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Folding at 11th Hour, Netanyahu Proves Again Fighting Coronavirus Isn't His Top Priority

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Jerusalem, May 17, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Jerusalem, May 17, 2020. Credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM / KNESSET SPOKE
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The offensive cynicism with which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been zigzagging through the coronavirus crisis reached a nadir on Sunday. At the last minute, he refused to approve the plan put forward by coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu to impose a lockdown and tougher restrictions on "red cities," in which the rate of infection is high. Instead, the premier suggested imposing night curfews and closing schools in 40 cities. Only a small number of those are ultra-Orthodox communities.

The reason for this is one single letter, a harsh one to be sure, from the mayors of only four Haredi cities – Bnei Brak, Elad, Betar Illit and Emmanuel. One letter was enough to overturn government policy. The move to lock down communities with high infection rates was halted. During the night between Sunday and Monday, negotiations were still ongoing about what new restrictions could be imposed and which ones would be canceled or deferred until further notice.

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For those exhausted residents still stubbornly following how the country is trying to battle the coronavirus, it should be pretty clear by now that preserving their health, the functioning of the health system or the nation’s economy are not the prime minister’s top priority.

Netanyahu is facing constraints that are all too familiar to Israeli voters, and only became even more evident during the term of the current government, which was ostensibly set up to confront the coronavirus. The prime minister's trial for fraud and breach of trust, which will reopen in December, may end in a jail sentence. His chances of survival are totally dependent on his political moves, which all aim to decrease the risk of conviction.

Netanyahu needs the Haredi parties more than ever as the base for his coalition. He cannot survive without them, and thus cannot anger them or allow himself to take any steps that would put their alliance at risk. He has very little wiggle room.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders Yaakov Litzman (L) and Arye Dery (C) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, November 18, 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

Grim statistics

Yet, the coincidental convergence of two statistical landmarks in recent days has generated extraordinary pressure on the government to wake up from its summer slumber and take new steps to battle COVID-19. On Sunday came the country’s 1,000th death from the illness, a number which has since gone up. It was the inevitable consequence of another statistic: The average number of deaths had reached 15 per day, 0.6 percent of the known cases.

Before that came another, more worrying sign: Israel reached the top of global rankings in terms of new daily cases per million residents, with 3,000 new cases a day. There was a jump of close to 40 percent in new cases in the last two weeks, partly due to methodical testing carried out in religious schools, where the virus started to spread after the new term started in mid-August. The increase is also the result of widespread laxity in following social distancing guidelines among three large population groups – the Haredim, the Arabs and young people.

Because young people make up such a large proportion of the newest cases and most of them are asymptomatic, the morbidity has yet to translate into a sharp rise in the indices that are really important – the number of those hospitalized, on ventilators, in serious condition and subsequently, the number of dead. But numbers are slowly starting to accumulate, leading to concerns that the health system will soon be under unreasonable pressure. Senior health officials are continuing to cast concerned glances at the data being collated by the barometer team, which is meant to predict the possible collapse of hospitals a few weeks in advance.

The spike in new cases renewed the media’s interest in the virus, which had waned a little bit, sparking public criticism of the government’s poor handling of the crisis. Other countries are also now caught up in a rise in infections as part of a second wave (and there, too, the mortality rate is low, certainly compared to the first wave). But Israel is setting unique records for its management failures. Netanyahu's policies, the coronavirus cabinet and the government are full of contradictions and hesitations, often yielding to interests and pressure groups.

Gamzu has for a while now been trying to get his so-called 'traffic light' plan through the cabinet. To avoid a general lockdown, a move that he has resisted since being appointed to his post at the end of July, Gamzu sought to intensify restrictions in the ten red cities that top the table of incidence of infection, as well as some neighborhoods in Jerusalem and other cities. All these communities are either Arab or Haredi. Under the most optimistic scenario, which is unlikely to succeed, this focus would make a lockdown during the fall holidays unnecessary.

Weakening demonstrations, demonstrating weakness

Mayors of Arab towns have been beating their breasts in the media over their disregard of the coronavirus guidelines and admit that mass scorn for the rules at weddings and other celebrations in their communities led to a sharp rise in infections. But the heads of Haredi cities took the opposite stance. In their sharply worded letter to Netanyahu, they blamed him directly for the situation. “You have humiliated us,” they wrote. “We will not forget and we won’t cooperate.”

That was the most blatant challenge of government policy to date, and it came at a critical time. Netanyahu folded immediately and proved yet again – as if any more proof was needed – that the only language he understands is force. At the same time, he permanently pulled the rug from under Gamzu’s feet. If the coronavirus czar wasn’t already walking around with a resignation letter in his pocket, now would be the time to start writing it. Netanyahu showed that he’s prepared to undermine – nay, sacrifice – the person he himself appointed to manage the health crisis as part of his personal struggle for survival.

Whatever is decided in the end, more precious time has been wasted. The more the virus spreads, the more Gamzu’s traffic light plan becomes irrelevant. Soon, red cities will get swallowed up as the whole country changes to crimson hues. There will almost be no more green cities left to talk about.

Netanyahu’s latest move is likely to make a nationwide lockdown inevitable around the Jewish new year, in the second half of September. This benefits Netanyahu, because it will allow him to restrict the demonstrations that have been driving his family and his army of propagandists mad. But it is possible that he isn’t taking into account another development that could be a direct result of open resistance by the Haredim – a mass refusal among most residents to follow the instructions, after he has crushed what was left of the public’s confidence in the fairness and logic of his decisions.

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