Analysis |

Like Trump, Netanyahu Has Sabotaged Israel’s War on COVID-19 – and Everyone Knows It

Millions of Americans can replace their president on November 3, but all Israel needs are a few brave politicians - who are nowhere to be found

Chemi Shalev
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Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, January 27, 2020.
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, January 27, 2020.Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP
Chemi Shalev

If Benjamin Netanyahu would suddenly disappear from the scene, if he announced his resignation tomorrow for one reason or another, some Israelis would rejoice and others would mourn but all would be staring into a void. Israelis under 20 can’t remember anyone else as prime minister, and after Netanyahu’s dozen straight years at the top, it’s a fading memory for their elders as well.

It takes a leap of the imagination to conjure an Israel without Netanyahu, especially as one is hard pressed to come up with an appealing alternative, which is one of the reasons he endures. Nonetheless, it’s clear to most Israelis, excluding his loyal base but including the overwhelming majority of politicians, senior officials and anyone else who follows closely, that without Netanyahu Israel would be far better placed to ward off the coronavirus pandemic and survive its economic destruction.

Netanyahu’s public positions often seem like the polar opposite of Donald Trump’s, inflating rather than belittling the threat of the disease and advocating tougher rather than weaker measures to fight it, but as far the bottom line is concerned, they are one and the same. Both are directly and personally responsible for their countries’ dismal record in containing COVID-19. Both are looking out for number one, at the direct expense of the people they purport to serve.

What’s more, most of their respective cabinet officers, senior officials, legislators and party bigwigs – other than the willingly blind or hopelessly stupid – are well aware that Trump/Netanyahu are actively sabotaging the fight against the pandemic, thereby multiplying its casualties and inflating its economic cost. Paralyzed by fear of retribution for speaking out and driven by similar self-centered considerations, these profiles in courage maintain their silence, at best, or actively promote and buttress their leaders’ reckless negligence, at worst.

In both countries, all are beholden to the power of the base. According to the latest Economist-YouGov poll, an astonishing 41% of Americans actually approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, seen around the world as unmitigated disaster, including a whopping 85% of Republicans. Other than scattered brave souls who have muttered reservations about Trump’s deranged refusal to advocate the most elementary safety precautions, none dare antagonize the President’s quick-tempered cultish fans. Better to let thousands of Americans needlessly succumb to the disease than endure the fury of Trumpkins scorned.

The Israeli public’s confidence in Netanyahu’s management of the pandemic has plunged even lower, 27% in recent polls, but the modest figure is deceptive. In Israel’s proportional system, 27% of the vote can garner 32-33 seats in the Knesset, enough to keep Netanyahu in office. And given that the bulk of the 27% is comprised of Netanyahu’s hardcore Likud base, his party colleagues are just as reticent to antagonize their voters as their American counterparts. Even their silence can be costly, as evidenced by the rapid promotion of colleagues willing to stand up for Netanyahu and defend his every move today as well as its reversal tomorrow.

Americans seemingly have the advantage because they can reject Trump on November 3 and eject him from office on Inauguration Day next January 20, if they so choose, but in actual fact, Israeli lawmakers can get rid of Netanyahu in a vote of no confidence at any given moment. They could have replaced him this week, in fact, in a no-confidence motion submitted by Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, but for Kahol Lavan’s decision to stick with an alliance they freely admit has failed, the arguably racist refusal of some of its members to join forces with the largely Arab Joint List and the plain cowardice of Likud members, many of whom know far better.

Netanyahu undoubtedly wants to tame COVID-19 and to revive Israel’s once thriving economy, but his top priority was, is and will be averting criminal trial in January and remaining in power for as long as possible at the same time. The same self-centered reasons that compelled Netanyahu to call three straight elections – in April and September 2019 and March 2020 – despite their heavy toll on the Israeli economy and political stability, have driven his response to the coronavirus crisis, with similar destructive results.

A Tel Aviv restaurant that's been closed down due to coronavirus restrictions during Israel's second lockdown, September 2020
A shuttered restaurant in Tel Aviv, during the current lockdown. "Even if you stick to the rules 100 percent they’ll always find something wrong," says one restaurateur.Credit: Meged Gozani

Netanyahu’s partnership with Benny Gantz and Kahol Lavan is currently teetering on the verge of collapse, for example, because of his adamant refusal to approve a budget for fiscal year 2021. Economic experts agree that a budget is essential to mounting an adequate response to the pandemic, but its enactment would close a glaring loophole in Netanyahu’s coalition agreement with Gantz that serves his personal interests first.

Netanyahu never intended to hand over power to Gantz next November, as their agreement stipulates. If he calls early elections or the government falls for any other reason, however, the agreement stipulates that he hand over power to Gantz in the interim. If the government falls because it fails to pass a budget by March 31, as mandated by law, Netanyahu can have his cake and eat it: He’ll wiggle out of his power-sharing deal with Gantz, hold new elections if it suits him and remain in office throughout.

Netanyahu has thrice sought to achieve an absolute Knesset majority of 61 right wing loyalists who would legislate his way out of his legal morass and thrice failed but hope spring eternal. With Avigdor Lieberman defecting to his left and Naftali Bennet now threatening from the right, his only true and trusted collaborators are the ultra-Orthodox parties, which is why Netanyahu has bent over backwards to appease their leaders, hampering and sometimes sabotaging his government’s campaign against COVID-19.

When coronavirus started spreading in February, Israel imposed a strict travel ban from which the U.S. was exempted. Netanyahu did not want to embarrass his ally Donald Trump, who was still depicting COVID-19 as a hoax, but he was just as eager to please ultra-Orthodox leaders who demanded that more than 15,000 of their flock be allowed to travel from the U.S. to Israel. Hundreds if not thousands of them turned out to be COVID-19 carriers who proceeded to spread the disease far and wide in their communities.

Netanyahu then resisted efforts to isolate Haredi communities in which coronavirus was rampant, in deference to ultra-Orthodox protests at supposedly being “singled out” by authorities. He failed to clamp down on the rampant refusal of several ultra-Orthodox rabbis and thousands of their followers to follow the government’s safety restrictions, thus putting themselves and others at risk.

For months on end, Netanyahu balked at handing over responsibilities for combatting COVID-19 to the army and Defense Ministry, which are the only bodies capable of handling such a mass-casualty event, for fear that his rivals – first Naftali Bennett and then Gantz – would steal the limelight and get the credit.

He insisted on a crippling lockdown that needlessly closed small businesses and may have doomed them to bankruptcy because it was the only way he could get the government to ban the weekly protests against his corruption near his residence in Jerusalem as well. Now that his gambit has backfired, and the large protest outside his home evolved into far larger and widespread demonstrations throughout the country, Netanyahu has abruptly dropped his opposition to the protests, paving the way for the imminent reopening of tens of thousands of small businesses, for all the wrong reasons.

Netanyahu’s preoccupation with himself is the main reason his government’s policy is muddled and self-contradictory, his cabinet ministers are bickering instead of collaborating, senior civil servants are resigning en masse, and the public is rapidly losing faith. In the ensuing chaos, its every group for itself – Jews vs. Arabs, secular vs. religious, right vs. left – and let everyone else be damned.

People with masks walk the streets of Jerusalem, July 19, 2020.
People with masks walk the streets of Jerusalem, July 19, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Netanyahu has not only failed to unite the public behind him to better face the enormous challenges Israel faces, he has continued to divide Israelis and incite one group against the other as if the country was in the midst of an election campaign, which, in many ways, it is. Sowing discord and spreading distrust serve Netanyahu’s purposes; the good of the country comes in a far second.

Netanyahu’s maneuvers and machinations are directly responsible for the government’s abject failure to capitalize on its initial success in containing the disease. From a performance ranked first among Western democracies, it has plunged to last. Besides fearing for their lives and livelihood, Israelis are despairing and despondent that their supposedly superior, can-do start up nation that unites in solidarity in times of crisis has turned into a bumbling and bickering country that can’t get its act or its people together.

Israel's challenges wouldn’t go away, of course, if Netanyahu were to somehow evaporate, but not so some of the major obstacles currently impeding its way. His successor, whoever it may be, could dedicate himself – or herself – exclusively to tackling coronavirus rather than suborning the battle to his or her personal interests. The government’s policies would be guided by professional medical considerations rather than Netanyahu’s thinly disguised personal motives, which should sound familiar to most Americans.

Devoid of Netanyahu’s toxic personality and divisive conduct, his successor could unite the nation and ease some of the existential angst generated by current fractures. Civil servants would rededicate themselves to the task at hand rather than being hounded out of office by Netanyahu’s lackeys for daring to question his decisions. Most importantly, perhaps, Israelis could once again believe that the prime minister says what he means and means what he says instead of assuming by default, as they do today, that his statements and actions are driven by a barely hidden personal agenda.

The change could be just as swift as dramatic, but as things stand now, it’s not even remotely in the cards. The prospects of millions of U.S. voters ousting Trump emphatically on November 3 are far greater than the emergence of the scant few Israeli legislators needed to turn the tables on Netanyahu and remove him from office. Their vain and short-sighted self-preservation, which overrides their better judgement and love of country is destined, to borrow from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to live in infamy.

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