Six months and half a pandemic ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was still addressing the nation three times a week and making himself the exclusive face of Israel’s response to COVID-19, he would regularly boast of how “leaders from around the world are calling me” to ask how Israel so quickly flattened the infection curve and was already heading out from under the first coronavirus wave.
One wonders if they still call him nowadays, when Israel is a world leader, this time with the highest daily rates of new infections of any country, and is the first to have announced a second nationwide lockdown – that is, if you don’t count the dysfunctional mess that is our northern neighbor Lebanon.
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What really happens in these cozy chats between presidents and prime ministers? Do they really swap tips on how to contend with the virus, or are they busy advising each other how to avoid the ire of angry voters?
Either way, Netanyahu should be telling them to avoid the series of mistakes he’s made. Don’t tell the public they can emerge from lockdown, “have fun, have a cup of coffee, a beer,” before you know you have the necessary testing facilities and contact tracing system in place to prevent a second wave from crashing down. Have a coherent plan to alleviate the economic hardship and uncertainty ahead, not just sudden handouts announced without warning. Be clear with the risks ahead and the fact that even the experts are pretty clueless on how to handle a pandemic in a globalized, interconnected world. Oh, and keep one’s advisors on a short leash, so they’re not caught on camera breaking quarantine and other restrictions ordinary citizens are expected to follow.
Netanyahu’s public rating on handling the pandemic has plummeted to just 30 percent, even before his spin doctor Topaz Luk was spotted wearing a peaked cap and breaking quarantine to film a group of ostensible “coronavirus deniers” conveniently masquerading as anti-Netanyahu protestors on Sunday night. Deputy National Security Advisor Reuven Azar had already been caught doing so twice: once when he evaded the “capsule” during last week’s visit to Washington and went out for a run, and then back home, when instead of being in quarantine, he was seen out shopping.
But all the normal reactions about the members of the charmed circle making up the rules for themselves and not abiding by what governs ordinary citizens ring hollow now. It’s not as if Israelis aren’t used to it. We already had this during the first lockdown, when the two leaders of the nation, Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, both broke the rules on the night of the Passover seder (which were designed to protect people of their age, in their 70s) and had their children over.
Anyway, this is the second lockdown, and anyone who’s been out on the streets of Israel since it began on Friday afternoon has seen the difference. It’s not just the ultra-Orthodox community, which openly revolted on Rosh Hashanah, many of its members praying in packed synagogues. Restaurants and coffee shops have been brazenly defying the orders and risking 5,000 shekel fines, staying open and hosting customers – ordinary Israelis who normally wouldn’t dream of breaking the law in any way.
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The Gertner Institute for Epidemiology and Health Policy Research carried out a survey last month on the public’s trust in the government’s COVID-19 guidelines and found that in just five months, the proportion of Israelis responding that they had a large degree of trust dropped from 63 percent in March to just 38 percent by the end of August. And that’s even before the government’s failed attempts to impose the “traffic light plan” of localized lockdowns, which were replaced by the nationwide one. The survey also showed less support for punishing those who were breaking the rules and less motivation to inform on them.
The distrust in the government isn’t just at the national level. A survey carried out last month by the Israel Democracy Institute shows that nearly 39 percent of young Haredi men between the ages of 18 and 30 say that their trust in the ultra-Orthodox politicians has been eroded to a significant degree in the recent period. This erosion of trust has yet to extend to the rabbis who ostensibly give the politicians their orders, but it is almost certainly coming.
On the basis of his own dismal performance, Netanyahu probably has no useful advice for his contemporaries on how to avoid the loss of the public’s trust. But as more and more countries seem to be heading in the same way Israel has gone, toward second lockdowns, as the coronavirus once more rears its ugly head and the fear of a devastating winter increases, one thing governments everywhere need to realize now is that public patience has worn thin. Even in places where the levels of discipline were high during the first lockdown – and they were in Israel – civilians need a lot more convincing that denying themselves of any semblance their normal lives is justified this time around. World leaders don’t need to call up Netanyahu. Just send their diplomats stationed in Israel for a short walk around Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It will tell them all they need to know.