On the coronavirus front, Israeli society, like the prime minister, moved at lightning speed from panic to complacency. In his public appearances in March and April, Netanyahu broadcast a message of looming disaster. This served him in two ways: Half of Kahol Lavan galloped into the government, and his corruption trial was delayed by two months.
At the same time, the gravitas that he projected helped persuade Israelis to obey the government’s guidelines. In recent weeks, the prime minister has only rarely referred to the pandemic, and even then he has shown only limited interest.
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Below him, extreme dissonance mars the messages the state is sending the people. For one thing, local authorities are fining owners of small businesses, whose livelihoods were put on hold for more than two months, for every minor infraction. And we keep getting new bits of information on the rich and powerful receiving exemptions from all the restrictions that irk us ordinary folks.
At Passover, it was the president and prime minister who indulged in exemptions; this week a top billionaire was allowed to skirt a two-week quarantine so he could fly in from Cyprus straight to a celebrity bash in Tel Aviv.
An indirect connection exists between the double standard that the coronavirus episode is revealing at the top and Netanyahu’s calls to jail journalists while fighting vigorously for his right to remain prime minister during his trial. The message to the people, in the best Third World tradition, is strikingly clear: There’s one law for me and a different one for you.
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This could have ruinous long-term consequences for the resilience of Israeli democracy. More immediately, the last vestiges of the public’s trust in the government’s coronavirus policy are being eroded. If a broad second wave of the pandemic strikes Israel, the problem could be serious.
This week, too, Israel has seen 100 to 200 new sick people a day, though the rise has coincided with an increase in testing as part of the Health Ministry’s new policy. (The rate of positive tests has ranged between 0.5 to 1.5 percent recently.)
Many of the tests have been conducted in the schools, thus many of the newly sick are young, asymptomatic carriers who probably wouldn’t have been identified at all under different circumstances. As a result, and maybe also because not enough time has passed, there has been no fundamental change in the number of seriously ill and ventilated patients, though there has been a slight rise in the number of hospitalized.
The numbers are also stirring skepticism and mistrust regarding the government’s line. One view is that the new warning about 5,000 people on ventilators is an unnecessary scare tactic that may be politically motivated. It’s on this fertile ground that coronavirus deniers like Prof. Yoram Lass flourish, and people seem to be listening to them more attentively.
When Netanyahu does take an interest in the pandemic, he’s aiming to prepare a legal base that will let him impose further restrictions on civil rights, citing a state of emergency. This is the spirit of the coronavirus law that was approved this week by the cabinet.
And it’s also the basis for Netanyahu’s demand to continue using the Shin Bet to track the cellphones of the ill and people they come in contact with. But Argaman, the Shin Bet chief, pulled the rug out from under the prime minister when he told the cabinet that the low infection rate renders superfluous the use of his organization for this purpose.
Argaman’s remarks actually came during a rise in the number of people infected by the virus. We may suspect that the director’s main motive was different: to start to extricate the Shin Bet from the marginal and controversial task imposed on it by the government.
According to Argaman’s Shin Bet colleagues and top cabinet members, he has shown backbone and a refusal to cave to extraneous considerations. His term will end next May; the prime minister’s people have an interest in replacing him with someone more eager to do their bidding.
The coronavirus will be with us for some time, depending largely on how long it takes to develop a vaccine. The virus could spread greatly with the approach of winter, combined with a new wave of the flu. So Israel’s story in the months ahead is complex and probably dangerous. We have a worsening economic crisis, a serving prime minister on trial, a reasonable likelihood of a fourth election, and possibly a security escalation in the West Bank.
Together with the political maneuvering, Netanyahu’s steps are helping him increase his powers. He’ll consider wielding them if the economic woes and criticism by the judiciary fuse into a protest wave against his government. When it comes to efforts to block annexation, Kahol Lavan’s situation doesn’t look brilliant. Still, it remains possible that the party will show a little more fighting spirit in the struggle to protect democracy