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Analysis

In COVID battle, Bennett discovers governing is a bit tougher than campaigning

Neophyte PM vowed he’d do better than Netanyahu, notably in the fight against the virus. He even wrote a book about it. Then came reality, the Delta variant and a lockdown dilemma

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accompanies his mother Myrna as she gets a 3rd COVID-19 vaccine, at a Maccabi Healthcare Services clinic in Haifa, August 3, 2021. (Koby Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accompanies his mother Myrna as she gets a 3rd COVID-19 vaccine, at a Maccabi Healthcare Services clinic in Haifa, August 3, 2021. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

Until he became prime minister on June 13, Naftali Bennett had spent the better part of the previous year running for office as the great opponent of pandemic lockdowns.

Lockdowns were only required, he averred, when a government failed to control the contagion by smarter and more targeted means. A lockdown “isn’t a policy,” he said, “it’s a failure.”

He even wrote a book about it, a pocket-sized softcover unabashedly titled “How to Defeat a Pandemic.” One won’t find any epidemiological insights in the work. It is something simpler: a paean to ingenuity and a call for more efficient and responsive government, an argument that there’s no challenge yet presented by unforgiving Nature for which the human mind, properly steeped in the entrepreneurial spirit of the high-tech industry, cannot devise a solution.

The pandemic, he wrote, “can and should serve as a tremendous boost for the State of Israel. It invites us to change, to develop, and to forge creative tools for the new world that’s coming into being before our eyes.”

The book was, alas, a work of political rhetoric. It suggested that the pandemic, properly managed, could lead to hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from the Jewish world and to new Israeli innovations sparking the formation of new companies that solve the pandemic’s challenges for the whole world.

And, first and foremost, it promised that Israeli society could “live alongside the virus” with measures like frequent and efficient testing and better decision-making processes at the top.

Yamina party head Naftali Bennett at a conference of the Srugim news website above the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank on March 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was a persistent drumbeat by an energetic campaigner. Bennett spent months on what he called his “Masa Parnasa,” or “Livelihood Journey,” in which he toured the country visiting small business owners and workers to hear their troubles and tease out lessons from their experience of the government’s restrictions and lockdowns.

Each meeting and each video uploaded afterward to social media was meant to showcase the Netanyahu government’s flat-footed response to the crisis.

Pandemics could be defeated, Bennett insisted, if ministers were less concerned with petty politicking and more willing to pound the pavement as he did to study firsthand how policies decreed in Jerusalem conference rooms affected the ordinary Israeli on the street.

People face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on August 15, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bennett must miss those days of comfortable confidence and clear-eyed certainty.

The inevitable comparison to Netanyahu

A trick of the political math and a new type of “parity” prime minister introduced by Netanyahu himself last year came together to place Bennett unexpectedly in the prime minister’s chair. Scarcely two months into his term, he now finds himself standing on the cusp of what may be the most virulent wave yet of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a wave driven by a Delta variant more contagious than any that came before.

So far, surveys say, Israelis are unimpressed. The new government’s pandemic response has polled poorly for weeks. On July 29, when the contagion was only at a small fraction of what it is now, a Channel 12 poll showed 52 percent of Israelis saying the government’s handling of the new wave was “bad” and only 39% saying it was “good.” Asked if Netanyahu or Bennett had done a better job, 43% named Netanyahu, just 21% Bennett.

A demonstration in support of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on August 12, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

It’s not yet clear whether the comparison is fair, but it is inevitable. Netanyahu’s supporters note that by the time he’d left office the pandemic had been “defeated,” and say Bennett had “squandered” that achievement. Of course, it took the Netanyahu government three chaotic rounds of closures, widespread anger and accusations even from Netanyahu’s own supporters of a politicized pandemic response and lax enforcement before he found his footing in the form of a world-leading vaccine drive. If the pandemic’s damages can be hung around the neck of the serving prime minister — as opposition MKs like Moshe Gafni have argued in declaring Bennett a “murderer” for failing to contain the newest wave — then it must be recalled that under Netanyahu, over 6,000 Israelis lost their lives to the virus.

Yet it’s the same double standard on the other side. Those Bennett supporters or center-left backers of the current government who blamed Netanyahu for Israel’s troubled response last year must now contend with a country apparently already knee-deep in another round of contagion, with hospital wings once more being readied for an influx of COVID patients, an unknowable number of deaths looming on the horizon — and no Netanyahu at whose feet to lay the failure.

A confusing virus

In the end, no politician wants to fail, and COVID has proven a challenge almost preternaturally geared to make fools of politicians and policymakers. As the conservative American policy thinker Christopher DeMuth has noted, it is a virus that defies easy policy responses. Its “high infectiousness, asymptomatic transmission, and selective lethality, along with many other subtle characteristics, have presented an unprecedented… sequence of medical mysteries and policy conundrums.”

A Magen David Adom worker tests Israelis with a COVID rapid antigen test at MDA’s headquarters in Jerusalem on August 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It can be hard to recall now, but it took a long time for expert opinion to converge on a single recommendation even for something as simple as the efficacy of face masks. Some senior Israeli health officials at the start of the pandemic, including Dr. Sigal Sadetzki, the government’s top pandemics expert at the time, were vehemently opposed to mass testing out of a real concern that Israelis who tested negative for the virus would be prone to disobey guidelines and end up spreading the virus all the quicker.

As in Israel, so everywhere else, “the most accomplished specialists in infectious disease and related fields have disagreed strongly on the efficacy of lockdowns, school closures, testing and treatment protocols, and even face masks, with many shifts and reversals in expert consensus over time and from place to place,” as DeMuth put it.

Some countries, Bennett noted repeatedly over the past year, did better than Netanyahu’s Israel. But it’s a short list. Most developed nations with strong healthcare systems did worse.

Perhaps the most significant unknown facing Bennett is the change wrought by the Delta variant, whose greater infectiousness has all but wiped out the original coronavirus strain once faced by Netanyahu. Even if Bennett’s old argument against lockdowns made sense against that earlier strain, does it still hold water against the new one? And if it doesn’t, if Israel needs a different policy than the one he promised last year in the face of that earlier strain, how do you tell that story to a public he himself has taught to see lockdowns as signs of a failed government?

It is an irony worthy of a Greek tragedy. Bennett is in a race not against Netanyahu, but against the high expectations he has spent a year creating.

Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing evacuate a patient suspected of carrying the virus that causes COVID, at Hadassah Hospital Ein Karem in Jerusalem on August 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A poll in Friday’s Israel Hayom newspaper opened a window onto those expectations. Fully 88% of Israelis were either “worried” (67%) or “somewhat worried” (21%) about the new outbreak, and 72% were either “worried” (41%) or “somewhat worried” (31%) about its financial impact on their lives. A plurality of 45% to 36% believed a lockdown during September was therefore the “right course of action.”

Would such a lockdown, as Bennett once put it, mark a “failure of the government?” A majority of 58% to 42% said it would.

Most Israelis, it turns out, still agree with last year’s Bennett that a lockdown by this year’s Bennett would be, well, what last year’s Bennett said it would be. It’s a figure Bennett can only expect to rise if and when that lockdown is instituted.

The solution

Netanyahu’s success, Bennett knows, came not with the lockdowns but with the vaccines. And so the new government has sought rescue from its predicament in a new vaccine drive, focusing laser-like on a third-shot booster campaign and expediting the vaccination of minors.

Israelis over 60 receive their third-dose booster of the COVID-19 vaccine at a Clalit HMO clinic in Jerusalem on August 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Here, too, there are more questions than answers. The data on the booster shot isn’t in yet. Many health officials, including Israel’s top pandemics official, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, are said to be uncertain about its potential efficacy. That uncertainty has led at least one senior physician to express moral concerns (Hebrew link) about Israel pursuing a third-dose policy while many countries struggle to deliver a first dose.

(Bennett has responded to the criticism by arguing that Israel is too small to affect global supply but would “immediately share” its data about the efficacy of booster shots with the world, helping to improve vaccine policies globally.)

In the end, Bennett has few alternatives. His Yamina party has reportedly commissioned extensive public polling to try to understand in detail how the public will react to different policies, including lockdowns. It’s a fight against the Delta wave, against looming public anger, and, as previous inhabitants of the prime minister’s chair all discovered to their shock and chagrin, against the cavalier certainties of their campaign-trail alter ego.

In his book, Bennett lashed Netanyahu’s failure to communicate in simple and straightforward fashion with Israelis, saying at the time that Netanyahu dressed up every public statement with heavy doses of “patting himself on the back” but left the public “confused, frightened, awash in rumors and without any capacity to understand what was happening tomorrow morning.” Fast forward a year, and it’s hard to find an ordinary Israeli in the street with a clear sense of the new government’s strategy or its latest guidelines. Is the school year starting on September 1? How many people are permitted at a gathering? What exactly is a “green pass” or a “happy pass?”

A live concert by Israeli rock band T-Slam during the annual arts and crafts festival held at Jerusalem’s Hutzot Hayotzer Artists’ Colony near the Old City walls in Jerusalem, August 10, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

And so, beginning on Saturday night, Bennett launched a concerted public-relations campaign: a passionate — suspiciously passionate — polemic against lockdowns.

“The price tag for the three lockdowns led by the previous government was NIS 200 billion ($62 billion),” he wrote on Facebook. “That is 200,000,000,000. This is NIS 200,000 times one million. This is our money, yours, and our children’s and great-grandchildren’s. If we continue with the policy of lockdowns and economically destructive restrictions, we will simply collapse economically…. Every family in Israel is NIS 105,000 in debt due to the cost of the three lockdowns.”

People will die from the coming wave, he admitted. But they will die, too, from a new lockdown.

“How many soldiers’ lives would be lost, heaven forbid, if we could not allow ourselves to equip them with innovative APCs with advanced protection because we wasted the money on lockdowns? How many children and older people would we not be able to provide with life-saving operations? How many MRI machines would we not be able to finance and thus we would miss thousands of cancer patients at early stages?”

Israelis stand in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at a mobile Magen David Adom vaccine center in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on August 14, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The government’s role, he went on, isn’t to impose lockdowns, but to provide vaccines. And it was the citizen’s duty to get vaccinated.

“We, the Government of Israel, are taking care to provide every citizen of appropriate age with a vaccine. We are the only country in which vaccines are available for everyone and the only one in which there is a third dose, a booster…. For your part, you must safeguard your lives and those of your loved ones. Get vaccinated.”

It was a recurring refrain; it was, he made clear, the strategy. “There are many places available where you can get vaccinated… Take special care of yourselves and take care to get vaccinated… With our steps as the government, and your [taking of] responsibility — we will win… While difficult days are yet before us, I am certain that if we act according to the plan, and if the citizens of Israel wear masks, get vaccinated as soon as it is available for them, and in general, if we act with solidarity and mutual assistance, we will overcome the Delta strain.”

Two weeks ago, Bennett warned that a lockdown may be necessary if the vaccination campaign fails.

Two weeks later, his rhetoric against such a lockdown has grown dramatically louder and more vehement — almost as though doubling down on his criticism of lockdowns might convince an anxious public that he really and truly had no other choice.

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