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Netanyahu Losing His Grip as Coronavirus Tremors Rattle Israel

The resurgent pandemic, economic crisis and mounting protests erode support for an increasingly hysterical prime minister

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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A protester dresses up as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wearing a prison uniform with his hands tied, Jerusalem, July 18, 2020
A protester dresses up as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wearing a prison uniform with his hands tied, Jerusalem, July 18, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Israel’s resurgent coronavirus pandemic is shaking the foundations of Israeli society and politics as we’ve come to know them. Fear of the returning plague and anxiety over its dire economic impact are undermining the Israeli public’s long held sense of security and wellbeing. Pent-up rage and frustrations are spilling out into angry street protests, with Benjamin Netanyahu increasingly singled out for blame.

Netanyahu is encountering the downside of his decade-long personal domination of Israeli governance and politics. After systematically purging formidable Likud figures perceived as potential threats, seizing control of the entire right-wing and claiming credit for any and all of his successive governments’ achievements, Netanyahu assumed a larger than life presence in Israeli lives, which is now coming back to haunt him. Alone at the top, Netanyahu is bearing the brunt of Israel’s summer of fear, loathing and discontent.

LISTEN: Protests, pandemics and Netanyahu's day of reckoningCredit: Haaretz

The hitherto sparsely attended and mostly overlooked protests outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem have doubled and tripled in size and frequency in recent days. They are garnering larger numbers of demonstrators, spreading from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities and, most ominously from the prime minister’s point of view, increasingly attracting unaffiliated and Likud-leaning demonstrators. The large, varied and angry turnout has undermined most of Netanyahu’s efforts to paint the protestors as “leftist anarchists.”

A poster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu behind bars at a protest against Netanyahu near his residence, Jerusalem, June 27, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Netanyahu is suffering from the stark contrast between his forceful, hands-on policies, which helped curb the initial outbreak of the coronavirus disease, and his subsequent lethargy and negligence in preventing and failing to prepare for coronavirus’ return engagement. Netanyahu’s predicament is compounded by the perception that he had ignored the looming threat of the pandemic to devote time and effort to his ongoing campaign against the legal system, securing multi-million dollar “gifts” from billionaires to fund his legal team and extracting personal tax favors worth a million shekels from a hitherto subservient Knesset.

The government’s belated and panicky response to the reemerging coronavirus threat only made things worse. Cabinet decisions were made, then reversed, then amended, based on what turned out to be vague, missing or misleading data and information. The haphazard, zigzagging decision-making process cast Netanyahu and his ministers as a clueless cabinet groping in the dark – and blaming the public for its shortcomings.

Netanyahu is also plagued by reemerging claims, famously enunciated over 15 years ago by Ariel Sharon, that he caves to pressure and lacks the “nerves of steel” required of any prime minister. Netanyahu’s surprising and widely-criticized proposal last week to divide 6 billion shekels among all Israeli citizens, regardless of income – a move opposed by the governor of the Bank of Israel and most economic experts – was seen as a clear-cut manifestation of his alleged “hysteria.” On Sunday, the cabinet sidestepped the prime minister’s offer, setting up a ministerial committee that would create differential criteria for receiving the government handouts.

The erosion of Netanyahu’s public stature and ensuing diminishment of his deterrence power have exposed initial cracks in the Likud and right-wing’s hitherto solid support for the prime minister. His only open rival for Likud leadership, Gideon Sa’ar, has started to criticize Netanyahu frequently and openly, party ministers and Knesset members have dared to express veiled reservations about Netanyahu’s statements and policies and the political arena is awash with unsubstantiated rumors of an imminent “palace coup” in Likud that would remove him from power and replace him with a less contentious leader.

Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar in the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 4, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Sunday’s appearance by Netanyahu’s lawyers at his trial procedure, postponed from May because of coronavirus lockdowns, is likely to exacerbate public criticism. The court rebuked and rejected Netanyahu’s endless delaying tactics – which have included numerous shake-ups in his defense team – setting his trial for January and stipulating that the court would convene three times a week, with Netanyahu in attendance. Already under fire for devoting undue attention to his personal legal affairs, the court’s decision casts further doubt on Netanyahu’s claim that he is capable of running the country while concurrently defending himself in court.

The claim, rebuffed from the outset by his opponents, is starting to echo in Netanyahu’s own hinterland as well. Likudniks and other right-wingers tolerated and rationalized Netanyahu’s criminal indictments and his efforts to avert them as long as the country was thriving and felt secure, and as long as he was perceived as advancing the right’s ideological goals, as in his proposed annexation of West Bank territories.

The government’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic, skyrocketing unemployment rates and government assistance packages that fall far short of the average in Western countries are slowly removing the blinders from the eyes of all but his most fanatical fans. Faced with what is described as an unprecedented social and economic crisis, many right-wingers are falling out of love with Netanyahu and casting their eyes about for a suitable alternative.

A protester holds a sign that reads 'dictator of Israel,' Jerusalem, July 3, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

In the process, Netanyahu’s close-knit ties with U.S. President Donald Trump are emerging as a double-edged sword. Widely credited with fostering ties with a favorable U.S. administration that has abolished criticism of Israel from its lexicon and backed Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and, potentially, Judea and Samaria, Netanyahu is now being associated with Trump’s abysmal failure to manage America’s coronavirus crisis as well. Birds of a feather, it seems, bring their countries down together.

Netanyahu is nowhere near Trump’s dismal showing in the polls – if elections were held today, they show he would still be favored to win. By coopting Benny Gantz to join his government, Netanyahu has masterminded the collapse and split of his opposition, rendering him with no clear-cut rival. Netanyahu, however, is a first class reader of trends in public opinions; he knows that things are going against him fast.

Even if reports of his imminent demise are still premature, as usual, they are no longer seen as mere flights of his critics’ fancies. Without a dramatic turnaround Netanyahu is bound to get more desperate and more hysterical, lose his grip further and, sooner rather than later, his hold on power as well.

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