur 2020
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Here are Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s debacles in the war on the coronavirus since the waning of the first wave: He didn’t lift a finger to get the hospitals ready for 1,800 to 2,000 critically ill patients, up from the current 800. He didn’t give the health system and military a good shaking and demand that they create a system for epidemiological investigations that would cut off the chains of infection.

He made decisions about red cities and differential lockdowns and changed his mind about  them all. He frittered away pandemic chief Ronni Gamzu’s traffic light plan until all the lights burned out. He hastily reopened the schools, nearly the only effort of its kind in the world. Grants were announced with great ceremony and were carried out with great failure. Only small portions of the funds reached their destination. Tens of thousands of businesses folded.

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The “German model” – for employment and unemployment compensation – in its Israeli version has only now been adopted, belatedly and very partially. Fiasco has followed debacle. In Menachem Begin’s stinging words after the Yom Kippur War: He didn’t bring the weapons forward, he didn’t call up the reservists.

The prime minister has become an analyst of demonstrations; his obsession about them is rising steeply. And let’s leave aside for a moment the tax breaks that he sought for himself, his demands for financing from witnesses in his corruption cases, the private plane, his and his son’s emotional rampages against Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, and the campaign to blacken the reputation of prosecutor Liat Ben Ari.

And let’s even leave aside all that (literal) dirty laundry that was flown to America again – and this time became an international scandal on the back of an article in The Washington Post. It’s the lady, of course, and with her husband’s limp consent. That’s how she likes her laundry, with the fragrance of overseas and the precise folding. And above all, there’s the joy of leeching on the goyim.

As the days went by and the racket from the nearby streets broke through the armored glass of the prime minister’s residence, the madness grew until it burst out. Last Saturday evening two of Netanyahu’s advisers, Topaz Luk – who violated quarantine and was fined 5,000 shekels ($1,440) – and Ofer Golan showed up at a marginal demonstration supposedly of coronavirus deniers.

According to witnesses, the two chatted some protesters up in front of a camera they had brought along, and no edited, falsified and nauseating treatment of this footage would have surprised anyone. That’s their style, that’s their art.

Was this their own initiative or did the boss (whether the prime minister or his son) send them there? Maybe we’ll never know, unless one of them finds himself in the shoes of his predecessors who turned state’s evidence. Soon we will hear them, Nir Hefetz, Ari Harow and Shlomo Filber, airing the dirty laundry in Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman’s courtroom.

Netanyahu's false equivalency between the protesters and people praying in synagogues is without doubt a propaganda victory. The cabinet member responsible for this undertook a typical maneuver this week. He chose a jurist from the Kohelet Policy Forum – whose motto talks about national sovereignty and individual liberty – and wanted to take him to a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet.

The goal: to argue that it’s permissible to prohibit demonstrations. The attorney general and the ministers from Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party thwarted the move, which of course came at Netanyahu’s bidding.

Benjamin Netanyahu at a coronavirus briefing, September 13, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu at a coronavirus briefing, September 13, 2020.Credit: Yoav Dudkevitch

In the rhetoric of the person who’s supposed to lead us during this grave crisis, there isn’t an iota of understanding or rising to the occasion. Only polarization and venom. Netanyahu is the main fanner of the flames in the war between the camps: secular versus ultra-Orthodox, protesters versus worshippers. Like a pyromaniac who pours kerosene on sizzling coals, he revels in the burning and destruction. This is his element, and to this he always returns.

In a democracy, it’s no small matter to demand that the citizens relinquish a basic right like the freedom to demonstrate. In times like these, leadership must be honest and free of ulterior motives.

In a crisis like Israel's, Benjamin Netanyahu is the wrong leader. He’s the captain willing to set the various classes of passengers against each other. Meanwhile, the ship is sinking to the bottom of the sea as he slinks off to the only lifeboat.

Quiet has no price

Here’s a wild wager: If the protests were being held outside the home of Mendelblit or Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, Netanyahu would surely be displaying more liberal-mindedness. He might even  rediscover the ideological roots of Menachem Begin’s Herut movement, from which he disassociated himself long ago, and fervently preach about freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate. Yes, even during a pandemic.

On Thursday, just a few days before Yom Kippur and the mass prayers, Netanyahu woke up to the horrifying number of more than 7,000 new coronavirus two days in a row. He decided to do something: Shut down. Everything. Now.

If he weren’t a person accused of grave corruption who’s excoriating the legal system, if he weren’t a leader who divides, incites and sets one community against another, no one would doubt his motives. Most Israelis would be bowing their heads, even if the medical and economic experts questioned the extreme decree. In the end, officials do the recommending, cabinet members do the justifying and the chief does the deciding.

But this isn’t the situation. His motives are ulterior, and they’re so transparent that it’s embarrassing and disturbing. For many long hours Wednesday and Thursday the coronavirus cabinet debated the degree and necessity of the restrictions. And the whole time the question of the protests hovered in the air.

As the discussion dragged on, the participants realized the extent to which the “barely a quarter of a Knesset seat” and the “creatures from outer space” – the protesters – were disturbing Netanyahu’s sleep.

Protesters outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem, September 2020.
Protesters outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem, September 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Incidentally, the assumption at the top of Likud is that the several thousand persistent demonstrators (who aren’t Bibi’s voters anyway) don’t move him. After all, these aren’t the hundreds of thousands that were at the social justice protests in 2011.

The one who’s really going out of her mind is the lady of the house who, as we recall, sees herself as “a battered woman” who has been “sexually assaulted” by balloons hundreds of meters from her residence. She drives him crazy, and he in turn is driving the whole country crazy.

The mask – a transparent one, it must be said – was removed from the prime minister’s face during these discussions. The naked truth was revealed. To distance those noisemakers from Balfour Street, he’s willing to cause the wounded and bleeding economy damage that the Finance Ministry has estimated at about $100 billion. When the choice is between a partial, “breathing” lockdown with demonstrations, or a strangling, killing lockdown without them, Netanyahu has no doubts.

The government must not prohibit protests against it; that would be a dictatorship. By the same token, the demonstrators can be asked to take a time-out for three weeks. Solidarity isn’t a dirty word; democracy wouldn’t collapse. The hysteria and pathos being spilled, including on Haaretz’s opinion pages, are unnecessary.

We received a good example of  responsibility from Rabbi David Yosef, a member of the Shas party's Council of Sages. On the verge of tears, the rabbi pleaded that we close the synagogues and pray outdoors, or alone. He didn’t condition this, like the politicians did, on restricting the demonstrations.

We remembered his father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who at critical times that required simple humanity and common sense knew how to find them within himself, for the sake of the sanctity of life.

Nimble Nissenkorn

Nissenkorn, the justice minister, remains the shrapnel stuck in the Bibi camp’s posterior. If he heard what a top Likudnik was saying about him, he’d blush to the top of his bald pate: “We knew that Nissenkorn would be a problematic justice minister, we just didn’t know to what extent .... He just wants to put Bibi in prison and build himself up on our back as a leader.”

As this source put it, Nissenkorn is actually the alternate prime minister in the rotation government with Netanyahu, not Gantz.

Someone told him about this assertion, and Nissenkorn jumped as if he had been stung by a scorpion: “First of all, Benny Gantz leads, unambiguously and without a doubt,” Nissenkorn said. “The thing is that I, now 53 years old, after all I went through at the Histadrut labor federation, feel mature and say what’s in my heart.

“And no, I don’t have any desire to see Netanyahu in prison. I hope he turns out to be not guilty.”

Coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, during a Knesset committee meeting, Jerusalem, September 16, 2020.
Coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, during a Knesset committee meeting, Jerusalem, September 16, 2020.Credit: Shmulik Grossman/Knesset

In the two long meetings of the coronavirus cabinet Tuesday and Wednesday, he told Netanyahu and his colleagues to their faces: “Only the demonstrations at Balfour interest you.” And he topped this off, as usual, with “Shame!”

But actually his position on the necessity of a harsh lockdown, including the restrictions on demonstrations and the closure of workplaces that remained open in March and April, is very close to Netanyahu’s position.

About half the Kahol Lavan lawmakers wrinkled their noses Thursday morning when they woke up to the new outline. To some of them, the nearly hermetic lockdown looks extreme. Others don’t like the curbing of the protests and the distancing from Balfour Street, but as Nissenkorn put it, “it’s impossible for thousands of people to demonstrate there on top of each other.”

Netanyahu’s motives are clear to Nissenkorn, just as they’re clear to any consumer of news whose brain isn’t awash in lies and hatred. But this doesn’t interest the justice minister. “What’s needed at this time is a total lockdown,” he told his interlocutors Thursday. “And if it were up to me, I'd thin things out even further than in March and April.”

He would shut down more offices and plants, for example. Why? After all, there’s hardly any infection there, someone argued. “Bull,” he replied. “We have no idea what’s happening. It’s not just the weddings and the events. It’s impossible to monitor the workplaces. We failed at that, we failed at everything.”

As for the timing – until the fall Jewish holidays end on October 10, at the earliest – he’s fine with that. When if not during the holidays, he asked, “when the economy’s engines go quieter. Is after the holidays preferable? People don’t understand what a catastrophe we’re in. Who dreamed of 7,000 confirmed new cases a day? We have to stop this now, before the winter.”

But Gamzu is against, argued his interlocutor. “With all due respect,” Nissenkorn answered angrily, “Gamzu isn’t responsible for the economy. He’s responsible for the traffic light. Let him deal with that.”

If we’re talking about the coronavirus czar, it’s hard to defend the energetic manager from Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital who came in full of goodwill and pathos and became a doormat under the feet of Netanyahu and so many others. He intends to leave at the end of October.

In the meantime, he’s gritting his teeth, trying to explain why it’s “not me, it’s them,” striving to maintain a bit of public support for the day after. Well, it’s kind of hard to see all this suffering. Maybe he should leave sooner, though that wouldn’t change anything.

During the two days of the cabinet meetings, Gantz was in Washington. Nissenkorn and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi led the party’s relations with Likud. On Tuesday the partisan debate on the protests heated up. The prime minister twisted between the urge to kick the demonstrators out of his bedroom and the pressures the Finance Ministry put on him not to paralyze the economy.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn speaking at the Knesset, September 2020.
Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn speaking at the Knesset, September 2020.Credit: Yehonatan Samiya / Knesset

Let’s wait until Wednesday, Ashkenazi proposed. In the meantime, the professionals would draw up an outline for protests after the lockdown: a minimum distance between demonstrators.

The next day the four of them met for a preliminary discussion: Netanyahu, Interior Minister Arye Dery, Nissenkorn and Ashkenazi. Before the meeting, Kahol Lavan learned that the Balfour demonstration would be pruned down to 2,000 people after the total lockdown. Top people in the party thought this was reasonable. If Netanyahu had pressed, they would have compromised on 1,500. He didn’t press.

Blame games

In December 1973, a few weeks after the end of the Yom Kippur War, President Ephraim Katzir made a famous speech. Katzir was a great scientist, less of an orator. He mentioned “military and diplomatic blunders” that preceded the war.

“Blunders of which all of us are guilty because we wanted to live in a utopian world that was not completely identical to the reality we were living in,” Katzir said.

The people, who only then had just begun to digest the dimensions of the failure, rebelled. They refused to take the blame that the president had dumped on them in a foolish attempt to minimize the politicians’ responsibility. The man became a grim joke.

At the beginning of this week, a few days before Yom Kippur, Netanyahu posted his own kind of “we are all guilty” comment: “Everyone who was dismissive of the restrictions we imposed, or diluted them and negated them, shouldn’t come complaining to us about how the infection rate is going up.” He added to the post a photo of the chief of the Knesset coronavirus committee, Yifat Shasha-Biton.

The obvious question: Where are the other leaders who can produce an infuriating phrase like “they shouldn’t come complaining to us?” As we know about Netanyahu, the plural “they” is reserved only for failure. What contempt for the concept of leadership. All that was lacking was for him to add the emoji for giving the finger and write: “Nu, I told you so!”

Shasha-Biton is high on the Balfour hit list, along with the demonstrators, Kahol Lavan, Mendelblit and others. It’s now the prime minister’s main occupation: slinging garbage in every direction with the aim of distracting attention from the main address for the failure of Yom Kippur 2020.

Unlike the other Likudniks, YSB is showing courage and chutzpah toward Netanyahu, and he hasn’t been able to make his disparagement of her stick. The Channel 12 opinion poll Wednesday predicted 8 Knesset seats for a party with her at its helm, no less.

Yifat Shasha-Biton, the head of the Knesset coronavirus committee, August 2020.
Yifat Shasha-Biton, the head of the Knesset coronavirus committee, August 2020.Credit: Yehonatan Samiya / Knesset

Netanyahu still doesn’t understand that every time he sends coalition whip Miki Zohar, the symbol of shallowness and bullying, into the television studio to sully and threaten her, he shoots himself in the foot.

Netanyahu is trying to create a mendacious myth that Shasha-Biton has prevented, thwarted and braked the government’s initiatives. This is simply not true. Until July 23, when the Knesset passed “the big coronavirus law” that denied the committee most of its authority, she approved a large majority of the government’s decisions.

True, there were arguments, and Miki Zohar loomed over her and said he would fire her; then he ran to the studios because that’s what he knows. But apart from the issue of the gyms, the decisions that were approved came after the government had softened them. This was the case with the beaches, swimming pools and restaurants.

What has happened since July 23? On September 1, when school started, 415 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in serious condition. On that day 1,526 new carriers were confirmed. Since then all the curves have gone wild and all the horror forecasts have come true.

And it’s clear what the main factors of the contagion have been; for example, the full opening of the schools, including the higher grades, contrary to Gamzu’s recommendations and under pressure from Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who was more interested in scoring points.

There have also been the mass events and the weddings, especially in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, and the mucking around with Gamzu’s traffic light plan for more than a month until it was emptied of content. Finally, there has been the creeping loss of the public’s trust, fueled in part by the example the decision-makers are providing, headed by the supreme leader.

Thus YSB is on the shooting range of blame, in a place of honor alongside the demonstrators. How are all the failures connected to this head of a Knesset committee that has long lost some of its authority?

It’s the government that limped and failed and zig-zagged like a drunk in a midnight choir. It’s the man who heads this government and his resounding management failure. What decision have they made in recent days? It has all been done haphazardly.

Don’t come complaining to us, the prime minister scolded his government, as though in a distorted version of the Yom Kippur prayer: You have trespassed, you have dealt treacherously, you have robbed, you have spoken slander, you have acted perversely, you have done wrong, you have acted presumptuously, you have done violence, you have practiced deceit. Resign.

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