Netanyahu's Love of Cutting Corners Is Exactly Why Israel Failed to Control the Coronavirus

Netanyahu excels when the situation calls for improvisation and flexibility, but the coronavirus demands boring rules and regulations – not a bill to bypass the Knesset

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Benjamin Netanyahu puts on a face mask at a cabinet meeting on May 31, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu puts on a face mask at a cabinet meeting on May 31, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

There is an incomprehensible chasm between the Israel that only Monday morning launched a particularly advanced observation satellite into space, and the Israel whose coronavirus infection graph is soaring in the same direction.

The nation of startups and of innovation, in which every day thousands of citizens are mistakenly sent into quarantine by the oh-so-sophisticated systems of the Shin Bet security service, without a hope of getting through to the complaint hotline, while everyone else apparently thinks a face mask is most effective against the virus when it dangles elegantly under the chin.

Sovereignty Setback: Who Burst Bibi's Annexation Bubble?Credit: Haaretz

Israelis and their leaders are often at their best in times of crisis and opportunity. Israel’s organizational culture excels when the situation calls for improvisation and flexibility, bending rules and resources and taking circumstances into account. It’s apparently how we were shaped over the course of years of wars and disasters along with the myth of self-sacrifice and social cohesion.

When some drama breaks out, all of the systems and the generally obedient citizens go on the attack. But when the emergency situation gradually becomes an oppressive routine and all of the creative workarounds must be converted into boring rules and regulations, long-range plans and a logical, organized decision-making process, the problems start.

A medical worker in protective equipment next to an ambulance in Tel Aviv, July 6, 2020.
A medical worker in protective equipment next to an ambulance in Tel Aviv, July 6, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

That’s exactly what happened with the coronavirus. The government and the people share the blame. The former keeps improvising without an overriding strategy, logic or control, while the latter abandoned the rules en masse as soon as the lockdown ended.

Nietzsche called this the Apollonian and the Dionysian principles. Put simply, the tension that exists within every person between the reason and emotion. Obeying the rules vs. breaking them. In a crisis like the pandemic, it’s clear that at this point we need a leadership that can appreciate the Apollonian side as well, and guide the public accordingly. The order, regularity and rationality that will bring results may be slow but it is certain. The curve may not “crash” to thunderous applause, but it also won’t leap heavenward.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a person who both discerns and loves historic drama. He flourishes in a crisis, enjoys being “the first to identify a disaster,” hastens to make the darkest predictions, pounces on the challenge – and is also quick to pat himself on the back even before it’s over. All these behaviors were on display during the first wave of the coronavirus in Israel. Now, when the time has come to shift from “drama” mode into “grinding routine” mode, he loses his way, together with the government and the entire country.

That being the case, it wasn’t particularly surprising on Thursday to hear Netanyahu mourning at length the good old days of the transition government, when with little more than a wave of his hand any restrictive proposal in the emergency regulations could be passed. For precisely this reason he put forth a government bill Monday that would allow the immediate implementation of any restriction, like in the good old days of the interim government, bypassing the tedious, superfluous deliberations in various Knesset committees.

“The legal rules obligate us, it’s simply unbelievable, they obligate us to pass everything into law. What we were able to do in the transition government, you have emergency regulations, suddenly after we formed the government they tell you, ‘Ah, now you can legislate.’ Now the legislation puts you into the Knesset, there are rules in legislation, and all sorts of directives of the attorney general, do this, do that.” That was his complaint after he was asked why the enforcement of the pandemic regulations was ineffective. If only all of those lawyers hadn’t bothered him, with all their democracy and their laws, he would have beaten the coronavirus long ago.

Lawmakers sit in the Knesset plenum, June 15, 2020.
Lawmakers sit in the Knesset plenum, June 15, 2020.Credit: Adina Wallman, spokeswoman for the Knesset

True, this speech also was in keeping with Netanyahu’s agenda of blaming the rule of law, and especially the High Court of Justice and the attorney general, for everything that’s wrong in the world. It goes great with undermining the public’s trust in them ahead of the conclusion of his trial. He had support in this from a conservative right-wing group that seeks to weaken the rule of law over the legislators for ideological purposes.

But there’s more to it. Netanyahu’s disdain for the rules that so discomfort him isn’t only a product of his growing concentration of power and his frustration over its lessening with Kahol Lavan’s entry into the government. Nor is it only a product of his battle against the legal system in connection with his trial. It’s also a product of the same tendency to flee from everything that is supposedly too bureaucratic, too complicated, and instead to proudly cut corners. As policy. An approach that will only exacerbate the disaster if it continues. The coronavirus can’t be vanquished with fireworks, rather only with quiet, methodical, painstaking work and everyone’s consistent compliance with the onerous regulations.