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Bennett Is Sure His COVID Policy Is Right Amid Surging Infection Rates, Unrest in Cabinet

Israel's prime minister learns a lesson about Zoom meetings. Meanwhile, Netanyahu isn't even bothering to pretend he'll be returning to power

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Amos Biderman.
Illustration: Amos Biderman.
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reckons that by the middle of next week, the first of 2022, the daily number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel will reach about 10,000. By the end of the week, it will soar to 25,000, at least. Double the peak number chalked up in January of last year. And so on. Doubling and doubling, until the slowdown phase that might come only in about two months.

In light of such figures, the considerable loosening of quarantine procedures that were decided upon in the past two days were inevitable. Otherwise, millions of Israelis would be entering preemptive quarantine; that is, a de facto lockdown and a mortal blow to the economy, which would come to a standstill.

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Those who have needled me about why I am hysterical, exaggerating, hasty to shut things down, says Bennett, would be the first to tut-tut if we were to experience overcrowding at the hospitals. He is also referring, no doubt, to some of his cabinet ministers.

He understands the difficulty in explaining to the public the ostensible contradiction between the alarmism, which stems from the warnings about the tsunami rolling towards us, and the easing of the conditions for quarantine. However, he says, the decisions are very precise. Starting on Thursday, every citizen who has been vaccinated (from the age of 5 on up) who comes in contact with a confirmed case is required to take a rapid antigen test. If it comes out negative, the person is allowed to continue daily life as usual but must try to avoid contact with elderly and immunosuppressed people for a week.

We are entering a third stage, says Bennett. The first was five weeks ago. I closed the skies. We gained precious time. We used it to purchase vaccines, medications, reinforcement of the hospitals. Had it not been for that decision, we would have had to go into a lockdown. That was the second stage. Now we are at the eye of the storm, in the midst of the omicron wave.

On Thursday, he read an article in The Economist that made him feel good about his decisions. “Rapidly imposed travel restrictions make sense in the early stages of an outbreak, when infections of a variant are few and test-and-trace systems are still able to follow the paths of contagion,” the magazine said. “When imported cases account for more than 10 percent of infections, bans can have a big impact on the growth of the epidemic.” Bingo, said Bennett to himself.

Next week, the skies will reopen. With tens of thousands of confirmed cases, there is no point in restricting entry or departure. There, too, a kind of confusion will develop, he knows. It will be hard for people to understand why I closed the skies when it was a paradise here, and I am opening them when the variant is running wild and free in the streets. And again, this was the right decision. The rules that once applied aren’t right for today’s arena.

We can’t prevent mass infection, he admits, like everywhere in the world. But we can give the public tools for protecting itself. Vaccines are available to everyone. Now, there are also pills. Bennett sounds like someone who has despaired a bit from the refusal of the harmful minority (the unvaccinated) and the indifference of the remaining majority to obeying the rules. He hasn’t given up on the effort, but he too understands that if two years into the pandemic – with indisputable scientific proof of the vaccines’ tremendous effectiveness and their lack of risk – there are still about 2 million people who aren’t bothering to protect themselves and/or their children, then maybe the battle is lost.

Learning a lesson

This week, Channel 12 News reported on a recording of a Zoom meeting in which Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz was heard speaking impatiently, even rudely, to the prime minister. Even before the broadcast, Horowitz phoned him to apologize.

I’m not angry, said Bennett. I have to say a good word about all of them. We are in this thing together. All of us are under significant pressure. These are normal conversations between human beings, but when they get out, in a two-minute snippet from two hours, public trust is damaged. I esteem Horowitz. I accepted his apology.

In terms of publicity, the effect of the exchange with Horowitz was harsh. The prime minister sounds vulnerable, not determined. Not the impression the leader of a country would want to be sending out during a pandemic. His problem is familiar: He is the first among equals, in the deepest sense. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the first above equals. So was Ariel Sharon, and others. Bennett lacks the halo of leadership, and especially the number of seats in the Knesset that creates it.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz at a press conference in Tel Aviv, in November.Credit: Moti Milrod

He learned a lesson from this last incident: as few Zoom meetings as possible with his participation. When he’s in the squares on the screen, media interest in him increases. When the meeting is basically technical, the media won’t follow every peep. He can manage things without being exposed.

The management is very good, Bennett says of himself, but it doesn’t ensure perfect results. I have obtained (yes, he also speaks in the first person singular, like his predecessor) the medications that the whole world wanted. I didn’t call a press conference. The fourth vaccination is on its way, but in the first stage it will be given only to the elderly population and to the immunosuppressed.

The second incident that made him look like he is not in control of his domain was Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The discordant notes that accompanied the previous meeting between the two, in Ramallah, were absent this time. Bennett didn’t issue a peeved statement as he previously did; Gantz didn’t blow his stack after being publicly embarrassed. Nor was he summoned for clarifications.

Gantz informed Bennett weeks before the meeting. It was postponed once because the defense minister had to go into quarantine. Bennett’s confidants didn’t hear any barbs from him, maybe only about the venue of the encounter. He is horrified by the thought of Abbas visiting him at his home. But if Gantz is okay with that, it’s his business.

As to the heart of the matter, says Bennett, Gantz is responsible for the stability and the security in the West Bank. If a meeting of this sort is essential in his opinion, so be it. I remain a man of the right. There aren’t going to be any peace talks. Gantz can think the opposite, it’s all okay.

The bloc and the head

Netanyahu’s appearance at the Likud tribunal this week left a concerning impression on some of the people who were there. “The man looks tired, worried,” said one of them. “He spoke in hysterical, disproportionate language about the ‘new Likudniks:’ ‘A danger to the very existence of the Likud and the state of Israel, because the movement is the infrastructure of the state...’”

Sources in Likud and its sister parties in the rightist-Haredi bloc of the Knesset describe a process of mental meltdown that the leader of their camp is experiencing. “He is in a huge psychological tempest,” one of them diagnosed. “The coalition, despite the squeaks, is more stable than could have been expected. It’s on the opposition benches that the disintegration is evident.” He noted that Shas Chairman Arye Dery is leaving, and may or may not return, and MK Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism has announced that he will be retiring at the end of his term. “His two strongest allies,” added the source, “who have linked their fate to his, are on their way out.”

In intimate circles, Netanyahu is no longer bothering to pretend that any minute now, he will return to power. Even the most flattering public opinion polls aren’t giving him the 61 Knesset seats he would need to form a coalition, exactly as was the case in the last four elections. And let’s say he gets to 57 or 58 – who will make up the difference? The people he is scorning as deranged, against whom he is inciting and sending his bullies?

Just before the 2009 election, he adopted the bloc theory pushed by his advisor at the time, Israel Bachar. Stated simply: “The bloc is more important than the party.” For three elections, he clung to this theory. However, as his time in office grew longer and its future dwindled, he became a mythological figure in his own eyes. The arrogance, the megalomania, the intoxication of power and the belief in his unparalleled superiority went to his head. He convinced himself that he was really a king, an emperor; that no matter how he much he scorns his partners and his friends, no matter how much he persecutes them, sets his dark machine against them and allows his son to spread dirt about them on the internet, they will always follow him, as though propelled by a divine commandment.

His wife, Sara, and his son, Yair, put it into his head that he is bigger than the bloc, an associate told me. In the end, it was they who brought this tragedy on him. They and some of the media people who praise and exalt him, in the freebie newspaper Yisrael Hayom or on the Channel 20 of days gone by, led him to believe that it was his right to trample on the whole world and its sister, to give the finger to everyone and to come out unscathed.

Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset this week. Credit: Emil Salman

The bloc that raised him up is what has brought him down. The bloc that gave is the bloc that took away. Avigdor Lieberman, now the finance minister, was the first to abandon him, after the 2019 election. Then Gideon Sa’ar, now the justice minister, and Ze’ev Elkin, now the housing minister, left. And then Naftali Bennett left. The ultra-Orthodox and the strictly Orthodox hyper-nationalists remained. A solid and significant force, but not one that translates into a coalition.

And there is another thing he is beginning to understand, which the people around already understand” that as long as he is head of Likud, they are in the opposition. Likud MK Yuli Edelstein said this outright. MK Nir Barkat hinted at this, by means of a survey he is frenetically distributing according to which he can create a government, even if with slightly fewer Knesset seats. MK Yisrael Katz said this in the past, in hypothetical language (“If I were..., then...”).

In contrast to the yarns he is spinning about an imminent return, Netanyahu is not behaving like a future prime minister. He is not showing up for security briefings with his successor. He isn’t participating in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He isn’t trying to do the obvious: develop connections of trust and personal relations with politicians in the other camp. Instead of sowing in tears to reap in joy, he is burning barns and bridges like a serial pyromaniac who has got hold of a blowtorch.

He is looking inwards: at the party, at the quarrels with the new Likudniks, who pose a danger that is equal, of course, only to Iran’s nuclear program. At lambasting the three pretenders to the crown, Sa’ar, Bennett and Lapid. He fears that they will join forces against him. Therefore, for fear of damaging his base, he is striking a preventative blow at them, to the best of his ability.

He has been aiming at Katz directly ever since the latter expressed reservations about the intention to purge the party of the anti-Bibist group, contrary to Likud regulations and its constitution. He is uploading nasty posts against him and siccing his loyalists on him. He intends to destroy Barkat by means of a bill prohibiting a candidate from making political donations totaling more than 100,000 shekels in a year. But the person who allowed MK David Amsalem to propose the bill is Likud whip Yariv Levin, the veteran consigliere and the man closest to the party chairman. It wouldn’t have happened without explicit authorization from the boss.

MK Nir Barkat at a Likud conference in October. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The Barkat bill is, in fact, also an Edelstein bill. The former became rich in his own right, the latter through marriage. But there is a big difference: Yuli Edelstein is conducting himself with moderation and modesty. Barkat has already poured huge amounts of money on the Likudniks at fancy gourmet banquets and cushy junkets. With 100,000 a year, he could at most regale them with heartburn-causing bourekas and phosphorescent soft drinks from the down-market Osher Ad supermarket chain.

Barkat is considered a leading candidate in a primary for the head of Likud. It is impossible to detach his great popularity from the abundance of treats he showers on electors in the party. We shall see what effect the new law, when it passes, has on his situation. If he really is such an incomparable “big gun” (as chanteuse Sarit Hadad sang to him, in return for a pretty penny, no doubt), it will not be hard for him to maintain his position as a frontrunner even with a measly budget. If his position erodes, it will be decisive proof that money does indeed buy power.

Downers and uppers

This week the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by David Amsalem in which the Likud legislator asked that the defense minister be forced to appoint a director general for Israel Aerospace Industries. The justification for the court’s denial: a lack of standing to file such a petition.

Well, of course. What does Amsalem have to do with IAI? The lawmaker whose trademark is his verbal violence took the Knesset podium Wednesday and expressed his opinion on the ruling:

“They gave me a crazy judge” – Justice David Mintz – “and he denied my petition. I don’t have standing?! ... Yeah, some judge. I said, if he didn’t drink a bottle of whiskey before he wrote that, my name isn’t Dudi,” Amsalem added, referring to the nickname for David.

“This is the Supreme Court? ... Clowns ... political people. Mintz! I advise you to resign. They wouldn’t accept you to Law 101. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Later he reappeared at the podium with a copy of the ruling. “I said earlier that Mintz drank whiskey; maybe he drank a bottle of arak. He drowned in a pool of arak, he and his colleagues, the Supreme Court justices [Isaac] Amit and [Noam] Sohlberg .... It’s Israel’s main leftist party, the High Court of Justice.”

If Amsalem wasn’t a total ignoramus, he would certainly have known that Mintz and Sohlberg are in the court’s conservative wing. The former was appointed by Ayelet Shaked when she was justice minister – with a victory cry. The latter was appointed by the late Yaakov Neeman, who was a religious Zionist justice minister.

Both Mintz and Sohlberg are settlers, both wear a skullcap. Amsalem loves to excoriate the legal system, especially the attorney general, whom he’s threatening to put on trial when Likud returns to power. He does this from the podium and from his seat in the Knesset.

Next to him sits Likud’s Yuval Steinitz. Every time Amsalem opens his mouth, Steinitz, who holds a Ph.D. in the philosophy of ideas and science from Tel Aviv University, seems to shrivel in his chair. Sometimes, though, the two are sunk in long conversations. It would be interesting to know what about.

Maybe about Plato and Democritus. Maybe about chreimeh – the fiery Moroccan answer to gefilte fish – and arak. Steinitz’s wife, Judge Gila Canfy-Steinitz, is expected to be appointed to the Supreme Court in the near future, in a slot for a conservative. Her candidacy was put forward by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. When Amsalem bad-mouths the Supreme Court justices in the future, it will be interesting to see how his neighbor in the Knesset reacts.

The past six months have enriched the Knesset transcript with foul language equal to the quantity shoveled there since the establishment of the state. Amsalem is the main contributor along with Likud’s Shlomo Karhi, Miri Regev, Galit Distal Atbaryan and May Golan.

You might say, well, that’s a tiny minority in a caucus of 29 lawmakers. But it’s the minority that counts. This is the bunch Netanyahu relies on most (except for Yariv Levin). He spurs them on. When they’re unruly in the Knesset, he buries his face in his phone.

The sewage from parliament is flowing onto the streets in the form of the Bibi-ists who harassed 78-year-old MK Benny Begin, a former Likud scion, as he emerged from a New Hope caucus meeting in Beit Shemesh. This time it was the bully Rami Ben Yehuda – a Likud activist – and an unknown young woman who clumsily lurked around Begin as she accused him of bringing “the communists back to power.”

Ben Yehuda, Orly Lev, Itzik and Hani Zarka and their pals are a direct offshoot of Likud’s Knesset members and their leaders, wild weeds that could only grow in Netanyahu & Son’s toxic patch. “Miserable old traitor, your father is turning over in his grave at your collaborating. He’s ashamed of you!” one of them howled at Begin, their eyes filled with hate.

Former President Reuven Rivlin, Begin’s friend and longtime neighbor, saw the video and was heartbroken. “Begin is turning over in his grave because of the people who left Likud?” he said. “He’s turning over in his grave because of the person who’s leading Likud today.”

The disgraceful media

Netanyahu will forever bear the responsibility for koshering convicted felon Itamar Ben-Gvir, the racist and violent Kahanist legislator and an admirer of the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein. Netanyahu went to great lengths to get this disaster into the Knesset on the racist messianic slate that calls itself Religious Zionism.

Ben-Gvir became an MK in the last election thanks to Netanyahu. But the force that’s coddling, cultivating and glorifying him well beyond his natural dimensions is the mainstream media. Mainly, it’s the two commercial channels that can’t get enough of him, of the show he puts on, of the traffic he generates. They’re also addicted to the huge number of items he passes along to them, hush-hush quid pro quo.

Recently the pro-democracy group Darkenu asked the company Ifat Media Information to look into the number of media appearances by each MK and cabinet member in 2021. The following are the horrifying figures, attesting to the media’s moral bankruptcy.

Far-right MK Itamar Ben-Gvir at a demonstration in Tel Aviv this month. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Of all the lawmakers and cabinet members, both current and former, Ben-Gvir comes in fifth in the number of radio and television appearances: 1,402. The top four, in ascending order: Defense Minister Benny Gantz (1,613), Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (1,659), Netanyahu (4,373) and Bennett (4,644).

Ben-Gvir, of course, has never been in the cabinet. After him come Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas and Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich.

At my request, there was also an examination of Ben-Gvir’s appearances in the week of memorial events for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a far-rightist 26 years ago. Between October 17 and October 23, Ben-Gvir appeared 61 times for an incredible 219 minutes.

The most despicable of this was on Channel 12’s “Six with Sivan Rahav-Meir” on the national remembrance day; Ben-Gvir opened with a “response” to Lapid’s speech in the Knesset. Who would be the opener if not the person who before the assassination bragged about snatching the Cadillac hood ornament from Rabin’s car and said: “We got to his car, and we’ll get to him, too.”

Darkenu chief Yair Fink wasn’t surprised but he was still shocked. “The media works overtime on behalf of the extremists and extremism,” he said. “Instead of being democracy’s watchdog, it make heroes of those who seek to assault it.”

Sometimes the dog lets the tail wag it, to the point of losing all judgment.

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