The coronavirus crisis seemed to be going so well for Netanyahu at first. Early on in the pandemic, his decision to close Israel’s borders – first to the countries where the virus had initially spread, and then to the rest of the world – was hailed as farsighted and does indeed seem to have helped save Israeli lives. Likewise, his government’s social distancing precautions and the shutdown of schools and businesses were timely. Together with the fact that Israel has a much younger population than most Western countries, these steps by the Netanyahu government have so far prevented the COVID-19 death rate from spiraling.
Of course, the crisis is also a useful backdrop for Netanyahu’s characteristic blend of fearmongering and braggadocio. At the start of the pandemic, he ominously warned of the possibility of as many as 10,000 deaths in Israel, a scenario no serious medical expert endorsed. However, he also promised that Israel was the country “best prepared in the world” to deal with the threat. It was impossible to detach this narrative from the political backdrop: The third general election in less than a year had just taken place and Netanyahu had failed once again to win a majority.
The image of the nation’s savior worked on the public, as the polls began to show Likud’s tally of seats going up. It also worked on Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, who, despite being endorsed by a majority of Knesset members, bought Netanyahu’s “national emergency” spiel.
But that carefully constructed image is coming undone. It began with the ultra-Orthodox, Netanyahu’s closest allies, and most crucially his health minister, Yaakov Litzman, who seemed unwilling to impose the same shutdown regulations he dictated to other Israelis on his own community. There was no direct reason to blame Netanyahu for the lack of discipline on the streets of Bnei Brak, but it highlighted the autonomy of his governing coalition partners. Over the past year, the alliance between Likud and the Haredim has been a weak point in Netanyahu’s political armor, exploited by his rivals.
With the infection rates climbing in Haredi neighborhoods, and Netanyahu himself twice being forced into quarantine – first after coming into contact with his adviser on ultra-Orthodox affairs and then with Litzman, after both tested positive for the coronavirus – it seemed matters were not quite under control.
With Litzman out of the picture, it became much harder to hide the bickering among senior officials at the Health Ministry, and between them and their opposite numbers in the Finance Ministry. As the economic implications of the shutdown began to sink in, and the lack of a coherent exit strategy became evident, Netanyahu’s ratings started to dip.
Netanyahu is still boasting in televised briefings of how his decisions early on have saved untold lives, but the shine is coming off. The number of unemployed has crossed the million mark, and business owners and parents of schoolchildren have no indication of how and when they can expect any respite. The fact that governments around the world are facing the same dilemmas hardly helps Netanyahu, since he has made such a commotion over Israel leading the pack. Israelis are asking themselves how their advantage was squandered.
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The prime minister is not only in need of an exit strategy, he also needs an exit narrative – not least to keep up the claim that Gantz must still join him in an emergency government. He needs someone to blame.
Netanyahu usually has three useful scapegoats: the left, the media and the Arab community. But the left-wing politicians have wisely refrained from criticizing Netanyahu’s actual policies in fighting the virus (with the exception of Yair Lapid, who had one regretful quote against the lockdown, eagerly torn into by Netanyahu’s proxies), and focused instead on the faulty implementation and lack of new policies. So not enough fodder there.
The media, likewise, have been relatively well behaved, giving Netanyahu unlimited screen time in which he is not bothered by reporters’ questions. He has little room for carping about them.
Neither has Israel's Arab community given him the opening he hoped for. Minor coronavirus outbreaks in a few Arab towns were quickly traced to employees of Jewish-owned businesses, and local councils were quick to isolate those infected. Arab leaders, especially in the run-up to Ramadan, have been eager to coordinate further lockdowns with the police, in the full knowledge that any infraction would be pounced upon. The high profile of Arab medical staff on the virus front lines has also made it more difficult than usual to incite against the community.
So who to scapegoat? Ultra-Orthodox politicians privately admit they are concerned Netanyahu will ultimately sacrifice them. Their fears are understandable, but Netanyahu needs their support and is unlikely to jeopardize it too much. In recent days, a new target has started to emerge in selected leaks from the prime minister’s circle.
More and more details are coming out about Netanyahu’s frustration with officials. He is increasingly taking the side of outside experts, like his occasional adviser and Mobileye CEO Prof. Amnon Shashua, and the scientists at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. Their advice could well be correct, but there is an increasingly insidious tone regarding the civil servants whom Netanyahu has hitherto been relying upon.
Blaming the civil service while exalting the private sector is classic Netanyahu. He famously coined the adage of the private “thin man” carrying the public “fat man.” The public sector is being lined up for all the government failings. Netanyahu will be credited for everything that went right, and the right wing’s hated shilton ha’pkidim – rule of the clerks – blamed for anything that went wrong.
This will serve Netanyahu both in the short term – when small businesses being forced to close down are in the headlines – and the long term, when he once again tries to evade his day in court. After all, it is the Attorney General’s Office and the judges who, for his followers, epitomize the hated left-wing, deep state officialdom.