Opinion |

Israel’s COVID-19 Tragedy: How Hubris, Hasbara and Netanyahu Downed the Start-Up Nation

How an enticing slogan fed the complacency which led to our downfall against the coronavirus, while our prime minister was focused on tearing the country apart

Anshel Pfeffer
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An image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Jerusalem demonstration against corruption and the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. September 5, 2020
An image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Jerusalem demonstration against corruption and the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. September 5, 2020.Credit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer

Early on in February, as it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would not pass over any country, the Israeli government appointed a task-force of public health experts, academics from a range of relevant fields, senior government and security officials and representatives of the tech sector. 

Within weeks, the task-force made a series of recommendations that the government quickly enacted. Israel went into a lockdown, tailored to the special circumstances of its society and various communities, while regional high-capacity testing facilities and a national contact-tracing system were set up, utilizing high-tech solutions devised by the private sector and implemented with the IDF’s logistical resources. 

The first wave of coronavirus infections was contained by the lockdown. As Israelis emerged carefully back into the open, abiding by the exit strategy prepared by the task-force, there was an infrastructure in place to detect and prevent a second outbreak of infections, while the world waited for a vaccine, which was likely be developed in Israel. 

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Israel is Start-Up Nation, after all.

The small but clever country, where brilliant young innovators pass seamlessly from their military service in elite cyber-warfare units to start-up companies that are then snapped up by Google or Apple for a cool billion.

High-tech workers in Israel.
High-tech workers in Israel. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

I mean, that’s the story Israel has been telling the world for the last 20 years. You don’t even need hindsight to come up with this scenario: there were plenty of people saying both publicly and in private to the government that this was just what needed to be done.

The only problem with this eminently plausible narrative is that it is a fairy tale.

It didn’t happen. Instead, at time of writing, the infection rate is 3,500 new cases daily, hospitals are close to being swamped with seriously ill patients, and the only thing currently keeping the death toll relatively low is the low median age of Israeli population and the valiant work of exhausted medical teams on the frontline.

Seven months into the crisis, there are finally sufficient numbers of daily tests, but they are still not easily accessible, and the results not rapid enough. After the health ministry had insisted for half a year that it control contact-tracing, responsibility has finally been passed to the IDF, which is only now appealing for help from private companies, and saying it will be ready, at the earliest, in November.

Looking back, this is all drearily predictable. In fact, if we’re honest with ourselves, COVID-stricken Israel makes a lot more sense than Start-Up Nation. 

Because Israel in 2020 is a fragile collection of deeply-divided and hostile communities, constantly suspicious of each other and lacking in any confidence that a prime minister fighting for his personal survival is making decisions based on the national interest. 

Armed Israeli soldiers and police officers stand in front of a roadblock during a partial lockdown of the city of Ramat Gan, April 15, 2020
Armed Israeli soldiers and police officers stand in front of a roadblock during a partial lockdown of the city of Ramat Gan, April 15, 2020Credit: Meged Gozani

A national task-force making professional recommendations and a government basing its policy upon them doesn’t make sense when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concentrating all power in his tiny circle of sycophants.

It doesn’t make sense when the prime minister’s entire strategy for keeping out of court (and potentially jail) is attacking and degrading the same civil service which needs to be focused on Israel’s coronavirus response.

It doesn’t make sense when the prime minister is deepening and exploiting the divisions and antipathies in Israeli society, thus destroying any remaining shred of trust in the government’s constantly changing guidelines. 

There’s no lack of good ideas, resources, innovation, tech, and talented and well-meaning individuals in Israel. In the face of a global pandemic they amount to very little without a receptive government, or a society with the minimal cohesiveness to get behind policies that apply to everyone. 

Yeshiva students in Sderot studying in separate plastic cells set up amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, August 25, 2020.
Yeshiva students in Sderot studying in separate plastic cells set up amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, August 25, 2020.Credit: AFP

There’s little point in blaming the Haredi community for insisting that its shuls and yeshivas remain open, the Arab sector for still holding its 1000-guest weddings and the protestors outside the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street. Why should they be more responsible than their leaders? Indeed, there’s little point in blaming Netanyahu. We know who he is and how he operates, and ultimately the Israeli electorate has put him where he is. 

But it’s not enough to ask why Israel dropped the ball so completely in 2020. It’s time to revisit the Start-Up Nation narrative and interrogate which parts of it were a myth. A story we told ourselves that didn’t always tally with reality, and thus contributed to the complacency which was our downfall against COVID-19.

Start-Up Nation is a great slogan for the hasbara industry and it has helped enormously to bolster Israel’s soft-power and financial confidence. But it may have done lethal damage too.

The Start-Up Nation brand was coined in the 2009 best-selling book of that name by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. It was based on a very real phenomenon: a disproportionate level of high-tech innovation and entrepreneurship that revolutionized the Israeli economy from the 1990s onwards, and catapulted it into the global premier league. 

It was always a compelling but selective narrative. It focuses on the alumni of the IDF Intelligence Corp’s Unit 8200 and similar units who, together with immigrants from the United States and the former Soviet Union, broke the Israeli tech sector free of the grey, suffocating bureaucracy which had held it back for so long.

A coronavirus testing station in the Israeli Arab town of  Umm al-Fahm.
A coronavirus testing station in the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. Credit: Rami Shllush

The narrative is a paean for the free market which almost totally ignores the pivotal role played by the Rabin government in setting up and funding the Yozma program in 1993, without which there would have been no venture-capital to fire up the start-up revolution. 

Start-Up Nation an enduring narrative that overlooks the fact that little of the wealth created by the hi-tech sector ever trickled down to communities and families who are not among the ten percent of the Israeli workforce employed in it. It bypasses the inconvenient fact that Israel is now a dual-economy society where the 90 percent employed in the "old" economy are increasingly left behind, and that the cutting-edge achievements have not improved the quality of the vast majority of Israeli schools, hospitals and social services.

It’s a great story for Israeli public relations, but not that great for most Israelis.

This isn’t an indictment of the Israeli tech community. Many of its leaders and employees are social-minded, and make significant efforts to boost education levels and vocational training in the Haredi and Arab sectors. But their scope for success, while Israel’s prime minister has based his coalition on incitement against Israel’s Arab citizens and guaranteeing the Haredi rabbis autonomy to keep their schools free of "foreign" knowledge, is limited. 

Netanyahu loves talking up the start-up nation in his speeches and meetings with foreign leaders, but he’s done no nation-building himself. Only tearing Israeli society apart into warring camps. 

With Israel facing lockdown again, it’s time to retire the Start-Up Nation brand – or, at the very least, send it on a sabbatical. The self-congratulation rings hollow in Israel of 2020. It sounds more like hubris. When put to test, it turned out that Israel has plenty of successful start-ups, they just don’t particularly epitomize the nation – or its leader. 

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