Coronavirus Is a Test for Western Leaders. Netanyahu Passed, Then Lost Control

The Israeli government did little in the face of the sharp rise in cases. The price could be another lockdown that would decimate the economy ■ Netanyahu should already be preparing for Trump's likely November defeat

Amos Harel
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Netanayhu at a cabinet meeting during the coronavirus pandemic.
Prime Minister Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, May 31, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel

Half a year after it burst into our lives, the coronavirus is turning out to be a litmus test of leadership in the Western democracies. Populist leaders who accumulated their political capital thanks to nurturing a strongman image, bullying rhetoric and spreading hatred during the course of the pandemic are facing a test for which they hadn’t bothered to prepare. Many of them are failing it resoundingly.

That is what has happened to U.S. President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The first two also expressed demonstrative scorn for science, medicine and in fact any expert who has professional knowledge. And all three of them, coincidentally or not, are sworn friends of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu made it through the first round of the struggle against the pandemic better than most of his friends abroad. He listened to the experts, he did not scorn science and he took a number of urgent and necessary steps in time. When it turned out that the number of deaths here was relatively low and the rate of identified infection in Israel had dropped to only a few dozen new patients, Netanyahu took a lot of pride in this.

LISTEN: Bibi's bonanza, arresting activists and the death of God TVCredit: Haaretz

And then, he and his government lost control of the situation: The economy reopened very fast, the middle schools and high schools reconvened with no restrictions and most Israeli citizens, who had received fairly clear messages from the state to the effect that the crisis was to all intents and purposes over, went back to conducting their lives as usual. The health instructions that remained – social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding crowds – were in effect only recommendations. 

The results began to be felt this week. Possibly they will be felt more strongly in the coming weeks. The number of identified infected persons has soared to about 1,000 per day, exactly as the information center at the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Corps had predicted two weeks ago, at which time it was pelted with criticism. True, the vast majority of the newly infected people are young and many of them are asymptomatic – that is, only carriers – but the increase in their number does not stem only from increased testing. 

The proportion of positive tests has increased fourfold to about 4 percent within a month, so beyond the larger number of tests there’s also a four times higher infection rate. Moreover, although the proportion of the seriously ill is lower (about 2 percent of all those identified as infected, compared to 3 percent three months ago), this only says that the strain on the hospitals will develop gradually and not in one fell swoop, as had been feared  in March. According to one assessment heard by the coronavirus cabinet, the number of infected patients in the intensive care units could climb to 600.

The pandemic skeptics are waging holding actions against the accumulating findings. It is a fact, they say, that the number of those on respirators is holding completely steady, the increase in the number of the severely ill is slow and mortality remains quite low. The answer is that it really isn’t necessary to panic but it is better to look the facts straight in the eye: There is no change in the number of people on respirators mainly because of the decision by the hospitals to decrease respiratory treatments and keep them as a last resort.

The increase in the numbers of the severely ill has slowed down because the elderly, the main group at risk, are doing a good job of protecting themselves relative to the first wave. And as for the number of deaths, doctors are talking about the increased efficiency and accumulation of knowledge regarding the nature of the treatment that is needed for the severely ill. (Some of the doctors believe that despite the absence of peer-reviewed scientific research, it is possible that the virus does get weaker during the summer months, as that controversial Italian physician is claiming.)

Infuriatingly, in the face of the increase in the spread of the coronavirus, the government has been sitting on its hands. Despite the time that has elapsed since February, and the pause in the spread of the pandemic in May, no effective system has been put in place to identify people who are sick and infected, not enough contact tracers have been recruited, the dependence remains on tracking by the Shin Bet security service (which is not interested in the task and is disturbed by its implications), and there has been no orderly process of gathering and distributing the information about the spread of the disease. The fines being imposed now for not wearing a mask are creating some deterrence – and there has been a marked increase in the percentage of citizens wearing masks, even if the risk of infection in the open air is not great in the first place.

That said, thus far there have not been any steps taken to reduce crowding in closed spaces. The instruction to events halls to limit events to 250 participants is a joke, and is hardly enforced at all. Inter-generational family gatherings in such spaces are a sure recipe for creating infection hothouses. 

The head of the Operations Directorate in the IDF, Aharon Haliva, coordinated the military aid to the health system during the first stage of the pandemic. A week ago, he sent a concerned personal letter to the top people in the Health Ministry, with copies to the head of the National Security Council and the IDF chief of staff. In it, Haliva presents a detailed plan for improvement in dealing with tests, quarantining patients and breaking the chains of infection. He also recommends, exceptionally for an IDF officer, increased punishment for citizens who disobey instructions.

In the defense establishment they see clearly the problem inherent in Netanyahu’s refusal to delegate management of the struggle to a central body, instead of putting the Health Ministry in charge of managing a comprehensive fight for which it has not been trained. In interviews granted by the new director general of the Health Ministry, Prof. Hezi Levi, it has been possible to discern an approach that is more open to the possibility of relinquishing areas of authority than the ministry has been in the past. President Reuven Rivlin, too, hinted at the need for a change in his speech at the air force pilots’ course graduation ceremony last week, when he called for uniting all the forces fighting the pandemic into “a single iron fist.”

In the wake of the increasing rate of infection, this week Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz increased the pace of coronavirus cabinet deliberations. The obvious slowness of their responses to the pandemic in recent weeks is liable ultimately to cost Israel a decision to go back into an extensive lockdown, a terrible solution that will markedly exacerbate the damage to the economy. Education Minister Yoav Gallant has already explained in an interview to Ynet on Thursday that the citizens are “rebellious” and they “are getting infected in the cafés and at the beach,” both of them places the government has approved opening.  

The Military Intelligence information center is still insisting on putting at the top of its daily review the “Prime Minister’s Index,” which Netanyahu established in May as milestones on the way to revoking easements that have been made. By at least three measures, Israel has crossed the red line. These figures stand in stark contrast to the situation in most of the European countries, where the rate of infection has gone down and they are now taking steps towards ending the lockdown. And at the same time, to be fair, it is still necessary to wait and see if down the road, there will be a renewed and uncontrolled increase there too in the number of cases.

‘War atmosphere’

At the health maintenance organizations they are already reporting a “war atmosphere” and at the hospitals they are reopening coronavirus departments, even if they are assuming that the arrival rate of patients in need of hospitalization will be slower this time around. All this is hardly felt at all in Netanyahu’s agenda as it has been reflected in his statements to the media and posts in the social media. In these, there are three issues that are far more urgent: war to the death on the judicial system and the media, promoting the annexation plan and complaints about blockage of his attempts to pile more expenses onto the state coffers.

In the meantime, somehow there has not been any report on the opening of an investigation into the affair of the leaking of a recording of remarks by Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman from one of the earlier meetings of the coronavirus cabinet. Netanyahu indeed expressed profound rage at the leak “the likes of which I don’t remember in all my years as prime minister,” but neither he nor the person he hates most at the moment, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, has announced an investigation into the matter.  
In an article in the daily Ma’ariv a week ago, Alon Ben-David provided a fine analysis of the method that was used against Argaman this time.

An anti-Netanyahu demonstration in Jerusalem.
An anti-Netanyahu demonstration in Jerusalem, June 27, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

There exists a systematic pattern for dealing with any government institution that dares to try to rein in the regime: Initially, the legitimacy of that institution and those who work there is questioned. In the face of the attack, the workers there adopt more cautious positions, which serve the regime. And the head of the organization then has to choose whether to line up with the new spirit or remain alone with his principles and suffer a personal attack on his own. Argaman, stubborn as he is, refuses to learn. Maybe his successors will understand better. 

In the United States, President Trump is looking like someone on his way to becoming a story with a moral: This is what happens to a power with a glorious history when it insists on conducting a collective experiment by putting a clueless dolt at its head. The race to develop a vaccine against the pandemic, in which American companies are energetically participating, is becoming crucial first and foremost for the United States itself. In its absence, both the economy and the health system are in danger of collapse, which will affect America’s international standing in the coming decades. 

Trump's polling numbers

Reading public opinion polls is something Netanyahu knows how to do well – and the latest polls from the Unites States are predicting a knockout loss for Trump to his rival Joe Biden in November. Though Trump overcame a lag in the surveys in 2016, if Biden’s health is not damaged by November, it appears he will enjoy a significant lead.

Presumably Netanyahu is figuring that next January a new president will enter the White House, one who is less friendly towards him, and he is beginning to prepare accordingly. In Likud they have already begun to receive phone calls from political advisers identified with the Republican Party, who prefer to distance themselves from the disaster at the gates and are asking whether by any chance elections are expected soon in Israel. 

Elections aren’t on the horizon here at the moment, in part because a decision to move them forward would be a dangerous gamble from Netanyahu’s perspective, as he does not know how bleak the economic situation will be a few months from now. In Kahol Lavan  they have homed in on this weak point and are therefore calling for a focus on the economy and the fight against the coronavirus, instead of advancing an annexation of parts of the West Bank.

However, when MK Miki Zohar (Likud) chooses to attack Finance Minister Yisrael Katz (also Likud), presumably at the prime minister’s official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, they are beginning to mark out who is potentially to be blamed in face of the popular protest that is expected to expand. When things get complicated, the distance Netanyahu will maintain from Katz will be a lot more than two meters (six feet).

The decision by the police to deal harshly with the demonstrators near the prime minister’s residence was a grave mistake. For the first time it has positioned a symbol at the head of the struggle, air force pilot Brig. Gen. (res.) Amir Haskel, whose previous protest activities had been scrupulously ignored by the media for three years. The combination of a bloated government, Netanyahu’s efforts to increase the funding for his expenses and the state of the economy could well create, in the longer term, extensive anger and opposition to his rule. However, when the demonstrators in the pictures look to be 60 years old and more, it is still too early to talk about a sweeping popular movement. 

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