In 2016, after Donald Trump won the election, the impact of the victory was immediately apparent in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s behavior. About a month after the election, Channel 12 News political analyst Amit Segal reported that the prime minister had instructed his advisers, in English as is his wont, to “be like Trump.”
When Ilana Dayan opened the new season of her television program “Fact” with an investigative report about the functioning of Netanyahu’s bureau, he responded by firing off a long, personal and unprecedently harsh response, which Dayan read out in full on the program. (Viewers remember mainly her laconic response: “What do you say? You say nothing.”)
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Then came the frequent allegations of “fake news,” direct from Trump & Co. Netanyahu had cruised in that territory even earlier, but Trump gave him the confidence that he could keep going. The prime minister clearly became more extreme under the inspiration of the U.S. president, as did his friends, the presidents of Brazil, Hungary and the Philippines. In the recent election campaigns, Netanyahu made effective and brutal use of the social networks. At times it appeared that the apparatus at his disposal even outdid the capabilities of Trump and the crass networks that the Russian intelligence services operated for his benefit.
Joe Biden won the election largely by being anti-Trump. The president-elect is older than his competitor, sometimes speaks with diminished clarity and projects less charisma, but at the same time he sends a message of fairness and of playing by the rules. It will be interesting to see whether this new spirit has any sort of effect on Israeli politics. In the Knesset this week, lawmakerYair Lapid (Yesh Atid) slammed Cyber Minister David Amsalem (Likud) over his thuggish style. Amsalem looked distinctly embarrassed. The bastards changed the rules.
Netanyahu, for his part, was busy at the time obscuring the immense damage he fomented during the past decade in Israel’s relations with the Democratic Party, first by his wrangling with the Obama administration over the settlements and the nuclear agreement, and afterward by his total identification with Trump. The prime minister stated in his speech at the Knesset that from Israel’s viewpoint there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats, but made do with sending lukewarm congratulations to Biden via social media, didn’t call him and was careful not to refer to him as the “president-elect.”
That behavior stems from concern about offending Trump, and perhaps from a desire to extract more goodwill gestures from the president before he leaves office in January. It’s not certain that Iran has to top the list. Netanyahu’s frequent preoccupation this year with a plan to annex the settlements turned out to be a fraud, which he was happy to shrug off in return for the important normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Every urgent ideological commitment, with the possible exception of Iran, gave way to an overwhelming need for political survival, by any means, with the aim of terminating the legal procedures against him.
Possibly what Netanyahu really needs from Trump is for the administration to put pressure on Pfizer, the vaccines manufacturer, to supply Israel with a vaccine against the coronavirus – quickly. An achievement along those lines will send a message to the Israeli public that thanks to his ties with world leaders, Netanyahu remains, as his election slogan claims, in “a different league.” With an American promise of the quick delivery of a vaccine, Netanyahu might be able to escape into the next election with vague promises of an improvement in the economic situation, a development that’s supposedly just around the corner.
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No success like failure
With his amazing ability to market resounding failure as sterling success, Netanyahu on Wednesday evening sold the media a heartbreaking story about the beating Jewish heart of Pfizer’s CEO.
So moved, supposedly, was the CEO at the mention of Netanyahu’s visit to the synagogue in Thessaloniki, that he immediately caved and moved Israel up to the top of the list of recipients of the vaccine.
In practice, as Meirav Arlosoroff reported in TheMarker, the picture is quite gloomy. Israel didn’t gamble on signing an early contract with Pfizer, but bet on Moderna, a competitor that might yet finish second. That’s legitimate. What’s less legitimate is that the health system ignored urgent messages from Pfizer’s representatives in Israel about two months ago on the need to move ahead. Subsequently, the signing of the contract was delayed because of Israel’s insistence on relatively marginal clauses.
Netanyahu came to his senses only when Pfizer threatened this week to cancel the allocation reserved for Israel of 7 million doses (two doses per person are required, so this would cover fewer than 40 percent of the country’s citizens). That was the genesis of the accelerated conversation with the CEO, Albert Bourla, on Wednesday. Now feverish efforts are underway to sign a contract within the next few days that will make it possible to supply the vaccine to Israel in the first half of next year.
Netanyahu’s festive announcements to the public about the vaccine are rife with hyper-jubilation, as though Israel brought about the global scientific breakthrough. “Look how much dust we’re kicking up,” the ant said to the elephant. In practice, the Israeli vaccination against the virus will be completed, if it’s successful, only at the end of next year. Netanyahu’s frenetic, failed management was also demonstrated this week in consultation with the cabinet and with the coronavirus cabinet. The plan to impose a lockdown on “red” cities wasn’t implemented. Kahol Lavan’s demand to increase the fines for opening educational institutions was fudged by Likud, because of objections by the Haredi parties.
The differential approach to local governments according to the morbidity rate – the declared idea that underlies the shelved “traffic light” plan and to which Netanyahu also committed himself – is not happening. And throughout, it’s obligatory to recall, the Haredi children are in school while Israel’s other children and teenagers, from the 5th through the 12th grades, are stuck at home as Zoom zombies. Netanyahu occasionally mumbles something noncommittal on the subject, while immersing himself in lengthy discussions about imposing a pointless nighttime curfew.
Still, a bit of encouragement could be drawn this week from a visit to the headquarters of the army’s Alon Command to break the chain of infection. The state poured a lot of money into the project, but in Israel the army has no competitors when it comes to the ability to establish a project from the ground up in a short time. The unit, under the command of Brig. Gen. Nissan Davidi – and for which, oddly, no snappy IDF acronym has been found – is already working at full steam. The 2,800 soldiers involved are easily filling the quota of daily investigations (between 600 and 750 per day, which is the same as the daily number of newly infected). The army estimates that if needed, it will be possible to do 3,000 and even 5,000 contact tracing investigations a day.
The time that passes between a positive test, completion of the investigation and quarantining of the people who were in contact with the carrier has been reduced to 29 hours on average. Within a few weeks, Israel will be able to perform about 100,000 tests a day. At the moment there are about 35,000 a day, simply because there is no demand. Surveys will soon begin in high-tech and in the military industries to locate potential illness. For now, and contrary to earlier assessments, no appropriate way has been found to do quick tests and the Achilles heel remains the lack of cooperation in the investigations by the country’s citizens.
This week, on average, each confirmed carrier provided the names of 4.5 “contacts,” though the declared goal is to discover 10 contacts. The checks focus on the four days that preceded the infection, but even so people are declining to respond. It’s thought that only about 21 percent of each carrier’s contacts are currently being placed in quarantine. It’s clear now that there is a phenomenon of deliberate avoidance of tests, particularly among the Haredi and Arab communities. This apparently attests to hidden illness that goes unrecorded, until the chain of infection reaches someone more vulnerable, who requires hospitalization.
Only about half the people who require quarantine adhere to the regulations, and only about 30 percent of those in quarantine who are told to be tested actually report for a test. This is somehow tolerable when the incidence of illness is not too high. But the crunch will come in another month, in the depths of winter. The big question is whether, thanks to social distancing, masks and the near-absence of flights, Israel will have a winter almost free of the flu, as was the case in some of the countries in the Southern Hemisphere.