Analysis |

For Netanyahu, the Biggest Danger of COVID-19 Is the Rise of Naftali Bennett

The former defense minister recently published a book on how Israel can defeat the pandemic. Hidden within is a playbook for how to defeat Netanyahu

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Netanyahu and Bennett, 2015
Netanyahu and Bennett, 2015Credit: Emil Salman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has published a short book with the long name “How to Beat COVID-19 – The Way to Overcome the Crisis and Lead Israel to Economic Prosperity.” It’s an indictment of Israel’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and a blueprint for how Israel can still reverse its dire situation and capitalize on the crisis to become a world leader in virus-defeating technologies.

For the most part, the book follows Bennett’s public campaign to transfer authority over the crisis to the military, research institutions and private tech sector. He was an early proponent of steps that the government is belatedly implementing only now, such as dramatically increasing the number of diagnostic tests and drafting hundreds of contact-tracers. He opposes another full lockdown, arguing that it would be disastrous for the economy, and advocates a more selective approach.

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Despite writing part of the book in blueprint form, it isn’t meant for Israel’s decision-makers. They will have already heard similar advice from the experts. Bennett is writing for a much wider audience of Israeli voters, portraying himself as the only politician who had warned of the impending disaster and is competent enough to lead Israel to broad sunlit uplands. It is Bennett’s most blatant pitch to date for Benjamin Netanyahu’s job.

For many years, Bennett was a massive admirer of Netanyahu – despite the fact that the prime minister has done everything possible to stymie his ambitions. In 2008, Netanyahu humiliatingly dismissed Bennett from his job as chief of staff (at the instigation of Sara Netanyahu, who did not appreciate the way Bennett insisted “I work for your husband, not you”). Bennett’s son is named after the elder brother Yoni Netanyahu, and his hero-worship persisted in the years since he entered politics. It’s as if Bennett wakes up each morning in the hope of Netanyahu calling him up to bury the hatchet. But in recent months, Bennett has finally spotted his idol’s feet of clay.

Naftali Bennet speaks at a press conference, Jerusalem, May 14, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Netanyahu’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis is told through Bennett’s role as defense minister during the first three months of the pandemic. Bennett was apparently shocked by the way Netanyahu refused to use the full resources of the defense establishment, and prescient in his warnings that the Health Ministry could not deliver on testing and contact-tracing. Bennett is now convinced that the coronavirus debacle will fatally taint Netanyahu’s record and ultimately lead to the end of his career.

Intriguingly, Netanyahu isn’t mentioned by name in Bennett’s book. There are only a handful of implicit references to “the prime minister,” mostly blaming him for listening to his own close personal advisers rather than to Bennett. His one main criticism of Netanyahu is for his press conference on May 26, when the first wave of COVID-19 was over and the lockdown ended. “We thought we had passed it. We patted ourselves on our backs,” Bennett writes. “The prime minister told the public ‘Have fun.’ It was a terrible mistake! True, we had struck the coronavirus with a 15-kilogram hammer in the shape of a full lockdown, but we were not prepared to treat the leftovers. We totally neglected them and the bitter result is now known to all: Those leftovers became a massive second wave that crashed down on us with thousands of daily new cases.”

The main culprits in Bennett’s book are the civil servants Netanyahu listened to – the director general of the Health Ministry, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, and the head of Public Health Services, Prof. Sigal Sadetsky, both now resigned. If anything, he is trying to ride the wave of Netanyahu’s new attacks on “the rule of bureaucrats.” Bennett understands that his right-wing constituency may be disappointed with Netanyahu’s handling of coronavirus, and that many of them believe he’s a victim of a leftist, deep state witch-hunt.

Bennett has a positioning problem. His right-wing Yamina party is rising in the polls, at the expense of Netanyahu’s Likud. But to sustain that surge until whenever an election is held, he needs to hold on to those Likudniks and attract centrists as well.

The coronavirus crisis offers him the perfect opportunity to transcend the divides of right versus left, pro-Netanyahu versus anti-Netanyahu. He is highlighting his short but successful business career as a tech entrepreneur and trying to reframe the next election campaign around competence. He won’t directly attack Netanyahu on his corruption charges, but in several interviews has insisted that “Netanyahu is focused on personal issues and can’t manage the crisis.”

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov and Benjamin Netanyahu during a coronavirus briefing, March 8, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

Bennett has refrained from attacking Netanyahu on his official suspension of West Bank annexation in exchange for diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates. He is playing for the centrist voters of Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, and already looking beyond for how he could build a coalition.

One name conspicuously missing from the book is the man who was health minister when COVID-19 struck: United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman. In fact, the ultra-Orthodox community, with its disproportionate number of infections and its politicians who resisted regulations, are barely mentioned in Bennett’s book. Why make enemies of potential partners?

One word that does make frequent appearances in the book is konseptziya (conception) – in this case, the health bureaucrats’ conception that widespread testing and contact-tracing was not necessary and that a lockdown would be sufficient. Bennett is echoing the infamous konseptziya of Israel’s leaders and generals in 1973 that Egypt and Syria lacked the power or decisiveness to launch a surprise attack on Israel. That conception was shattered in the Yom Kippur War, and the strategic surprise ultimately led to the end of the Labor Party’s rule. Bennett is trying to create the same narrative for COVID-19, betting that it will end Netanyahu’s rule as well.

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