Fifth COVID Wave Leaves Israel’s Prime Minister Weak and Vulnerable

One of Naftali Bennett’s biggest achievements to date as premier was his management of the delta variant, so why are things different with omicron?

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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a cabinet meeting on Sunday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a cabinet meeting on Sunday.Credit: Emil Salman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The management of the COVID-19 pandemic in Israel was supposed to be so different under the new government than that of its predecessor.

Instead of an imperious prime minister making all the decisions with a tiny team of advisers, announcing them in nightly briefings to the nation while the supine health minister and the rest of the cabinet applauded like a chorus line of performing seals, the new outfit is a much more collegial affair. Each morning, an interdepartmental assessment is held, chaired by the premier, where experts from each part of government and the relevant agencies share information and their opinions. The actual decisions are reached by consensus in the COVID cabinet.

It worked well for the delta wave earlier this year, when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett led a bold strategy combining early rollout of the booster, widespread use of the Green Pass vaccination certificate and no lockdowns.

It doesn’t seem to be working quite so well with the new omicron variant.

On Sunday night, Bennett held his own prime-time briefing to the nation. To his credit, it had little of the bombast of the Netanyahu briefings and, unlike him, he took questions – difficult ones – from journalists. But there’s very little to say to his credit otherwise.

Bennett had nothing to tell Israelis besides warning them that the fifth wave is upon them (which anyone watching already knew), and asking them to keep wearing face masks and for those not yet boosted to get the third shot and bring their kids along as well.

Not only did he have nothing new to say, but at times it wasn’t clear whether the man behind the prime minister’s podium even felt he had the authority to set out Israel’s COVID policy.

Israel’s unwritten constitution doesn’t give the prime minister untrammeled powers to deal with a pandemic, and that’s as it should be. Netanyahu’s bluster during his year and a bit of dealing with the coronavirus, and his constant refrain of “I’ve instructed…,” was a sham from start to end. He couldn’t instruct most government agencies just like that, and those he could instruct – like the Mossad intelligence agency which is directly answerable to the prime minister – went out in the world and wasted hundreds of millions purchasing medical supplies Israel didn’t need.

Even his much heralded personal success in obtaining early shipments of the Pfizer vaccine came only after he had wasted more money on developing an Israeli vaccine that was never going to be ready within a relevant time frame.

A woman and young boy at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Tel Aviv earlier this month.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Most of the credit is actually due to the much maligned public health sector, which got the vaccines into Israelis’ arms and passed back real-time data to Big Pharma, rather than to Netanyahu’s badgering of Pfizer’s CEO over the phone.

But the prime minister should still have at least the power to cajole ministers into going along with the government’s policies. And we’re seeing now with Bennett that he doesn’t have that.

The governing coalition’s unique structure, comprised as it is of eight parties and with a prime minister who leads one of the smaller factions, means Bennett doesn’t have the power to fire ministers who are not from his own party. Ironically, Bennett is a victim of some of his earlier success – for starters, his success in forming a government as leader of a tiny party in unique conditions.

In its first months, the government had only one real task: To survive – despite the concerted attacks from the Netanyahu camp – long enough to pass the state budget, which would give it a modicum of long-term survivability. Bennett not only achieved that on schedule, but in that time he also faced the fourth COVID wave and did so remarkably well by relying mainly on booster shots while not shuttering the economy.

Bennett’s gamble on boosters during the delta wave worked, but it has also left Israelis with even less patience for another round of restrictions. The success of vaccinations is such that we now expect this to be enough. Any price higher than getting our arm injected and perhaps a day or two of muscle pains now seems too much to ask.

And the prime minister’s problem isn’t just that he has to persuade the public; he first needs to convince his own ministers, who are no longer anxious that the government will fall and, now they have their budgets guaranteed for 2022, want to assert themselves.

Health Minister Nitzan Horwitz.Credit: Emil Salman

Two of the ministers who are least inclined to listen to him on this matter are Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz. Both want to run their new fiefdoms independently and resent Bennett’s proposals.

Both have personal and political considerations as well.

For Shasha-Biton, this is likely to be her last term in politics – at least for a while. Since entering the Knesset in 2015, she has been in three parties (Kulanu, Likud and now New Hope). And since New Hope is sinking in the polls, it will almost certainly merge with other parties and she will probably lose her chances of being reelected. In the time remaining, she intends to run the Education Ministry as she sees fit (after all, she has a Ph.D. in education).

Horowitz is a different matter. As leader of the left-wing Meretz party, he is in a difficult bind himself. He needs to prove that his party can be part of government, for the first time in over two decades, while retaining its progressive values. That’s almost impossible with a government dominated by the center-right.

But it’s natural that in meetings over pandemic policy, when Bennett wants to use the surveillance capabilities of the Shin Bet security service to track those infected with omicron or to restrict freedom of movement for the non-vaccinated, this raises the hackles of someone like Horowitz, who used to be a human rights lawyer and advocate.

There are advantages to this situation. It makes it easier to shoot down some of Bennett’s more half-baked ideas, such as splitting classes between children who have been vaccinated – who will be allowed to enter school – and the non-vaccinated kids, who will be taught online at home.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

But the power of individual ministers to obstruct policy, as Shasha-Biton has been doing, can be disastrous for the proper functioning of government.

It was much easier for Bennett to convince his colleagues to follow his policies during the delta wave when the government was still in its early and uncertain days.

They had to stick together or else Netanyahu – who was already busy blaming his successor for having “received a country in the best state in the world and squandering all our hard work within days” – would pick them off separately. Ministers were still excited at having managed to build the impossible coalition, and had just entered their new offices and were still awed by their new responsibilities.

Six months on, they are more confident with power and have learned just how limited Bennett’s own power is. They can clash with him, in private for now, but they don’t have to worry when the details of their disagreements are leaked to the media. There’s very little, if anything, Bennett can do to punish them. And if things go wrong, he’ll be the one getting the blame from the public.

Thanks to the centralized and personalized way Netanyahu dealt with the pandemic from the first outbreak, the Israeli public identifies the handling of the pandemic with the prime minister. Pollster, political strategist and Haaretz columnist Dahlia Scheindlin says that over the past 18 months, “the public’s satisfaction with the government’s COVID policy has become a proxy for its satisfaction with the government and prime minister in general.”

For the second time in five months, Bennett is facing major decisions on the COVID-19 front. This time around, his government is much more stable, its future assured by the passing of the budget. But Bennett himself has much less room for maneuver.

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