Twins No More, Trump and Netanyahu Part Ways on Handling Coronavirus Crisis

Trump’s inept speech highlights coronavirus threat to his political future while Netanyahu’s resoluteness cements his hold in power

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Donald Trump holds a picture of the coronavirus during a tour of the CDC, March 6, 2020
Donald Trump holds a picture of the coronavirus during a tour of the CDC, March 6, 2020Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

>> Israel coronavirus updates: 127 cases, schools and universities shuttered, 2,500 medical staff quarantined

Alon Mizrahi was a flamboyant Israeli football striker known for his stellar performances on the field in the 1990s as well as his flaky statements in between. Of the latter, Mizrahi’s most fondly-remembered inanity came in response to a reporter’s question about his ambitions to play abroad: “I’d like to play in Europe or in Spain,” he said.

Mizrahi’s novel geography was the first thing that came to mind after hearing President Donald Trump declare a travel ban on a Europe that does not include the United Kingdom, Ireland and Eastern European countries that are not part of the open-border Schengen area. The UK’s exclusion was doubly bizarre given its relatively high rate of coronavirus cases, the sixth highest in what is otherwise known as Europe. It’s probably because he has golf clubs there, cynics concluded.

Trump’s Mizrahi-style atlas, however, was but a minor hiccough in a presidential speech that was supposed to calm an increasingly anxious America, which probably achieved the opposite. U.S. administration officials spent the ensuing 24 hours trying to clean up the mess.

Trump said the ban would include trade and cargo, but it actually doesn’t. He said the travel ban would be complete, when it isn’t. He insisted insurers had agreed to waive copays for coronavirus treatment, but they actually hadn’t. He totally ignored the main challenge currently facing U.S. medical providers – the lack of sufficient testing. He portrayed the disease as an economic challenge rather than a potential human catastrophe. And he intimated that the coronavirus was “foreign," as if its source made any difference whatsoever.

After three years of finding disturbing parallels between Trump and his ally, Benjamin Netanyahu, the coronavirus crisis has cast them as diametric opposites. Trump downplayed the virus as a trifle, if not a Democratic “hoax," while Netanyahu was hands-on from the outset and, according to some experts, overly-alarmist. Trump was reluctant to take measures that could hurt the economy; Netanyahu quarantined Israel and shut it out from the outside world, economic circumstances be damned.

Trump’s handling of the crisis has undermined public confidence in his presidency and is seen as a potentially major obstacle on his way to reelection; Netanyahu has scored rave reviews even among major critics for his forthrightness and resoluteness: The coronavirus may yet save his moribund political career.

The sense of national emergency in Israel, if not impending doom, has cast a pall over the seemingly Sisyphean efforts of Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz to set up a narrow government that would be supported on the outside by the largely Arab Joint List. It has increased pressure on Gantz and Kahol Lavan to end their boycott of Netanyahu and join a national emergency government, even if it means reneging on their campaign pledge to never join a Netanyahu-led coalition. You’ve already broken your promise not to rely on the Joint List, Gantz is being told; it should be easy for you to nix your boycott of Netanyahu as well.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 8, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

Not that Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis has been devoid of political pitfalls: He exempted the U.S. from Israel’s travel ban, despite its spread in major travel hubs to Israel such as California and New York, so as not to reflect badly on Trump. His Health Ministry added Israeli attendees at the recent AIPAC conference to the list of those required to quarantine themselves 10 days after potential corona-carriers had returned from Washington and walked around freely among unsuspecting Israelis.

Contrary to Trump but with similar aims in mind, Netanyahu is suspected of overhyping the dangers of the virus in order to obscure the fact that after a decade of sustained budget cuts, Israel’s public health system is woefully unprepared to test masses of suspected coronavirus carriers, or to provide severe cases with adequate intensive care facilities. Netanyahu, it is alleged, has ramped up prevention to the max because Israel’s health system could collapse under the weight of mass treatment and cure.

Politically, however, the coronavirus outbreak has allowed Netanyahu to steal the media limelight with daily press conferences that may be objectively superfluous but nonetheless accentuate the differences between a prime minister ostensibly consumed by a national crisis and a rival who is wheeling and dealing at the same time with “Israel’s worst enemies.”

While Netanyahu is conveying hygienic instructions on how to properly sneeze and wash hands, Gantz is ostensibly dipping his own in the cesspool of coalition politics. The changed priorities of the public have pit Netanyahu at center stage, as a benevolent father figure looking out for his flock while Gantz delves in same-old, same-old political machinations. Image-wise, Netanyahu is on a high, while Gantz seems to be down in the dumps.

One is tempted to predict that the inevitable outcome of this situation is the establishment of a Likud-Kahol Lavan emergency government but for one critical factor: Netanyahu isn’t interested. Whatever its advantages, a coalition with Kahol Lavan fails to deliver the one and only prize that Netanyahu truly covets: An exemption from his criminal trial, which is slated to begin next Tuesday in the Jerusalem District Court. Even if Kahol Lavan succumbs to public pressure and agrees to join a coalition led by Netanyahu, it would never agree to measures or legislation that would get Netanyahu off the legal hook.

This leaves Netanyahu with only two viable options and one cataclysmic scenario, in which the Supreme Court declares him ineligible to form a new cabinet. The less likely option for Netanyahu is that Likud will successfully entice three members of the opposition to defect, giving him the 61-seat majority in the Knesset he desires. The more likely option, unfathomable as it may sound, is to steer the country to a fourth consecutive election, which would ensure that Netanyahu stays on as interim prime minister for another six months at least.

Netanyahu may believe, not without justification, that with the coronavirus in the background, his fourth attempt could deliver the absolute victory that was denied to him in his first three efforts. Which could lead to an irony of ironies: A fourth election is likely to be held in September, before the start of the High Holidays, or after them in October, less than a month before the U.S. presidential elections. The way things stand now, the same coronavirus that could help Netanyahu stay in power could also defeat Trump and bring a Democrat to the White House.

Given the state of his relations with Democrats, including Joe Biden, otherwise considered more favorable to Israel than his struggling rival Bernie Sanders, Netanyahu might conclude that there are worse things in life than an uncontrolled outbreak of the coronavirus.

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