Netanyahu earned his moment in the sun – and the public distrust that clouds it

PM is both the grand strategist who produced the peace being unveiled Tuesday, and the political acrobat whose ceaseless campaigning is undermining Israel’s coronavirus fight

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the city of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem on September 8, 2020. (Alex Kolomiensky/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the city of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem on September 8, 2020. (Alex Kolomiensky/Pool/AFP)

From his lodgings at Blair House in Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enthused on Monday about the history that would be made the following day.

“I hold in my hands the draft of the peace treaty between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and also the historic peace declaration between Israel and Bahrain,” he told Israelis in a minute-long Hebrew-language video posted to social media.

“It’s a tremendous watershed in the history of Israel, and also in the history of the Middle East. It will have vast and positive ramifications for all Israel’s citizens. I also promise you, based on what I see here, that more countries are on the way.”

It’s a shining moment for Netanyahu, as the sunlit excitement in his short video makes clear. And it is a moment away from the acerbic and antagonistic politics back home, where he is fast losing ground.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds copies of the Israel-UAE treaty and the Israel-Bahrain declaration of peace at his Washington DC hotel on September 14, 2020, a day before the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House. (GPO Screenshot)

The previous night Netanyahu put out a Hebrew statement with a decidedly different tone. It was a catalog of what he views as his successes, and a catalog, too, of the times “populist politicians and partisan media” opposed him despite the fact that he’d “always made the right decisions.”

“Even when bullets whizzed past, even when arrows of criticism and ridicule were shot my way,” he declared, “I always saw before me the goal of bettering Israel, and always made the right decisions for our country.”

There’s a pattern, he argued: “The same thing happens every time. Part of the public was initially sucked in by populist politicians and partisan media, but eventually understood that I made the right decisions. That’s exactly what’s happening now during the coronavirus pandemic. In the first wave we made the right decisions that brought Israel to a low death rate and a strong economy relative to the rest of the world. Now, too, for you and as your representative, I will make the right decisions, even if they are hard ones, to save the lives of Israel’s citizens and protect our economy.”

This isn’t mere bombast. Netanyahu genuinely believes in his own importance, and there’s a large core of truth in the cloud of rhetorical chaff.

This, too, is a pattern. On August 31, he told reporters that were it not for his currency reforms in the mid-’90s, “Israel would be a third-world country” today. That’s not true: By the time Netanyahu took office in 1996, Israel was already well on its way to OECD levels of prosperity with a GDP per capita higher than New Zealand’s. But it nevertheless captures an important truth: His reforms played a vital role in the development of Israel’s tech-driven prosperity.

Israelis wear protective face masks at a cafe in Tel Aviv, on September 14, 2020. (FLASH90)

It’s a similar story here. Many pundits, including on the right, noted on Monday that his statement contained no apology for some of the glaring missteps in the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis over the past few months.

It’s a statement born in the “never apologize” school of political crisis management.

It was defensive — he insisted his decisions always turn out to have been correct in the end — and accusatory: “populist politicians and partisan media.” All the criticism, it said, was false, like all criticism has always been.

But then it made a promise, and couched it in the future tense. “I will make the right decisions, even if they are hard ones.” For Netanyahu, who famously deliberates with great care over such statements, that’s no accident.

The criticism back home is real, reaches deep into his political base, and is having an effect on his political position.

Israelis wearing face masks for fear of the coronavirus and shopping at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on September 14, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s very flight to Washington was politically problematic. Where he sees the pinnacle of years of effort and a vital bolstering of the alliance against the Iranian regime, hundreds of thousands of Israeli households, which broadly support the peace deals by vast margins, nevertheless consider their immediate economic and health crisis the priority.

Netanyahu flew to Washington the day after his government declared a nationwide lockdown to stem soaring infection rates — and set its start to Friday, after he returns from the US.

It was the right-leaning Channel 12 political analyst Amit Segal, Israel’s most-trusted political reporter according to a poll of prominent journalists last month, who noted that hospitals had begun to reduce care for seriously ill COVID-19 patients as their wards overflowed. “And that’s before the spike in morbidity that the new school year will bring, which we’ll start seeing next week, and also without the growth coming down the pipeline from the 4,000 daily confirmed carriers now,” he wrote.

Given such statistics, “to wait with dramatic steps [like the lockdown]…because Netanyahu is at a ceremony in Washington is a decision irresponsible in the extreme.”

Netanyahu’s narrative is clear: His government has made all the right decisions, delivered Israel through the worst of the pandemic in better shape than anyone else, and anyone who says otherwise is “partisan” or “populist.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces a new coronavirus lockdown, on September 13, 2020. (Yoav Dudkevitch/Pool/AFP)

The trouble with the narrative, like the trouble with most narratives, is in the details. Netanyahu never stops campaigning, and has only been moved to make “hard decisions” by plunging poll numbers. There’s no state budget for 2020, a fact that hurts countless Israelis, because laws linked to his coalition agreement with Blue and White say only the lack of a budget will allow Netanyahu to topple the government in December without Defense Minister Benny Gantz becoming prime minister in his stead. Netanyahu drew the country to the brink of elections last month, then pulled back at the last minute after polls revealed the vast majority of Israelis blamed him for the looming collapse. Arch-nemesis Naftali Bennett, head of the five-seat Yamina faction, is soaring in polls at a consistent 21 seats, mostly driven by right-wing and Likud voter disillusionment with Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis.

Nearly every decision for months has been made, then reversed, then reversed again in the wake of public pressure or complaints, whether it concerned closures of schools, fitness clubs, restaurants or swimming pools. During the first week of the school year, schools in 40 high-infection municipalities were ordered closed, then ordered opened the next day, then were closed again two days later.

As Likud cabinet ministers have noted — all criticism of Netanyahu cited here comes from the political right, because that’s the point — Netanyahu has held coronavirus policy close to his chest. Likud controls all agencies grappling with the virus, from the Prime Minister’s Office to the health and finance ministries to the Knesset’s special coronavirus committee. Netanyahu believed he would easily rein in the disease and didn’t want to share political credit with competitors.

And that’s profoundly hurt the government’s efforts. It meant that Netanyahu refused to allow the army to play a meaningful role in building a competent contact-tracing and transmission disrupting infrastructure for many months, so that rivals Bennett and then Gantz couldn’t claim public credit for the fight against the disease. He only gave in when his poll numbers showed he had begun to shoulder more blame than credit. It was only then that he could admit that the army — the only state agency deliberately engineered to possess massive redundancies that would allow it to shift vast organizational resources quickly to address unexpected and dire emergencies — might be useful in the pandemic fight. It was a concession that came only after months of wasted time, of suffering families and collapsing businesses, and, of course, of dropping poll numbers.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to IDF Home Front Command soldiers, during a visit to the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, September 14, 2020. (Flash90)

It’s no accident that Bennett’s constant hammering away at “this failure of management and leadership on a scale unseen since Israel’s founding” — as per his statement in response to Sunday’s lockdown decision — has resonated.

Or as former Likud education minister Limor Livnat put it in a Monday op-ed, “many Israelis, regardless of their religion, race or gender, and no matter who they voted for, feel lost, confused, a flock without a shepherd. They no longer believe those who should and pretend to lead them. They suspect every decision, wondering if it was made for the right reasons.”

Netanyahu has “found himself time after time making mistakes and lying about it,” she continued, “making an error and ‘explaining himself,’ getting caught again and again, and never seeming to learn, never learning.”

Netanyahu is enjoying his soaring achievement in Washington, and it’s hard to deny him the achievement. Even the rampant cynicism in parts of the congenitally cynical Israeli media takes nothing away from that achievement.

One media outlet on Monday uncovered a “scoop” by examining Israeli cabinet procedure and discovering that the agreements being signed Tuesday must still be ratified by the cabinet to go into effect. That meant, said the journalists, that Tuesday’s event in Washington isn’t as significant as Netanyahu claims. But the deal is so popular in the cabinet, as well as in the broader Knesset across a vast swath of Israeli factions, that Tuesday’s bringing together of Israeli and Arab leaders for the public declaration of the agreements could entirely reasonably be accounted the more significant moment in the ratification process.

UAE delegates wave to the departing El Al plane at the end of Israel-UAE normalization talks in Abu Dhabi, September 1, 2020. (El Al spokesperson’s office)

Other commentators noted that the relationship between Israel and Gulf states is years in the making and founded on contacts that were partly an outgrowth of the political left’s Oslo peace efforts back in the 1990s. The left should get some credit too, they say. That’s certainly true, but, again, does not diminish from Netanyahu’s careful and concerted efforts over the past 11 years to build a regional coalition of states willing and eager to face down Iranian efforts. Netanyahu showed himself willing to draw vast opprobrium at home and abroad for strategic decisions that would later prove decisive, such as his speech to the US Congress against the wishes of the Obama administration.

It may take another decade or two before the wisdom of Netanyahu’s aggressive Iran strategy can be seriously assessed. But it is that strategy, formulated and doggedly executed by Netanyahu over the years, that is driving the regional shifts that produced Tuesday’s ceremony.

Netanyahu the strategist will have his day in the sun in Washington. He earned it. But Tuesday will pass, and Netanyahu the politician must return to a country mired in a health crisis; mired, too, in economic and political troubles he has imposed on it, and far too distracted by its immediate and desperate economic pain to take meaningful notice of events on the Potomac.

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