Nothing, Not Even the Coronavirus Crisis, Can Change Netanyahu

Not the coronavirus, not bereavement, certainly not Israeli democracy

PM Netanyahu (L) and Health Minister Yaacov Litzman at a press conference on the spread of the coronavirus, March 4, 2020.
Emil Salman

I want to believe in my prime minister. Certainly at a time like this, when everything is too urgent and frightening for political cynicism. But I can’t because I know whom we’re dealing with, and because every passing day proves that this moment has not changed him and that an epidemic can also be used for digging in one’s heels.

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How I would love to be mistaken. I don’t enjoy writing this. But I’m having a hard time finding another explanation for the events of the past week. There is no reason for a prime minister to pass a late-night draconian measure of tracking and pinpointing the cell phones of people infected with the coronavirus without allowing the Knesset to discuss the matter. Nor is there any reason for the Knesset speaker to refuse to allow a hearing on his replacement, against the law. And the reason Likud cited for its refusal to enable the Knesset committees to operate sounds like the work of an incompetent leader of a putsch: “The circulation system isn’t safe enough.” The government ministers could sign off on the tracking of citizens by a telephone survey, but the Knesset committees need fresher air.

If only I were wrong. It’s a terrible feeling, to worry at a time like this not just about the stability of the country, but about the stability of its democracy. But it was Netanyahu himself, speaking about Ehud Olmert, who gave voice to this very fear: “There is a concern, a real concern that is not baseless, that he will make decisions on the basis of personal interest and political survival, and not on the basis of the national interest.”

I would like to believe, for example, that the justice minister closed down the courts because of concern about contagion and not to delay Netanyahu’s trial. But I’m concerned that the national interest is not what is guiding these people’s decisions.

These are not the moves of a leader at a time of crisis, these are the moves of a politician at a time of political crisis. Netanyahu even managed to sully his call for unity when he used the occasion to denounce the Arab parties as “supporters of terror” and thus, by extension, Benny Gantz, who negotiated with them. Even when faced with the threat of thousands of dead and a deep global recession, Netanyahu found the time to post a doctored video showing MK Ahmad Tibi flashing a victory sign to the bereaved families that Netanyahu’s people set on him.

There is nothing in this world that will make Netanyahu become a different person. Not the coronavirus, not bereavement, certainly not Israeli democracy. And for us to remain a democracy, he must be sent packing from the prime minister’s residence.

His moves are transparent, there for all to see. A unity government without the Joint List is a clear attempt to drive a wedge between Kahol Lavan and the only party that can bring it to power. The center’s fear of cooperation with the Arabs is the secret of the prime minister’s long rule. It took Kahol Lavan three election campaigns, but it seems they’ve finally learned to be more afraid of Netanyahu continuing in power than of another one of his delegitimization campaigns.

It’s not surprising that people like Moshe Ya’alon and Yair Lapid are leading the opponents of a unity government under Netanyahu – they both got to know him well, each in his turn. Netanyahu is a master at burning bridges, and he created this coalition against him with his own hands. It took a decade, but people have learned that for Netanyahu, the rules of the game only apply as long as they help him win. This is why Likud is refusing to let the Knesset committees do their work. It’s the circulation that worries them – of the minority being replaced by the majority.