Why Netanyahu Failed the Coronavirus Stress Test

Years of politicization laid the groundwork for Israel's second wave. Coronavirus has exposed the weakest links in the Israeli governing system, starting from the very top

Anshel Pfeffer
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Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP
Anshel Pfeffer

The coronavirus pandemic has brought to each and every country what few crises are capable of: a stress test pinpointing the weaknesses of every state's leadership and system of governance. This isn’t an event in which just one ministry can be put in charge or one leader can delegate responsibility. It is the ultimate test of what works and who can take the pressure. 

At the start of the pandemic, there was reason to believe that Israel could withstand it relatively well. Going into the crisis, the fundamentals of its economy were strong after over a decade of continuous growth and record-low unemployment figures. Since over 95 percent of arrivals from abroad come through one international airport, shutting down the borders and closely monitoring passengers was relatively easy. Having experienced within recent memory wars that saw the bombardment of civilian areas, Israel was thought to have the infrastructure and skilled personnel to deal with a state of emergency. Despite insufficient budget allocation, health care in Israel is still free and while hospitals are overcrowded, they have novel equipment and excellent medical staff. 

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

Nearly five months after its first COVID-19 case, Israel is facing a resurgence of the virus, recording nearly 1,500 new cases a day with a total tally of 34,000 confirmed cases, and counting. The government has been issuing contradictory statements to the public, most of which it doesn’t even follow up with. The senior leadership at the Health Ministry has been replaced, and instead of hiring personnel to staff a functioning contact tracing operation, the government is relying on intrusive and inefficient cellphone tracking technology that was developed for the Shin Bet security service, running the country through undemocratic emergency measures. Over a million Israelis are either unemployed or furloughed, tens of thousands of businesses are on the brink of bankruptcy, and no one knows what financial relief, if at all, they can expect from the government.

Israel’s failure, at this point, is of a magnitude that seems to defy all its perceived advantages in dealing with the crisis. Such a failure cannot be solely ascribed to a once-in-a-century event. Coronavirus has exposed the weakest links in the Israeli governing system, starting from the very top. 

The prime minister

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision in the first three months to close Israel’s borders and shut down the economy was, on the whole, the right decision. It led to a dramatic decline in cases by early May and saved lives. So why was that policy so swiftly reversed? 

The causes of the calamitous second wave are obvious. Israel emerged from lockdown both prematurely and too quickly, without an exit strategy for the economy and health system. It failed to use the first months of the crisis to build up a mass-testing apparatus and contact tracing system.

Netanyahu did not allow the appointment of an inter-ministerial czar to coordinate efforts, but rather insisted on running the show himself with a trio of senior officials (the directors-general of the Health and Finance Ministries and his own national security advisor). They made good decisions early on, but without an orderly decision-making process. Netanyahu hasn’t been “managing” this crisis in any sense of the word. 

People walk in Tel Aviv's Carmel Market on July 8, 2020.
People walk in Tel Aviv's Carmel Market on July 8, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

In recent weeks, as infections have escalated, along with the tally of unemployed and protesting, Netanyahu has taken to making sudden announcements in which the key-word is hinkheiti – I have given instructions. But the instructions, to increase the number of tests to the tens of thousands, to set up contact tracing systems, to provide businesses with emergency relief, have not been implemented. This is not because Netanyahu is losing his authority. He remains a very powerful prime minister. He simply is not acquainted with how the “civilian” parts of government departments work. 

Netanyahu has an excellent grasp of geopolitics, security, and macro-economics. This is what interests him. He’s used to working with the relevant departments and units: the military, Mossad, the Foreign Service. When he instructs them, they immediately follow his orders (which is also why Netanyahu has preferred to rely on the Shin Bet for contact tracing rather than set up a purpose-built civilian apparatus). He has rarely taken interest in the parts of government dealing with social policy, health, education, and welfare. They bore him, and he believes they can take care of themselves under whatever minister has been appointed. But now that he’s faced with a fast-moving health and welfare crisis, he is exasperated by the fact that these ministries cannot quickly respond to his instructions. He fails to grasp that dealing with the pandemic and mass unemployment is no less complex than the campaign to deny Iran a nuclear bomb. 

Netanyahu is not the first Israeli prime minister to be preoccupied with security and diplomacy. They are any Israeli leader’s first priority, and the most time-consuming. But at least other prime ministers, and even Netanyahu himself in his earlier days in office, had a competent cabinet to deal with domestic issues.

The cabinet

After winning his fourth election in 2015, Netanyahu abandoned any pretense of appointing ministers according to their capabilities or standing. The most senior cabinet posts went to coalition partners to ensure that they stayed in the government. Likud members who had distinguished themselves with their loyalty to the leader were rewarded with what ministries remained. The Sunday cabinet meetings became mainly talking shops and were often canceled. The important meetings and decisions were held in the prime minister’s inner circle, with National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, whose organization was drafted as a global buyer of medical supplies.

By the time COVID-19 arrived, the cabinet was already disjointed and ineffectual, with most of the ministers preparing to soon have a different job, or no job at all. The main ministers involved in formulating policies were Health Minister Yaakov Litzman from United Torah Judaism, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of the by-then disbanded Kulanu party, and Netanyahu’s oldest cabinet ally, Shas leader and Interior Minister Arye Dery. None of them, however, played a major role. 

Litzman, who spent a great deal of his time trying to exempt synagogues and ritual baths from restrictions and then fell ill with the virus and had to go into quarantine, allowed the ministry’s director-general to work directly with Netanyahu. Kahlon, who had already announced his retirement from politics and only stayed on because Netanyahu didn’t want to have to promote a Likud member, did the same. Dery, like Litzman, was concerned mainly with the sensitivities of the rabbis and failed to draft local councils to implement policy.

A March 8, 2020 shows Yaakov Litzman, then health minister, with Moshe Kahlon, then finance minister, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a cabinet meeting.
A March 8, 2020 shows Yaakov Litzman, then health minister, with Moshe Kahlon, then finance minister, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a cabinet meeting. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem / Pool

In the first couple of months, when the main strategy was a lockdown, the near-absence of ministers was less of an issue. But as the pressure to reopen the economy intensified in May, the ministers weren’t there to prepare an exit strategy. Israel’s political leadership consisted solely of Netanyahu, who was devoting much of his time to cobbling together a new coalition, promoting annexation and avoiding his upcoming corruption trial.

Then-Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, now no longer a member of Netanyahu’s government, was without a doubt the most resourceful figure in cabinet, brimming with ideas. He even prepared a blueprint for an exit strategy. But he was allowed to implement only a small fraction of his ideas and wasn’t invited to some of the most important ministerial meetings. 

The coronavirus is not a military crisis, and there is often a tendency in Israel to hand over to the military missions that would be better carried out by civilian agencies. But the Defense Ministry will always have the most resources and experienced personnel at the ready to respond to national emergencies. They were barely utilized and Bennett was not included, because of Netanyahu’s dislike and deep distrust of the man he is convinced is out to depose him. Bennett was not to be given any responsibility or credit. 

Bennett is now in the opposition, but his successor as defense minister, Benny Gantz, has not been any more successful in getting Netanyahu to agree to use the ministry’s resources. Gantz also has the new title of “alternate prime minister” and Netanyahu is determined to empty that of meaning, so that when the day comes in September 2021 when they are supposed to switch places, Gantz will be such a diminished figure that it will be unthinkable for him to become prime minister. 

The situation isn’t much better with the newly-appointed key ministers of health and finance. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein didn’t want the job. He expected Netanyahu to insist that he regain his old post as Knesset speaker and barely accepted the consolation prize given to him. He has yet to prove that he can make policy or lead. The new finance minister, Yisrael Katz, was at least happy to get the job and has eagerly set about trying to put together relief plans. He is already being subverted by Netanyahu, who this week openly met with Nir Barkat, Katz's fiercest critic, who also wanted the job but was denied it.

Benny Gantz in Jerusalem for a meeting with the Greek prime minister on June 16, 2020.
Benny Gantz in Jerusalem for a meeting with the Greek prime minister on June 16, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

For the past five years, Netanyahu’s cabinet has not been a place for policy-setting, but rather an arena for petty infighting and power plays. It didn’t fail to deliver an exit strategy – it never even tried. Now that the cabinet has been reappointed for an “emergency national-unity” government, Netanyahu is intent on keeping ministers busy with manufactured crises to keep Gantz down, instead of dealing with the pandemic that was its purported raison d’etre.

The civil service

The weakness of Israel’s civil service preceded the Netanyahu years. But his rule exacerbated the politicization and frequent dicing and mixing of departments to create increasingly fake titles for politicians. The three power bases remain: defense, finance and justice. But the rest of the civil service has been allowed to stagnate, and many of its more powerful and resourceful parts were either privatized or transformed into indecent public companies. 

The Health Ministry is a small, but cozy ministry. At least, it used to be. Most of the real power resides in the four public health insurance funds, the Israeli Medical Association and the larger hospitals. The upper echelons of the ministry, which deal mainly with regulations and standards, are staffed with rotating doctors who move in and out of senior jobs at funds and hospitals.

Perhaps the most radical change Litzman implemented was appointing a bright budget department boy, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, to director-general in 2015. Crucially, he was a bean counter, not a doctor, and the Medical Association even petitioned the High Court against his appointment (and lost). Bar Siman Tov, who resigned two months ago when Litzman moved to the Housing Ministry, will remain one of the most controversial figures in Israel’s coronavirus crisis. For a short while, he was Israel’s most powerful civil servant, probably the most powerful ever who was not a general or a spy chief. As Litzman faded from the picture, he worked up-close with Netanyahu, who accepted nearly all his recommendations in full. Meanwhile, back at the ministry, the doctors split into warring factions, and those who disagreed with Bar Siman Tov were no longer invited to briefings. The 43 year-old economist’s brief moment of power underlined the weakness of the rest of the ministry.

Edelstein, the new health minister, reverted to tradition and replaced him with a doctor, Prof. Hezi Levi, the CEO of a mid-sized hospital. That hasn’t improved matters yet. The health insurance funds and hospitals have gotten used to deciding independently how to fight COVID-19 to the best of their abilities. Meanwhile, the ministry has finally been instructed to set up a contact tracing department, but it can’t get the budget department to authorize the funds for hiring. They probably didn’t get the memo that Netanyahu had instructed them. 

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