Analysis |

Netanyahu’s Ministers of Mayhem Are Ruining Israel’s Comeback From Coronavirus

Cabinet members should be doing what’s best for their constituents – but the four horsemen of Israel’s potential coronavirus apocalypse could be squandering all the country’s early advantage in fighting the pandemic

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
From left to right: Yaakov Litzman, Moshe Kahlon, Benjamin Netanyahu during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 8, 2020.
Yaakov Litzman, left, Moshe Kahlon and Benjamin Netanyahu during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 8, 2020. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Israel has the COVID-19 virus under control. Just about. The number of Israelis who have been infected and are in serious condition is still under 200, and while that is slowly growing, the rate seems manageable. For now at least, there is little prospect that Israel’s health system will be overwhelmed with patients on life support needing ventilation.

The four main factors playing in Israel’s favor were the government’s early decision to prevent arrivals from abroad and send returning Israelis into self-quarantine; the relative discipline of most Israelis obeying social distancing and shutdown regulations; the professional excellence of the country’s medical teams (despite being understaffed); and the fact that Israel’s population is much younger than Western countries, where a larger proportion of elderly citizens has contributed to higher death rates.

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But being in a better situation in comparison to advanced countries like Italy, France, Great Britain and the United States is by itself cold consolation. Israel is still far from being out of the woods. Major hubs of coronavirus infection, particularly in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, are still likely to produce a surge of serious cases, and Israel seems critically unable to seriously boost the number of COVID-19 tests being carried out.

Underlying this, there is a total lack of a coherent exit strategy for the curfewed population and economy, which is at near-standstill. The advantage that Israel has built over the virus in the last two months is in danger of being squandered.

The failure is strategic and, therefore, political. Israelis, now in week five of a gradually tightening shutdown, have no idea when and under what conditions they will finally be allowed to emerge, to send their children back to school, to resume work, or in what way public services and spaces will begin their long journey back to something resembling normalcy.

They don’t know because, at present, there is no set plan. There are options, and the tentative glimmering of a road map, prepared by the National Security Council, the Health Ministry, the treasury and other various government departments and advisory bodies. But there is no national plan that takes the various public health, financial, national security and employment factors into consideration, balances between them and manages the risks.

That kind of big picture decision-making in what is – at least theoretically – a democracy has to be done by politicians. Civil servants in each ministry should present their expert opinions and assessments in the sectors they are responsible for. But ministers, who are elected representatives of the people, must make the call on whether the shutdown continues, keeping over a million kids at home until the end of the school year, jeopardizing hundreds of thousands more jobs, deepening what is already the worst recession Israel has experienced since the 1980s, or whether it is the moment to take a gamble on another wave of infection.

Instead of watching political leadership in action and seeing an outcome on the horizon, Israelis are being treated to the spectacle of ministers briefing against each other, while squabbling senior officials present half-baked ideas and argue in television studios.

This political failure rests with the entire government, but it can be personally attributed to four of its senior members in particular: Benjamin Netanyahu, Yaakov Litzman, Moshe Kahlon and Naftali Bennett.

recently resigned Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, November 24, 2019.
recently resigned Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, November 24, 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

Litzman, as the health minister who refused to follow his own social distancing orders, caught the virus and has disappeared from the public’s view for over a week now. He is the most obvious culprit, but not for these reasons – and not even for the fact that while he was imposing lockdown regulations on 88 percent of the Israeli public, he was busy trying to get the synagogues and yeshivas of his own ultra-Orthodox community exempted. These pale in comparison with the managerial shambles he has presided over.

Senior civil servants in his office, who seem to spend most of their time giving interviews, can’t stick to one line on the crucial issues of the number of tests needed daily; on the protocols for dealing with outbreaks in nursing homes; and whether neighborhoods with high levels of infection should be isolated.

Small wonder that senior doctors, hospital directors and department heads are in open rebellion against them. This is all happening on Litzman’s watch and has nothing to do with his own conduct, or the belated response of his community.

The responsibility for the national response to a global pandemic does not rest solely with the health minister, but a health system that can at least formulate policy, ensure that it is acted upon and provide the rest of government, let alone the public, with reliable data, is essential.

The professionalism of the medical teams on the frontline has so far masked the systematic failure at the top. But now that an exit strategy is becoming a strategic imperative, the dysfunction in the ministry’s upper echelon is impossible to hide. And when it gets to this level, it’s the minister’s personal responsibility.

The Finance Ministry, especially its budget department, is the most powerful of all ministries. Its civil servants, sometimes only in their twenties, get to tell ministers and senior officials in other ministries that they can’t fund their pet projects. Since Israel extricated itself from its last major financial crisis in the mid-1980s, all governments have observed to a large degree the “fiscal discipline” enforced by the “treasury boys.”

For better or worse, the system worked because it imposed rigorous levels of financial planning on the national budget. It was one of the factors that helped shield Israel from the global financial crisis of 2008.

Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Jerusalem, March 12, 2020.
Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Jerusalem, March 12, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

But now, when confronted with a sudden mega-recession and a massive jump in unemployment, the bright young things of the treasury are out of their depth. The aid program for businesses and individuals took a month to prepare and is still in its first stags of implementation. There is no clear plan for how to put the Israeli economy back on track when people are allowed back to work.

At this time, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon should emphasize to his civil servants that they need to change course and the habits of two generations of officialdom, and begin pumping massive sums of cash into an economy on life support. But Kahlon is unmotivated and can’t wait to leave: He had already retired from politics four months ago when, after merging his Kulanu party into Likud, he decided not to run for the Knesset in the March 2 election. He hoped that by now there would be a new government, with a new finance minister and he could focus on boosting his pension with lucrative directorships.

The only reason he hasn’t resigned yet is that he fears Netanyahu will appoint as his replacement Nir Barkat – the new Likud star who, as mayor of Jerusalem, clashed with Kahlon and poured garbage outside his office. Who could expect a minister who has all but left the building to push his officials to embrace brave new ideas?

If life was fair, Bennett would not have been included in this list of ministers of mayhem. The coronavirus is ravaging public health and finances, and he is responsible for neither. But as defense minister, he has at his disposal the immense logistical resources of the Israel Defense Forces and other parts of the security establishment. And to his credit, from early on in this crisis he has proposed and tried to use these resources in fighting the virus.

Bennett was willing to use troops and military industries to do everything from distributing food in Bnei Brak and setting up special hotels for those with light COVID-19 symptoms, to producing ventilators and tripling the number of tests. The Defense Ministry, however, has remained underutilized in the fight against the coronavirus thus far because Netanyahu simply doesn’t trust Bennett. He won’t include him in his narrow circle of decision-makers, which currently consists of himself, National Security Council chief Meir Ben-Shabbat and Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov – the latter now mostly working directly under Netanyahu rather than his own minister.

Naftali Bennett (L) and Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting of the right-wing parties in the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 4, 2020.
Naftali Bennett (L) and Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting of the right-wing parties in the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 4, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The distrust and lack of communication is mainly due to Netanyahu’s paranoia toward the young right-wing leader, who worships him. But Bennett has a share in this as well. Banished from Netanyahu briefings, he has embarked on his own coronavirus PR campaign, complete with veiled criticism of his cabinet colleagues. The criticism is largely accurate, but he can’t have it both ways.

If his plans are being frustrated and he disagrees with the government’s policies, he only has one option. He knows that the Defense Ministry’s full capabilities are not being used at this time of emergency, and that it is because of his relationship with Netanyahu.

The responsible thing to do would be to resign so Netanyahu could become defense minister again and feel comfortable with using the full strength of the defense establishment. As it stands, the moment a new government is formed, Bennett will no longer be minister, so why persist? But Bennett is in love with his dream job and cannot contemplate giving up even one day of it – no matter the price to the national effort against the virus.

Netanyahu’s own personal failings (after the positive decisions he made early on) in this crisis cannot be summed up in a couple of paragraphs. But tolerating a health minister who has gone missing in action and lost control of his officials, and a finance minister who can’t be bothered to motivate his officials, and refusing to allow his defense minister to play a role at the height of a pandemic, is a pretty good indication of how well he’s doing right now.

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