Battling COVID-19 and economic meltdown, Israel now in a third crisis: of faith
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Op-ed

Battling COVID-19 and economic meltdown, Israel now in a third crisis: of faith

Israelis are losing confidence in their leaders’ handling of the pandemic. Netanyahu’s new gambit, showering cash on all irrespective of need, will only exacerbate the disconnect

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Border Police officers scuffle with demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the PM's residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2020. (Yonatan sindel/FLASH90)
Border Police officers scuffle with demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the PM's residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2020. (Yonatan sindel/FLASH90)

The numbers are rising, seemingly inexorably: Israel at this writing has almost 25,000 “active” COVID-19 cases, compared to just 2,000 eight weeks ago. The death toll in that period has risen from 281 to 380. Most strikingly, the number of serious cases has soared from 37 eight weeks ago to 56 just two weeks ago to 204 at this writing.

We may have thought we had COVID-19 beat. We didn’t.

Along with the health crisis, we are battling economic collapse. Unemployment, below 4 percent in March, hit 25 percent three months ago, then came down to some 20% but is now rising again. Many businesses failed to make it through the “first wave.” Many that did, and hoped they saw a light at the end of the tunnel when the government began reopening the economy eight weeks ago, have been hit by the oncoming train of COVID’s return.

But Israel is facing a third crisis, too — one that is now deeply hampering the national effort to grapple with this infuriating pandemic: a crisis of faith.

Early in the battle, Israelis saw the medical experts and the economic mavens arguing on our TV screens about how to find the balance between preventing our health service from becoming overwhelmed by a mass of COVID-19 patients and reducing the catastrophic impact of shuttering the economy. And we saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had spotted the COVID-19 dangers early, seeking to steer what struck us as a prudent middle course.

Today, though, Israelis’ confidence in the entire stewardship of this battle has collapsed.

Israelis attend a socially distanced protest against the economic and social situation, at Tel Aviv’s beachfront Charles Clore park, on July 14, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

For part of the public, Netanyahu himself was and is never to be trusted. The thousands of Israelis who protested, some of them violently, outside the Prime Minister’s Residence and elsewhere on Tuesday night were representing an anger that predates COVID-19 — their opposition to his being prime minister at all, given that he is on trial for corruption. Their ranks could only have been swollen by the prime minister’s blockheaded insistence, at the height of this crisis, on having the Knesset Finance Committee devote a three-hour session last month to his successful bid to obtain some $270,000 in tax rebates and benefits.

But the crisis of faith extends far, far beyond that.

It is driven in part by those numbers — the hard, harsh statistics — that show Israel, having “flattened the curve,” is now diving deeper into COVID’s second wave.

Multiple plans, minimal strategy

It is fueled by the authorities’ abiding failure to provide financial relief for the quarter or so of the Israeli workforce who can no longer earn a living. Plan after economic plan has been grandiosely unveiled, by Netanyahu, his Finance Minister Israel Katz and their various officials. And plan after economic plan has missed its mark — beset by bureaucratic red tape, channeling too much to undeserving sectors of the economy, channeling too little to those who need it most.

The latest idea, unveiled by Netanyahu in a TV appearance on Wednesday night, may be well-intentioned, or it may be cynical election economics, but it certainly constitutes an abdication of responsibility. The prime minister intends to immediately funnel NIS 6 billion ($1.75 million) in handouts to all Israelis, irrespective of need, arguing that this indiscriminate showering of cash is vital in order to jumpstart the economy. Were he to introduce caveats and clauses to the handout, he said, the squabbling would start, the red tape would mount, and nothing would get done. “We must now give universal support to everyone in order to move the wheels and so that nobody falls between the cracks,” he asserted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the media at a press conference in Jerusalem on July 15, 2020 (screenshot)

But relatively wealthy Israelis will not spend more because the prime minister put an extra NIS 750 ($220) into their bank accounts, and suffering Israelis are desperate for every shekel the government can give them. It is surely not beyond the capabilities of the tax authorities, the National Insurance Institute and other relevant state hierarchies to synchronize their data, and for the prime minister and his team to at least broadly calibrate the handouts. Various enterprising efforts are already underway whereby Israelis who don’t need the money will donate it to those who do — admirable efforts that seek to redress the wrongheadedness of the PM’s tactic, but that will be far less effective than a more responsible original plan.

To give just one example, Israel’s social workers, overworked and underpaid, have been on strike for days; their representatives say 1,000 state jobs in their field are unfilled because the pay is so low. And yet the government has chosen to ignore the demands of a vital, patently underfunded part of the workforce, preferring instead to shower cash on all of us — a fortune of money split into payments that will mean nothing to the rich, and do almost nothing for the poor. “It is a surreal decision to give money to people who don’t need it, instead of people who are crying out,” fumed Roee Cohen, the head of Lahav, Israel’s Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses. “Enough with the cheap populism… We need real solutions.”

(Israel’s Channel 13 news calculated Thursday that NIS 1.8 billion ($522 million) of the NIS 6 million in promised handouts will go to families with monthly income of over NIS 22,000 ($6,390), including over 200,000 families with income over NIS 40,000 ($12,775) per month. It noted that 114,000 Israelis with assets over $1 million, 16,000 Israelis with $5-50 million in assets, and 50 Israelis with assets of over $500 million will also receive the handouts.)

They just don’t get it

Further compounding the Israeli public’s faith in its leaders is the resolute inability of some politicians and officials to internalize that the battered workforce — those social workers, the nurses (who are set to strike next week), the small businesspeople, those in relatively menial jobs who have been especially hard-hit — is truly suffering; that a growing number of Israelis genuinely do not know how they will be able to pay their rent or feed their families.

Likud MK Osnat Mark during a Knesset committee meeting on May 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

No, Osnat Mark (a Likud politician who lost her Knesset seat in the March elections but has found her way back into parliament as a replacement for Gilad Erdan, our new ambassador to the UN), those thousands of Israelis who gathered in Tel Aviv on Saturday night to protest the handling of the economy are not “only leftists and radical leftists who came and said one thing: ‘Down with Bibi.'”

The crisis of faith is exacerbated, too, by the obtuseness of the authorities doling out thousands of fines to Israeli workers who are trying frantically to navigate their path to some kind of income through the bewildering, sometimes illogical, frequently changing, web of restrictions and guidelines.

Avi Haimov, owner of a Tel Aviv eatery, complains to inspectors over a fine amid COVID-19 economic woes, July 13, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Witness Avi Haimov, who owns a small Tel Aviv shnitzel eatery, literally getting down on his knees on Monday to plead with city inspectors not to issue him a second NIS 475 ($140) fine. His crime: He had placed his tables “illegally” on the sidewalk outside — not even being used by patrons, but stacked on top of each other. In fact, he explained, he had applied for the relevant permit, but had not yet received it, and had been assured he would not be penalized. This same Avi Haimov last week participated in a Zoom call initiated by Netanyahu, in which he pleaded with the prime minister to “pour state funds” out to the public. This same Avi Haimov had previously clashed in a TV studio with Netanyahu’s economic adviser, who scoffed at the notion that Haimov did not have bread to eat.

Or watch Jerusalem baker Tal Calderon, recounting Tuesday that he and his staff have thus far been hit with seven fines, NIS 500 a time, for failing to properly wear their masks in the searing heat of their Jaffa Road bakery. Noting that he was ordered to close down for 48 hours as a punishment, and hauled off to the police Russian Compound headquarters for questioning, Calderon, whose bakery has survived and thrived through almost 40 years, told a Channel 12 TV crew that “I just can’t anymore” — even as his team was resolutely, determinedly going about their work in the bakery behind him.

National Insurance Institute Director General Meir Spiegler (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This disconnect between the authorities and the people was summed up in an extraordinary outburst on Monday by the head of Israel’s National Insurance Institute, Meir Spiegler — an outburst that was directed against one Shaul Meridor, the head of the Finance Ministry’s budgets department, but could equally have been addressed to Israel’s financial officialdom at large these past few weeks. After Meridor had criticized government stipends as a “negative incentive” to work, Spiegler simply lost it: “How could he say such a thing?” he stormed. “Has he ever been unemployed in his life? Does he know what it is like to be in a situation where he cannot meet the financial commitments he has made? Does he know what it means to have his salary cut in half?”

Finance Ministry budgets director Shaul Meridor (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

His voice rising, Spiegler accused the Treasury of derailing every effort to help the public through the crisis and continued, “First, [Meridor] should go out and learn, and then he can come back and make decisions that concern the other side of the barricade — the people of Israel and the public. Trust me, the public wants to work.”

(Incidentally, Netanyahu reportedly now wants to fire Meridor, who objects to his cash-for-all scheme. Meridor, in the loud debate just before Netanyahu presented his plan, is said to have warned the prime minister that “we need to be careful not to become Venezuela” — which has the world’s highest inflation rate and has trouble raising money from capital markets due to financial impropriety. “This is not the first time I’ve argued with bureaucrats,” Netanyahu noted in his press conference, saying that he transformed Israel’s economy in the past quarter-century, declaring that he didn’t need “lectures” from the Finance Ministry or anybody else, and arguing that his plan was in tune with the COVID-19 emergency thinking of “the most progressive economists in the world.”)

Healthcare workers take test samples of Israelis to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus in Modi’in, on July 7, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

Rebuilding trust

There is, all too plainly, no quick fix to COVID-19. A supposedly simple disease, it is proving impossible to pin down. There is also no quick economic fix. But the crisis of faith afflicting Israel — that can be addressed.

One starting point should be the appointment by Netanyahu of a nonpartisan administrator to oversee Israel’s strategic handling of the crisis — to coordinate between the various ministries, with their conflicting priorities, and forge the path ahead, reporting to the prime minister but free of any political taint. Such an individual — experienced in handling national emergencies, respected by peers — may be hard to identify, but not impossible. One or two former heads of Israel’s various security bodies or its major hospitals come to mind.

As things stand, the plummeting trust in our authorities — born of the bickering within the supersized coalition, the inconsistency of its decisions, and the stumbling, sometimes irresponsible overall performance — is engendering both mounting anger and a dangerous disinclination to follow guidelines and restrictions.

A couple of months ago, we looked overseas and were sometimes surprised to see leaders and their citizenries so self-defeatingly at odds in the handling of the pandemic. How encouraging, we said to ourselves, and even wrote, that routinely divided Israel was holding it together so well.

Today? Not so much.

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An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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