Benjamin Netanayhu was well prepared the last time Israel went into lockdown, in January 1991. As deputy foreign minister during the Gulf War, he was tasked with presenting Israel’s case to the world, as Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles were falling on the country. He already knew all the foreign journalists based here well and adroitly made the circuit between the television studios, promising that Israel would soon respond devastatingly (it didn’t) and trying to draw the world’s attention to the Palestinians dancing on their roofs as the Scuds hit Tel Aviv.
He even made sure to obtain a special gas mask. Unlike the standard one distributed to Israelis with the filter covering the mouth and making them almost inaudible, Netanyahu’s filter attached to the mask from the side.
One night, the sirens went off while he was in mid-interview with CNN, and he persuaded the team filming the interview to continue with their masks on – “This is the darndest way to do an interview,” he joked. You could hear his broad smile from behind the mask.
Twenty-nine years later, Israel is in lockdown once again, and now Netanyahu is prime minister. Instead of empowering a senior ministers or civil servant to oversee Israel’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, he has appointed himself “Coronavirus Czar,” and the chief national spokesperson as well. And like nearly everyone else in the world, he was caught unprepared.
In nightly televised briefings, in his long, public remarks at the start of cabinet meetings, in interviews and Facebook-live broadcasts, he has become a constant presence, establishing himself as the source of all necessary information and an inseparable fixture of Israeli citizens’ lives. This round of public appearances came immediately after another sequence – three weeks of election campaigning during which Netanyahu made speeches at two or three Likud rallies each night.
Effectively, the two sequences are both part of one ongoing Netanyahu campaign, with the March 2 election providing just a short pause between them.
Netanyahu’s first coronavirus briefing to the nation took place just two days after the election, and a few hours after his infamous appearance before the members of his minority coalition, in which he ruled out including the elected representatives of Israel’s Arab citizens in any political equation.
The briefings that followed, during the past three weeks, have neatly continued where the election rallies left off. In both campaigns – the election campaign and the coronavirus campaign – he makes speeches glorifying himself, his policies and the State of Israel he has built. But they both have one overarching aim: to convince Israelis that the idea of someone else at the country’s helm is not just unthinkable, but would constitute a clear and present danger to national security.
The principal difference between them is that the first Netanyahu campaign was at least openly competing for the voters’ support. In the second, current campaign, he is ignoring the fact that the election is over, and that 51 percent of the votes went to parties that swore not to serve under him. In the first, his listeners were mainly Likud supporters who knew they were at an election rally. The second campaign is being carried under the guise of imparting essential information regarding the health and livelihoods of all Israelis watching. Or as Netanyahu likes to say, it’s about “life itself.”
Every appearance of Netanyahu in these days of the coronavirus, even the briefest, must have three elements: threat, calm and bragging.
He opens with the fear factor, Just in case someone isn’t taking him seriously. “The plague continues to spread and has already cost thousands of victims around the world.” And “this is the worst event in over a hundred years, perhaps more, and if more, then only in the Middle Ages were there similar things.” And “look at the pictures coming from Italy. Look at what’s happening there. Look at the medical teams who are no longer treating the living. They are piling the dead in special vehicles.”
After the alarmism, he reassures the public that “we are in control of this incident.” “We can beat the virus,” he promises and keeps handing out bad checks. “We can handle this and come out in one piece. Not without hardship, not without sacrifice. But altogether, in one piece.”
Then comes the braggadocio, both national and personal. Which in Netanyahu’s case are the same. The situation in Israel is “among the very best in the world,” he claims. “We entered the coronavirus crisis in a better state than most countries.” And of course, “other countries are adopting the steps we took.”
And since national pride doesn’t always come so naturally in days of lockdown, mass layoffs and death tolls, Netanyahu appeals to an even deeper Israeli feeling than national pride. He tells us that the situation in other countries is much worse – after all, “we took steps that other countries didn’t” and “so far we’ve done it better than nearly any other country in the world and I assess that by the end of this we will be the best in the world.”
In other words, we may be suffering now, and we’re going to suffer more. But at least everyone else is suffering worse so we won’t be frayerim – suckers, the thing Israelis are most afraid of becoming. No politician knows the Israeli soul better than Netanyahu.
And if you don’t believe him, just ask Dr. Deborah Birx. Netanyahu can’t stop mentioning the response coordinator of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force and the praise she apparently has expressed for the steps Israel has taken. Netanyahu is so happy with Birx’s praise, he’s upgraded her in his briefings to “Professor Birx.” Nonetheless, he seems a little confused about her.
In one briefing, two weeks ago, he noted how “Prof. Birx praised our operations, and she speaks with a lot of countries.” But by last Saturday night, he wanted to keep her for himself and said that the “professor” told him, “I am one of the only world leaders speaking with her.” At least Milton Friedman, another name of someone “who praised me,” was an actual professor.
One America-related problem that has arisen for Netanyahu in his briefings is his penchant for praising President Donald Trump, who is draping himself with glory with his blithe mismanagement of this crisis. Early on, Netanyahu was still saying that the Trump administration “is leading the global fight” against the virus. Even for him, that is too tall a tale to tell now, and so, in a more recent briefing, he mentioned the United States among the countries that are “on the brink of losing control.”
In what are supposed to be briefings and updates to the public, there’s actually very little useful information. Initially, Netanyahu tried to include some “advice,” such as his recommendation to replace handshakes with the Indian namaste gesture, which hasn’t really caught on. There was also a demonstration of the correct use of a tissue – which he ended, against hygienists’ advice, by stuffing the tissue back in his pocket.
Most of the real information Netanyahu does impart in his briefings has already been extensively reported by the time he’s on-air, or else he’s just talking about possible “next steps” the government has yet to decide upon. Once you’ve filtered out the scare-mongering and bragging, very little information of substance remains. When Netanyahu actually mentions a statistic, it often turns out to be wrong, such as when he lists the numbers of coronavirus tests being carried out (almost always inflated) and the crucial number of intensive-care beds and ventilators available for seriously ill patients (he said “about a thousand,” which thankfully is a gross underestimation).
It seems that even he is now aware of the public’s bewilderment with the different and contradicting numbers and instructions coming out. In his briefing this past Wednesday evening, the prime minister announced the conditions of the next stage of the lockdown and, referring to the rather haphazard list of new restrictions his government had just published, he admitted, “I know there are lots of paradoxes, and you can say lots of things. But it doesn’t matter.”
As always, Netanyahu finds a way in his briefings to place current events into a much wider context of world and Jewish history. “Corona joins other deadly plagues which hit humanity,” he told the nation on Wednesday. “Black Death, cholera, the Spanish flu at the beginning of the last century. When these plagues happened in previous centuries, we didn’t have a state. But today, today we have a state and that gives us innumerable ways to control our fate. Israelis all over the world, Jews and non-Jews, are asking to come home. Understanding that the state is a haven in times of trouble.”
What point was he trying to make? Was this an impromptu appeal for aliyah, or an attempt to reverse the brain-drain? More likely, just another attempt to inject some historic pathos into his speech and convince listeners that, in Israel, “we are suffering less from coronavirus.” But in another appearance, Netanyahu’s historic allusion had a much clearer purpose. “In the past, we also knew other moments. Two-thousand years ago, when the external enemy besieged Jerusalem – brothers’ hands were raised against each other and the disaster was not late in coming.”
The message got through: Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz and Netanyahu’s other rivals are the 2020 version of the Zealots in the destruction of the Second Temple.
Another interesting aspect of the prime minister’s appearances is that while he talks at length about proper hygiene and the ways to prevent infection, at no point has he specifically instructed citizens to keep away from elderly relatives – the main group at risk from COVID-19. In fact, he mentioned senior citizens only twice. Once two weeks ago, when he said at a briefing, “If we don’t prevent the virus from spreading – we will infect the older people, who are at greater risk... I’m talking about your father and grandfather.”
And there was a second mention, when he said on Facebook Live last week that “it’s better not” to visit one’s parents before seder night. Perhaps his reluctance to talk about older people at risk is connected to the fact that he prefers not to remind Israelis that he himself is now a 70-year-old grandfather who hasn’t even designated a replacement to take over if he falls ill.
Instead, Netanyahu tries to foster a youthful image these days. When he suggested alternatives to handshakes, he suddenly recalled, “I used to play soccer, you can tap your shoe. Once when I was way young, I practiced taekwondo, you can use your elbows.” And as he did during the most recent election campaign, leading up to the March 2 election, he loves reminiscing about his days as a special forces commander in the army.
“I was an officer in Sayeret Matkal,” he rhapsodized in one interview. “I commanded a team and when I marched with my soldiers through the Judean desert, in the gullies, and I would see a cloud in the sky, I’d take them out of the wadi. Because a flood was on the way. Here you can’t leave the wadi, and the storm is on the way.”
When he tries to explain why Gantz, the man against whom, just four weeks ago, he was waging a vicious smear campaign, in which he questioned the Kahol Lavan leader’s sanity – must now join him in an emergency-unity government, he said, “I was on the battlefield and I never expected myself or my soldiers to say, ‘I’m a bit angry at this or that person, so I won’t fight the enemy because of that anger.’”
The real aim of Netanyahu’s briefings has been achieved already. He has enforced his status as the only constant and stable factor in Israelis’ lives, in this time of emergency. Even before the lockdown, he held his audience captive, becoming part of their living-room furniture. For the first time in the era of internet and multi-channel television, everyone is back home sitting around the same tribal campfire at night, with Netanyahu the only one allowed to stoke the flames.
And it’s working. At least for now, in the short-term. Quite a few Israelis who don’t support him and voted for opposition parties in the election are saying that they’re happy that Netanyahu is “managing the situation.” Pollsters are detecting a “rallying around the flag.” But unlike in the previous campaign, when he was so obviously loving the thrill of the fight for every vote, burnishing his image as the epochal leader of the Israeli “empire” – one look at his face proves he’s not enjoying this one.
Netanyahu is a super-performer. A master storyteller, who is at his best when the hero of the tale he’s telling is himself. He is alive on stage, building up his narrative. But this time, no matter how hard he tries to regale us with how he is “saving my country, saving my people,” the story simply isn’t about him.
This is a global event in which Israel is only a small bit-player. An event that no one can control or predict. The enemy is hidden, and for once it isn’t the Palestinians or the Iranians. And it’s an event in which there is very little good news. And Netanyahu hates to be in the role of bearer of ill tidings. He usually leaves that to another minister, while he himself makes sure to elbow his way to the front of the stage when there’s a ribbon to cut or a major program to launch.
He’s not about to celebrate the latest presidential gesture from Donald Trump or to receive from Vladimir Putin the body of an MIA or a released drug-carrying backpacker. He has monopolized the leading role in a horror movie, one without a script. There isn’t even time to work on his masterpiece speeches as he’s used to doing, or to prepare props – beyond the bizarre video showing how far a sneeze can reach, something he seems fascinated by. In all his appearances over the past three weeks, he has yet to come up with one memorable sound-bite.
Like many politicians, Netanyahu suffers from a Churchill complex. He is bound up in the myth of the cigar-chomping British bulldog who led his nation when it stood alone against the Third Reich, and united it behind him with rousing speeches, graced with original phrases that have become staples of the English language. But Churchill was at his best when he had to deliver bad news to the nation. Netanyahu can’t do that. This isn’t his finest hour. And this isn’t a thrilling war with glorious battles. The fight against COVID-19 is all about numbers of tests and respirators and the grim statistics counting up the infected, ill and dying. Not the stuff of faux-Churchillian speeches.
That’s not to say Netanyahu doesn’t remain a brilliant rhetorician, adept at combining the personal and national, merging history with daily politics. He’s doing all that now, but it’s not what the public really wants or needs, at a time when all people really care about is will they still have a job next week, how far from their homes they are permitted to walk, or whether local restaurants will be allowed to continue delivering home orders.
Netanyahu has made himself the source of all authority and information, placing all his ministers and rivals in the shade, but after his briefings, you don’t feel you’ve learned anything new. Usually, one has to wait for hours, until early the following morning, to find out what the nightly cabinet meeting has decided.
It appears as if even Netanyahu realizes that something isn’t working. He’s trying different things. Over the past week, he’s reduced the number of nightly briefings and instead given more interviews and tried answering Facebook questions from his office. But for these, he’s even less well-suited. He would never have blurted the embarrassing line he came out with in a Saturday night interview – “I’m navigating the Titanic!” – in one of his meticulously crafted speeches.
To be fair to Netanyahu, he may not be Churchill but even Churchill didn’t deliver a Churchillian speech every week. What the British leader did do is make his speeches in front of the House of Commons. He may not have been popular among members of Parliament, even those of his own Conservative Party, but they were united behind him in war, in unity coalition. Churchill led his nation to victory in war, and then returned home from a summit with Truman and Stalin to lose gracefully the immediate post-war election and make way for Clement Attlee.
Netanyahu hasn’t seen fit to make even one appearance before the new Knesset, besides a brief swearing-in as an MK last week. He has ignored the fact that he has lost his majority (for a third time), tried to delegitimize Arab lawmakers, defied (through his patsy, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein) the Supreme Court, and undermined each and every one of his performances as prime minister by representing a minority caretaker government, opposed by at least half of Israel’s voters. Yes, he has in the meantime succeeding in making himself the face of Israel’s fight against coronavirus, but that could very soon come back to haunt him.
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