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Fake Lockdown, Imaginary Reality: Netanyahu Is Leading Israel Into Darkness

When every issue is weighed according to political survival, Netanyahu's coronavirus response can only look like an election campaign

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration.
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In a famous speech, Yitzhak Rabin sounded a warning about the biggest problem in Israeli society: the “it will be all right” culture. “It is intolerable,” he said, adding that when someone says it will be all right, it clearly will not.

There’s no one like Benjamin Netanyahu when it comes to “it will be all right.” Even when he deigned to appear at a moment of crisis and not a moment of victory, at a press conference at the beginning of this week, he did everything possible not to admit a mistake.

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There wasn’t even a hint of breast-beating for the sins of his failed government. He bragged about economic data, which he falsified, and massaged his imaginary reality, minimizing the damage caused by the raging pandemic. All this was to emphasize the big lie: Everything I’ve done has been excellent.

And all this was to announce the measures of collective punishment in store for us. And here lies the root of the shamelessness and failure to take responsibility. (In an apology to the public Wednesday night, President Reuven Rivlin made a speech that Netanyahu should have been making.) If the prime minister is so all right, why are we entering a lockdown?

This “it will be all right” also seems to be Israel’s management doctrine for the coronavirus: a lockdown full of holes. And guess who’s going to feel the pain?

The usefulness of the restrictions, some of them inane to no end, is in doubt. The damage estimate can already be calculated. Hundreds of thousands more Israelis will be unemployed and thousands of businesses clinging to viability will plunge into a dark world. The damage to the economy will be between 10 billion and 20 billion shekels ($5.8 billion). The schools will hobble between Zoom and zilch.

And of course some damage won’t be quantifiable – a nation in despair, without hope and devoid of trust, suffering isolation, depression and neglect. And the psyches of millions of people will still be battered after the restrictions are lifted.

Rabin’s partner in the glory of the ‘60s, Moshe Dayan, was an eternal candidate for prime minister, Israel’s most popular politician. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he acquired nicknames suggesting he was responsible for the great debacle. Apart from a brief moment in the sun again under the protection of Menachem Begin’s government, he became a political nonentity.

The Yom Kippur fiasco had many progenitors. Today, the show could be called “The Bibi Debacle.” Entirely immersed in calculations of political survival, his derangement in the run-up to his corruption trial exacerbated the derangement at the prime minister’s residence.

He has enjoyed few moments of good judgment, control or planning. His response to the pandemic has been like that of his response teams during the election campaigns – off the cuff, deceptive, fudged and for his benefit only.

This was the case in his submission to his ultra-Orthodox partners, and in his public-opinion anxieties. And this is how we’ve arrived at Israel Lockdown 2.0, a move that no one – neither the health minister and his deputy nor the coronavirus czar, nor the hospital directors (who oppose it) – believe will change anything significantly.

On Thursday, shame joined disgrace. Zeev Elkin, head of the committee for forging “an arrangement for travel to Uman,” was trying to find a way to let disciples of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav visit his grave. But then he announced that his efforts had failed. The Ukrainians said “no way” and stopped answering calls from country code 972.

Zeev Elkin is seen in the Knesset on the day of swearing-in of the 35th government, May 17, 2020.
Zeev Elkin is seen in the Knesset on the day of swearing-in of the 35th government, May 17, 2020.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

As we remember, in the first wave “the guardian of Israel’s security” bragged that his office switchboard was collapsing under the weight of calls from world leaders eager to hear his anti-pandemic formula. Now even former Second World countries like Ukraine don’t want to hear from us. Leaders from Africa and the Arab world are still willing to listen to Netanyahu, perhaps out of good manners.

Israel has become an international symbol of failure and disintegration. The man at the top doesn’t have an iota of integrity, decency or honesty to admit this and repair the damage. Crowned in glory, he returned from Washington – the capital of coronavirus denial – to a tortured and infection-stricken country. He timed the lockdown for a reasonable interval after his homecoming celebration. The last days of Dubai; sign and be merry for tomorrow we die.

The agreements he signed, which are fully worthy of praise, wouldn’t have happened without the three prime ministers who preceded him, whom he dismisses as air at best or splatters with mud at worst: Menachem Begin’s peace with Egypt, the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians and the peace agreement with Jordan in the days of Rabin and Shimon Peres (which wouldn’t have happened without the agreement with the Palestinians).

His predecessors were far more courageous than he is. They walked an untrod path, held out a hand to bitter enemies, and paid a price to avoid wars and bloodshed. He follows in the reality they created for him. And now it has two main elements: the desire of countries to the east to stymie Iran’s ambitions and threats, and the political and business interests of Donald Trump and his cronies.

Trump is also the only one who can provide Bibi with tidings of joy in the foreseeable future: more diplomatic agreements and their attendant ceremonies. He’s our Santa Claus and Netanyahu is the only leader in the Western world who ceaselessly flatters the man everyone else considers to be the most despicable president in American history. The deal of the century, without a doubt.

Left out

The snafu that forced Netanyahu to ask Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi for power of attorney at the very last minute was discovered by chance. Someone wondered how Netanyahu could be flying off without cabinet approval. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit checked, and found that only the foreign minister is authorized to sign international agreements.

Word was sent to Blair House, where the Netanyahus and their progeny were just settling in. (They’ll undoubtedly accuse Mendelblit of attempted sabotage by means of a made-up legal clause.) The Justice Ministry briefed the foreign minister, who called the attorney general for clarification. Mendelblit clarified, reassuring Ashkenazi that the accords state that they must be ratified by the cabinet. Ashkenazi authorized, of course. The irony did not escape him. Probably he felt a bit of schadenfreude, a poor man’s delight.

Not that he had any expectation of being invited to the signing ceremony, with his United Arab Emirates and Bahraini counterparts. He has no expectations at all from Netanyahu. He can console himself that his being siloed has nothing to do with his being from Kahol Lavan. Even a Likud foreign minister, however loyal, would not have been granted a moment in the spotlight. The wound hasn’t healed from the ceremony for U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel, held in March 2019 at the White House. A handful of U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, attended. Trump signed. Netanyahu observed. Yisrael Katz, who was foreign minister at the time, just happened to be in D.C., on state business. It didn’t even occur to Netanyahu to invite him.

What skin would it have been off King Bibi’s nose to invite Ashkenazi? Netanyahu’s lame excuse for bringing along only National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat (whose nickname in the government is “Bibi’s sawish,” a kind of factotum in Arabic/army slang) and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen is that only those who did the work earned the ticket to America. Really? A highly-placed diplomatic source reminded me that since 1995 the Foreign Ministry has been working assiduously to establish and strengthen relations with the Gulf states. Our foreign relations were not born in 2009.

The surprising complaint of the week came from an evergreen flattery shrub in the Netanyahu forest, Ofir Akunis. He was the only cabinet member to grouse that Netanyahu didn’t fill the plane with “several of the cabinet members whose ministries touch upon the matter.” He meant the minister of regional cooperation – himself. The ministries of foreign affairs, defense, finance, culture, science, energy, agriculture and tourism could all be considered ahead of his fictive, trivial ministry on the list.

Akunis’s lament perfectly reflected the mood in the political realm with regard to the boss. If a consensus exists there, it’s that the aforementioned is a petty and avaricious individual whose ways have been and remain swinish. He even left Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and ambassador-designate to the United States, turning over on the grill on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan until the very last minute. Okay, the man is muktzeh – persona non grata – at Balfour Street, and that is precisely why he is living thousands of kilometers from Jerusalem.

Benjamin Netanyahu stands with U.S. President Donald Trump after signing the Abraham Accords, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 15, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu stands with U.S. President Donald Trump after signing the Abraham Accords, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 15, 2020. Credit: TOM BRENNER/ REUTERS

And more on the subject of the revels: The Prime Minister’s Office had planned to organize a signing-ceremony watch party for Likud lawmakers. Initially, the plan was to gather at Kfar Maccabiah, invite the media and in effect force them to compete with one another in verbal fawning over the great leader. Then the event was moved to the Knesset and about an hour before the live broadcast it was canceled. Perhaps this was because the PMO feared that attendance would be sparser than expected and pithy accolades from the usual suspects, Minister for Cyber and National Digital Matters and Knesset-cabinet liaison David Amsalem, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and Co., were not quite suited to the occasion.

With Netanyahu, it’s not the IQ, the ability and the qualifications. It’s the character. It’s the personality that defeats itself. He demands that the whole world arise to the magnitude of the occasion and recognize his primacy, but he himself remains based in the shallow waters of petty accounting and boundless pursuit of respect. In 1998, when he was forced to go the Wye River summit, with President Bill Clinton and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, he generously brought along his foreign affairs and defense ministers, Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Mordechai. He knew he would be forced to relinquish territory and would need defense establishment bigwigs as flak jackets to share the blame (and the right’s resentment) with him. When peace is a luxury, the concessions are nearly invisible (abandoning annexation of some of the West Bank, agreeing to freeze settlements, granting permission to sell advanced weapons systems), he doesn’t need anyone apart from “the children” and the lady.

Post-Netanyahu

Among the top Kahol Lavan officials, the cautious assessment is there’s no certainty that Netanyahu will take advantage of the window of opportunity on December 23, when the extension of the deadline authorized by the Knesset for approving the national budget will expire, to gallop to an election.

It’s not because he is scared of losing, but rather because former defense minister Naftali Bennett, the coronavirus macho man, is beginning to look like a real and present danger to his rule. The chairman of Yamina is continuing to gain strength. A Channel 13 public opinion poll from Wednesday forecasted 22 Knesset seats for him, while Likud dropped one seat to 30 from their previous poll, despite the outbreak of peace.

On Tuesday Bennett was seen conferring at length in whispers, despite the social distancing rules, with Foreign Minister Ashkenazi at the opening of an exhibition for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. The tight friendship the two of them evinced in their speeches was heartwarming: “My friend the former defense minister,” “My friend, the foreign minister.” They really made an effort. Presumably the chummy conversation between them was not about art or PTSD.

Both of them – and it’s hard to know which of them more so – share a profound loathing of and a strong urge to kick Netanyahu out of office. At the moment, Bennett is the man with his finger on the trigger and votes in his coffer. The Kahol Lavan officials can only offer their participation, with their sprinkling of Knesset seats, in the project to replace the long-term leader. 

Netanyahu and Bennett, 2015
Netanyahu and Bennett, 2015Credit: Emil Salman

The routine fights between the two leading parties in the government simmered down a bit this week. The government even convened after a month and half to discuss the lockdown. But this is not enough to conclude that the machine is functioning. On the contrary, everything is stuck.

The year 2020 will limp to its end without a national budget, at a time when one is most necessary. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation – the motor of every government – has been inactive for many long weeks. This is happening because of a continuing veto from the prime minister, via Liaison Minister Amsalem. Dozens of laws (most of them proposed by lawmakers from Likud, Shas and United Torah Judaism, some of them good laws and needed at this time) are in suspension. And this is only because of Netanyahu’s personal enmity toward Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, who heads the committee, and his ministry. Millions of citizens weakened by the coronavirus crisis who need help are getting hurt. But the main thing is that soon we’ll be able to buy vacation packages to the United Arab Emirates. 

Nissenkorn has been trying unsuccessfully to persuade Amsalem to lift the lockdown on the committee and at least pass the so-called social laws. Amsalem is not doing it. He recently proposed to Nissenkorn to convene of a four-way summit: the two of them, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, with the aim of restarting the forum. The justice minister leapt at the chance. Gantz, too, was happy to hear that there is a will. But no way. Since then, nothing, nada.

Atonement rooster

It wasn’t because he wanted to and it wasn’t with pleasure that Yaakov Litzman, erstwhile minister of housing and construction, resigned from the cabinet. His rabbi, the admor of Gur, was the one who ordered him to pack up and clear out his office at the very powerful ministry. Litzman was chosen to be the atonement rooster – to be swung around overhead and ritually slaughtered in atonement for sins – for his United Torah Judaism colleagues, who are remaining in the coalition despite the weighty reasons their most senior representative gave for his resignation.

Even if the stability of the coalition structure isn’t shaky at the moment, it would be a mistake to dismiss the event as minor. This is a significant milestone. If we were after the approval of the national budget and a new law about the conscription of young ultra-Orthodox men into the army, Litzman wouldn’t be the only one resigning. 

The sacrifice of Litzman, but only Litzman, was intended to placate the angry street, where a large crack has opened up between the people and Netanyahu over the last half a year. A large part of his is due to hiis management of the cororonavirus crisis. A series of measures and decisions that the Haredim interpreted as intentionally discriminatory toward them – the attitude of the police, lockdowns on their cities, the strictness of the limitations on synagogues in contrast to the liberal approach toward the largely secular demonstrations and more – peaked in the decision to lock down the country during the High Holy Days.

As they see it, this is a secret plot cooked up in advance between the prime minister and coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu to exploit the Fall Jewish holiday period, during which the economy partially silences its motors, in order to try to get control of the infection. The most precious observances of the ultra-Orthodox, the period of the penitential Selichot services, the prayers, the blowing of shofars and the dancing with Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah have been thrown under the secular Shabbat bus. Why, asked Litzman bitterly, wasn’t it possible to lock down a month ago and open up for the holidays? What didn’t we know then that we do know today?

Netanyahu watches Litzman in the Knesset, August 17, 2920.
Netanyahu watches Litzman in the Knesset, August 17, 2920.Credit: Adina Valnan / Axe

Litzman, who is one of the most veteran and experienced players in the system, has his future behind him now. He could compete with some of the the strongest politician in the coalition. For a while, heas also the public's fabortea while was the public’s most beloved minister and was as close as possible to Netanyahu. A large gap opened up between them in the first incarnation of the pandemic, in March and April; Netanyahu “stole Barsi from me,” he said in private conversations at the time, referring to former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov.

The prime minister managed the crisis together with Litzman’s director general, totally ignoring the minister. Since then, things between them haven’t been good. Litzman’s Sephardi ally, Shas Chairman and Interior Minister Arye Deri, is the only one who is still close to the prime minister’s ear. His position on the High Holy Days lockdown is quite different from that of his Ashkenazi colleague.

At a Zoom coronavirus cabinet meeting at the beginning of this week, Litzman resorted to one of the basic numbers – the open microphone number. “Gamzu wants to topple the government,” he muttered, as though absent-mindedly. “I know him. He lied to us.” Dissed and resigned. His ministerial colleagues did not don sackcloth or rend their garments in mourning. Even Netanyahu made do with a mingy expression of regret, for the record, which he summed up in the cold, wounding words: “We have to move ahead and take the right decisions.” He knows that in the politics of the Gur Hasidic court, Litzman is a has-been but their relations with him – the only thing that matters to him – are alive and kicking, even in these coronavirus times.

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