The consultation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held on Tuesday evening concluded with a series of substantive decisions. The previous day, following the end of the Rosh Hashanah break, Israel entered a renewed lockdown, in the light of the sharp increase in the number of confirmed carriers of the coronavirus. The heads of the health system expressed apprehension about a further rise, given that hundreds of thousands are expected to attend the Yom Kippur services in synagogues.
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In the conversation, Netanyahu again raised the issue of the protests against him. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, a senior member of Kahol Lavan, put forward a proposal for a format that would impose certain restrictions during the lockdown, both on prayer services and on demonstrations. The expert teams worked through the night to come up with recommendations, which included allotting four square meters (43 sq. ft.) to each demonstrator.
On Wednesday morning, everything turned topsy-turvy. Netanyahu held another telephone consultation, with cabinet ministers, legal advisers and Health Ministry officials, ahead of a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet that day at noon. “We need to declare a state of emergency in the country,” the prime minister asserted at the start of the conversation. The ministers were flabbergasted. The incidence of illness, high as it is, did not justify such an extreme step, on top which the idea hadn’t even been raised in the earlier discussions.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit tried to object. Israel is already in a medical state of emergency in accordance with the Coronavirus Law, he pointed out. Netanyahu wasn’t convinced. Someone told him that the Police Act contains a tougher clause, under which a national disaster can be declared. The prime minister sought to impose measures of maximum restraint, to the point of a tight lockdown. Two conclusions emerged from what was said. First, that Netanyahu’s turnabout came in the wake of conversations he had held during the night with the members of his family, who are being driven crazy by the demonstrations across from the official residence. And second, contrary to all his denials, the demonstrations are also occupying Netanyahu himself day and night. Scandalously, it’s the struggle against the protest movement that is now guiding his decisions in a crisis that is causing untold damage to the Israeli economy and social order.
Nor is Netanyahu making do with foisting on the country the problematic narrative that stopping the demonstrations is comparable to reducing the scale of the services in the synagogues over the Jewish holidays. He pushed that unacceptable comparison even though prayers take place in closed, crowded spaces and are attended by a far higher number of people – including Haredi communities, which have the highest coronavirus morbidity rates in Israel.
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The prime minister is now in the midst of a jihad against the protests. And if for that it’s necessary to impose a strangling lockdown on the whole economy, a move that the Finance Minister says will cost the economy tens of billions of shekels, then so be it.
The treasury, by the way, wasn’t even in the picture. Finance Minister and Likud lawmaker Yisrael Katz wasn’t invited to the prior consultation, and only heard about Netanyahu’s plan, to his surprise, in the coronavirus cabinet meeting that met in its wake. Katz objected feebly. Netanyahu remained firm in his opinion: The yearly slowdown in economic activity during the period of the Jewish festivals will ensure that the damage to the economy is limited.
He consulted with Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, also from Likud, about introducing possible amendments to the Coronavirus Law, which would legitimize the exclusion of the demonstrations from the activity permitted for the benefit of the economy under the law. The decisions that were approved Thursday morning included a two-week shutdown of economic activity, with the exception of essential businesses, the almost complete halt of public transportation and far-reaching restrictions on prayer services and demonstrations.
The coronavirus cabinet devoted a great deal of its time to the issue of demonstrations. To no avail was the opposition of senior officials of the justice, health and finance ministries to the move being pushed by the prime minister, or their warnings about irreversible damage to the economy and to the country’s democratic regime. “You have to pinch yourself to believe it,” one of the participants said. “It’s like a Hollywood movie about someone who’s clinging to power with every means he can. One person is sending a whole government, a whole country, over the brink.”
According to the descriptions coming out of the meetings, Netanyahu is operating like a steamroller, without restraints. The prime minister is striking fear into the hearts of his ministers, from Likud and from Kahol Lavan. He raises his voice, pounds the table, wears down opponents with lengthy discussions and with one-on-one conversations during the breaks. The Kahol Lavan ministers, for all their good will, can’t cope with his sophistication. The only person putting up an effective opposition to him from within the coalition is Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton.
Reprising his approach at the start of the crisis, Netanyahu has reverted to scare tactics. He harps on what happened last winter in Italy and Spain. “I should have gone back to a general lockdown when there were a thousand people getting sick a day, when there were two thousand,” he said. “A pity I didn’t listen to Yuval Steinitz.” The energy minister in fact appeared on the TV screens for an instant on Wednesday with something of a strange glint in his eyes. The tight lockdown is a correct move, he explained, but it looks as though a general curfew is also needed. Steinitz holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, not physics, but somehow I recalled “Dr. Strangelove,” Stanley Kubrick’s satirical film about America’s nuclear arms obsession during the Cold War.
Without batting an eyelash, the state is now applying to its citizens the rules it has applied brutally against the Palestinians in the territories for more than 50 years. Even those who thought, as I did, that the demonstrators outside the Balfour Street residence should consider placing restrictions on themselves during the lockdown, will think again after the coordinated assault waged by the family and its mouthpieces. Coalition whip and Netanyahu faithful Miki Zohar on Thursday accused the demonstrators of “being happy in their hearts at 7,000 sick people” a day. “They want to bring about chaos and destruction,” Netanyahu’s top representative claimed in an Army Radio interview.
Long after the virus is contained, the heavy blow to civil rights will still be felt. It’s not clear whether there will be a way back.