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AnalysisIf unity deal was truly urgent, why the arguing over judges?

Ahead of curve, now marred by politics: Fading praise for Netanyahu’s leadership

Most Israelis satisfied with Netanyahu’s management of battle against pandemic, but analysts say his initially savvy handling is being overshadowed by mistakes and petty politics

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

An Israeli child watch as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a live press conference on the new government restrictions for the public regarding the coronavirus COVID-19 on March 19, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)
An Israeli child watch as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a live press conference on the new government restrictions for the public regarding the coronavirus COVID-19 on March 19, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Two-thirds of Israelis are satisfied with how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has handled the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Channel 12 survey published Monday.

But some analysts, pointing to failures in the government’s response to the challenge, misleading statistics, and petty politics getting in the way of effective crisis management, hand the premier a mixed scorecard.

Israel undeniably fared and continues to fare reasonably well in this crisis, compared with may other countries. The prime minister certainly deserves credit for that — and hasn’t refrained from patting himself on the back.

Indeed, one of the main reasons for the widespread sentiment that the prime minister is steering the nation through these stormy times with unparalleled competency may be Netanyahu’s self-assessment. In his near-nightly prime time addresses to the nation, he always heaps praise on the steps that he has taken.

Repeated self-praise

“Israel is in the best situation of all other countries, together with another two or three Western countries,” he declared on March 4. “We are in a better situation because at the outset I ordered a policy of over-preparation and not under-preparation.”

On April 1, he cited a dubious survey published by the Deep Knowledge Group — a largely unknown Hong Kong-based investment capital company — that ranked Israel as the safest country in terms of the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“This says that up until now we have made the right decisions and we made them on the go,” he said. Economies are collapsing around the world, but in Israel, “the situation is better,” he stressed.

The Finance Ministry received credit offers of over $25 billion — much more than it expected, he added. “This is a great expression of confidence in the Israeli economy.”

A few days later, Netanyahu’s office issued a press release crediting his conversations with foreign leaders for removing obstacles in procuring “three enormous shipments” of medicine and other medical equipment that would help Israel fight the pandemic.

These shipments include 2.5 tons of anesthetics from Italy, 2.4 million pills of chloroquine, an experimental — and deeply controversial — drug some believe could treat COVID-19, and millions of pieces of personal protective gear from China, according to the press release.

Hydroxychloroquine pills. (AP Photo/John Locher)

After speaking to Netanyahu, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave his special approval for a shipment of tons of raw materials required for the production chloroquine, the press release went on.

“I must tell you that we have had great success in this war,” Netanyahu said in yet another televised address Monday evening. “Israel is ranked among the safest countries in the world in all indicators relative to its population.”

By way of example, he said that within several weeks the daily infection rate decreased from 22 percent to 4%. The mortality rate, the proportion of carriers who are in serious condition and of those who need ventilators is “relatively low compared to most countries,” he said.

Prescient handling

Few analysts dispute that the prime minister acted wisely, perhaps even presciently, at the onset of the pandemic.

“On the corona-challenge I give Netanyahu high grades,” said Israel Prize laureate Yehezkel Dror, a self-declared “contemplative policy scientist” and the former chair of public administration at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Professor Yehezkel Dror (photo credit: YouTube screen cap)

“No country can be prepared for all contingencies: earthquakes, wars, pestilence and more. But, thanks to preparations for war, Israel has resources which can be used for containing the pandemic, such as the IDF,” he said.

Dror, who has written several books about Israeli statecraft and leadership, said that in a world full of surprises, the ability to improvise is critical. “Errors are unavoidable. Compared to other countries and given special problems — such as the ultra-Orthodox [communities that appear to have been hit especially hard], Israel is coping well.”

Former deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich, who has written extensively about Israeli governments’ decision-making processes, agreed that the prime minister merits praise for managing the crisis effectively.

Years of neglect

“He was ahead of the curve, certainly in comparison to other European countries,” Freilich said. “However, there is no doubt that the health system has been ignored, and badly mismanaged for years. It simply wasn’t a national priority.”

In 2018, Israel spent 2,780 dollars per capita on health expenditures, slightly less than Slovenia and far below the OECD average. There are an average of three hospital beds per one thousand inhabitants (in Hungary the rate is seven per one thousand inhabitants).

An Israeli patient waits in the corridor of the Barzlai Medical Center. Nurses from Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon and Soroka hospital in Beersheva left their stations for two hours to protest an excessive work burden. February 15, 2012. (photo credit:Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90
An Israeli patient waits in the corridor of the Barzlai Medical Center in Ashkelon, southern Israel, February 15, 2012. (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

“But even more importantly,” Freilich went on, “the Health Ministry for the last decade was led by a minister whose interest in health is minimal, and who is more interested in patronage for his own constituency and is probably going to be charged with corruption pretty soon.”

Freilich was referring to United Torah Judaism chief Yaakov Litzman, who has headed the Health Ministry, with brief interruptions, since 2009. Last year, police recommended he be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate cases.

Litzman, who contracted the coronavirus because he allegedly defied his own ministry’s instructions by attending communal prayers (he denies this), has been widely criticized for his handling of the crisis, with opposition politicians urging Netanyahu not to reappoint him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

By contrast, “Netanyahu’s overall management of the crisis has been pretty good,” said Freilich, who teaches political science at Columbia and Tel Aviv universities.

“Until the last few days people would give him pretty high marks. But the political considerations are beginning to mar that.”

Playing party politics

Netanyahu depends on the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties to form a majority coalition, which is why, according to critics like Freilich, he was initially hesitant to crack down on Haredi communities, despite the fact that some adamantly refused to adhere to the Health Ministry rules intended to slow the spread of the disease.

In this Thursday, April 2, 2020 file photo, Israeli police officers wearing protective gear wait to detain ultra-Orthodox men as they pray in a synagogue in Bnei Brak. ‏(AP/Ariel Schalit )

“There was an objective need for a total clampdown, but it’s clearly just politics. And we’re all going to pay the price for that, because there will be more outbreaks down the line,” Freilich said.

Pollster and political analyst Mitchell Barak, too, argued that Netanyahu’s initial response to the pandemic was sagacious and statesmanlike, but later became sullied by small-minded politics.

“He’s definitely been in the driver’s seat, leading the government’s response to the crisis. Where he has failed is his refusal to play as a team. He’s the LeBron James of the Israeli government — he doesn’t need teammates, he doesn’t need a coach, he wants to score all the baskets himself,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, visits the Magen David Adom’s coronavirus operations center in Jerusalem together with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, right, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, second right, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, left, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, second left, on February 27, 2020. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Weak coordination and communication

Despite Netanyahu’s eloquent speeches, some observers gave the government poor grades for its communications strategy.

“There needs to be someone in charge of explaining to the public what’s going on,” a former senior government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It cannot be that the prime minister is his own spokesperson. There is too much confusion and uncertainty.”

For instance, the government has been sending mixed messages about some crucial aspects of its crisis management, the official said. “How important are [coronavirus] tests? Are they being increased, and if not, why not? Should we wear face masks? At first they said no, now we’re forced to. You can change your policy, but then you need to tell people why.”

It’s the medical-crisis-voice of Jacob but the political hands of Esau

There has also been criticism of Netanyahu’s decision to put the National Security Council (NSC), which is a part of the Prime Minister’s Office, in charge of coordinating Israel’s crisis response.

One of the lessons of the 2006 Lebanon War was the creation of the National Emergency Management Authority. A department of the Defense Ministry, this body is tasked with “coordinating and integrating all of the organizations responsible for home-front defense during emergency scenarios,” according to the Defense Ministry.

“It’s this particular body — not the Health Ministry, not the Mossad, and not the NSC — that should be running the show,” the former official posited. “Maybe Netanyahu decided against that because Naftali Bennett is defense minister,” he added, hinting at the former’s strong animosity towards the latter.

People have no cash and no credit. Who cares about annexation now?

Indeed, in recent weeks it seems as if the prime minister has been “playing a Machiavellian game of political poker,” said Barak, the political analyst.

Is ’emergency coalition’ vital or not?

Since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak Netanyahu has been calling on Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to join him in an emergency unity government. But weeks later no such agreement has been reached, which indicates that the prime minister doesn’t really believe his own message of urgency, according to Barak, who worked with Netanyahu in the late 1990s.

If the premier really believed a functioning government is vital in the face of an unprecedented public health crisis, he would not have insisted on inserting clauses about judicial reforms or applying sovereignty over parts of the West Bank into the coalition agreement, Barak posited.

“It’s the medical-crisis-voice of Jacob but the political hands of Esau,” he said. “People are dying, unemployment is through the roof, and people have no cash and no credit. Who cares about annexation or appointing judges now?”

Illustrative: An Israeli medical team member is cleaning and disinfecting an ambulance at Tel Aviv’s Dan Panorama hotel which was turned into quarantine facility in Tel Aviv, on March 26, 2020. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

Netanyahu acted smartly in swiftly closing Israel’s borders, ordering people returning from abroad to self-quarantine and encouraging social distancing, many analysts agreed.

At the same time, the figures he likes to quote that ostensibly show Israel is in a better place than most other countries are misleading, some critics say. If one looks at the number of infected or deaths not in absolute terms but — as is usually done when assessing pandemics — as per a million people — it emerges that many other countries are in much better shape than Israel.

And that is before the peak has been reached in some of Israel’s coronavirus hotspots, such as the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, according to various analysts.

About those ties with world leaders

The prime minister boasts that his close ties with some heads of state has helped Israel’s fight against the coronavirus, but analysts are saying his interventions with foreign leaders have had a marginal impact at best.

“He has excellent ties with [US President Donald] Trump, but nothing came out of it” in terms of aid in fighting the pandemic, a former senior Israeli diplomat said.

The prime minister also claims personal friendships with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines — but did not leverage any of these relationships to advance Israel’s emergency response, the ex-diplomat said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a joint press conference at the president’s house in New Delhi, India, January 15, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

“What’s left is Modi. Okay, so we got some medical equipment from India,” he went on. “The question is if we really needed the prime minister’s involvement for that, or if contacts at a lower diplomatic level would have sufficed.”

Israel has much to offer to India in return, the former diplomat said, and it’s impossible to know whether Netanyahu’s direct involvement was necessary to close the deal.

The Foreign Ministry has been praised for its many efforts to repatriate Israeli citizens stuck abroad, and for helping import much-needed medical equipment. But insiders say the prime minister had very little to do with these operations. If anything, they argue that Israel’s diplomats could have been much more effective if Netanyahu had not consistently downsized and sidelined the ministry.

“The prime minister ordered very strict measures in the beginning. That was a good call,” the former senior diplomat said. “But overall, the temporary results of his leadership are mixed. At this stage, they’re nothing to be ashamed about, but also nothing to boast about.”

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