Benjamin Netanyahu comes to the fourth round of elections holding aloft the banner of his success in vaccinating Israel against the coronavirus. He relates to this as a personal achievement and he does so with some justice.
From what we understood in the interviews Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla gave with the Israeli media, Netanyahu convinced him to make Israel the company’s vaccine test case. The prime minister harassed Bourla at all hours of the day and night, arguing that Israel’s advantages as a small “island” country, with a strong vaccine culture and health maintenance organizations that know how to conduct giant logistical operations and information systems that can monitor the progress of an inoculation campaign.
That, together with the premium price Israel paid for the Pfizer vaccine, was enough to convince the Pfizer boss to bet on Israel, a bet that ended up paying off brilliantly for him.
There’s no doubt that Netanyahu understood the importance of vaccination and Israel’s advantages in being the testing ground. He was able to leverage that understanding with his legendary marketing sense. If there was a moment when Israel needed Netanyahu the salesman, this was the time.
That achievement needs to be seen in the broader context. Netanyahu’s strengths were in perceiving Israel’s assets and selling them to Bourla, but to those strengths, Netanyahu himself contributed nothing. Since 2009, the year in which he entered the prime minister’s office, never to leave till this day, he never did anything to strengthen the health care system.
The few changes that were undertaken during his various governments were by Yael German, who was quickly dismissed as health minister when he ended his partnership in 2015 with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. But even German’s reforms contributed nothing to the capabilities the HMOs demonstrated when the pandemic struck.
As to the strengths of the health care system, in particular those of the HMOs, you have to go back to the socialist Mapai, the dominant party in Israel in the first two decades of the state. Mapai established the HMOs, back then known as sick funds (kupot holim) as a cooperative enterprise. The rest of the credit goes to Haim Ramon, who in 1994 transformed them into a modern health care system. In his 12 continuous years of rule, Netanyahu didn’t lift a finger to build on those assets.
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That’s typical Netanyahu – a marketing genius and the best campaigner in the world, but a poor manager. In 2010, a year after he became prime minister for a second time, Netanyahu spelled out his vision for Israel in 15 years’ time – to be one of the top 15 countries in the world for gross domestic product per capita. He even detailed how he planned to do it – fiscal discipline, lower taxes, especially for companies, investment in education and infrastructure, and reducing regulation.
Twelve years later, we can play the spoiler and tell you already how it ended. Fiscal discipline wasn’t honored and the budget-deficit target over the last five years became a running joke. Taxes didn’t fall, there was no investment in education. There was investment in infrastructure, but not enough. Regulation was pared back but again not nearly sufficiently.
The biggest spoiler of them all, however, is that Israel hasn’t risen to the top 15 countries for GDP per capita. In fact, relative to the average of other developed countries, Israel’s rate has declined since 2015, and there’s no reason to assume that the year of the coronavirus changed that. The bottom line is that since the 1980s (based on the latest figures, which date from 2018), Israel has ranked between 22nd and 23rd in per capita GDP globally. In 12 years, Netanyahu didn’t boost Israel even by one place in the league tables.
So the vision failed. Netanyahu promised to advance us to the top 15, but he didn’t keep to his promise. The fact is he didn’t even try. Netanyahu, Mr. Economy, knows perfectly well what is holding Israel back – poverty and poor education among Haredim and Israeli Arabs, low productivity and poor human capital, but he never made any serious effort to address them.
In his 12 years of rule, he never made any attempt to reform the education system, losing nearly a generation of improved human capital. Over these 12 years, he did invest 10 billion shekels ($3 billion) in improving conditions for Israeli Arabs, but he undermined the effort with the nation-state law and by calling them a fifth column.
In 12 years of rule, he began to improve government performance, but then effectively reversed course with his “governance” campaign that sought to diminish and ignore the role of professionals. In his 12 years of rule, Netanyahu did almost nothing to advance a core curriculum and other measures to lift Haredim out of poverty; to the contrary, he caved into the demands of ultra-Orthodox politicians and in doing so struck a blow against the future of the economy as a whole.
The Israeli public tasted the fruits of Netanyahu’s resounding managerial failure since 2009 when the coronavirus struck: The exclusion and distrust of the Arab minority, the governmental chaos, the inability to deal with the Haredi community and the lack of professionalism. In contrast to the 15 top countries – all of them with strong governments that managed the coronavirus crisis by relying on experts rather than politicians – Israel’s government proved ineffectual. Decision-making was political, not professional.
By his own economic standards, Netanyahu has been an unambiguous failure. It’s indisputable; the facts are there for everyone to see. The positive economic sentiment prevailing in Israel on the eve of the coronavirus was due to a strong global economy and measures that had been taken many years before the Netanyahu era, indeed many of them when he was finance minister at the beginning of the century.
They weren’t the fruit of anything done in the last 12 years. When historians look back, they’ll see the Netanyahu years as a lost decade of opportunity. The prime minister talked a lot, but did very little.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd poked fun at Barack Obama last week. As vice president, Biden was regarded as something like Old Uncle Joe, a politician past his prime who was kept out of the real decision-making. Yet today, just two months into his presidency, old Joe Biden is leaving Obama in the dust. Obama excelled at charisma, marketing and vision sharing – a handsome, inspiring leader. But he was a middling manager and president. Lacking all of Obama’s qualities, Biden is already emerging as a powerful president, one who makes decisions without hesitation, lays out a decisive strategy and moves quickly.
In Israel, we experienced something like that many years ago with one of the dullest of our prime ministers – one who failed to inspire the nation in his radio address on the eve of the Six Day War. But Levi Eshkol won the war.
Charisma is a bad basis for choosing a prime minister. Indeed, the leaders lacking it often turn out to be the men and women of true action. After 12 years of failed management, it’s time for Israel to go for action rather than charisma.