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Four Days to Israeli Election: Coronavirus Politics Reassert Control of Campaign

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters during a Likud party campaign rally in Jerusalem, February 26, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters during a Likud party campaign rally in Jerusalem, February 26, 2020.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump may be the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of nationalist, right-wing politics, but their ways have parted on coronavirus. Netanyahu seized the initiative from the moment the virus began to infect the residents of Wuhan, China. He pushed his unpopular ultra-Orthodox Health Minister to the sidelines, positioned himself as commander of Israel’s prevention and containment efforts and in no way belittled the coronavirus’ potential harm.

Trump, on the other hand, diminished the possible impact of the epidemic on the United States and berated administration officials who said otherwise. As the public belatedly found out, Trump had already cut vital budgets to administration bodies charged with preventing pandemics, including the widely esteemed Center for Disease Control. He promised, God knows based on what, that the danger would pass within two short months.

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Netanyahu sought to inoculate himself from the potential fallout of a widespread outbreak of the disease before the election, which is what many suspect has already occurred following the Thursday discovery of two Israelis infected by the virus, as well as another who returned from Italy four days ago and was diagnosed on Thursday. If Israel proves resilient and resourceful in tackling the disease, Netanyahu will inevitably claim credit; if it is overwhelmed, he will cite his visionary warnings.

Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t have the luxury of competing in elections within a few short days, before the full scale of the epidemic is understood. He has tied his fate to the epidemic dying well before the 250 days left until elections are up. If there is serious outbreak of coronavirus in the U.S., Trump will face an obstacle no less intractable than the financial meltdown of 2008, which essentially blocked John McCain’s path to victory and ensured the election of America’s first black president. Under such circumstances, electing a radical “democrat socialist” like Bernie Sanders is less pie in the sky than current conventional wisdom would have it.

The coronavirus, however, has also given rise to mutual suspicions between left and right that their opponents will use the disease in order to suppress their own constituencies. One such dirty trick was already exposed in central Israel whose residents largely supported Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan in last September’s election: An anonymous notice on social media, thought to have originated with Likud, spread fake news about a local resident infected with coronavirus along with assurances that “authorities are doing everything they can.” Gantz and other are worried that a targeted fear campaign on Election Day could keep many of their concerned voters at home.

The escalation of the coronavirus crisis and the ensuing public hysteria is now dominating news headlines, relegating the last and usually dramatic days of the election campaign to the sidelines and diminishing the fateful decision awaiting Israelis in the Monday ballot.

Netanyahu, in general, is thought to have the most to gain from any shift in the public’s attention away from the criminal trial that ostensibly awaits him on March 17, two weeks after the polls are closed and results published. For the second time in a week, however, the specter of mass infection has blunted Netanyahu’s deplorable personal campaign against Gantz, proving that even a deadly virus can have a positive effect.

Thus, an election campaign that veered away from what was slated to be its main focus – Netanyahu’s criminal indictments – is ending on an appropriately anomalous note, with a viral pandemic taking center stage. It may yet prove to be pivotal factor on Election Day itself, depending on the pace of Israelis found to be infected and/or on the extent of dirty tricks initiated by the various political parties.

Given that polls are forbidden from tonight till Monday, the results of the election are now anyone’s guess, although the common assumption is that they will end, as usual, with a jubilant Netanyahu rejoicing in victory and with Benny Gantz, along with the entire center-left, wallowing in defeat and disappointment. Netanyahu’s opponents have four days left to pray for a last-minute upset that, for once, will go their way.

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