The ground is shifting: Netanyahu’s virus missteps untie his right-wing alliance

The PM has clung to power by forging a tight coalition of rightists and Haredim, but the ultra-Orthodox now defy and condemn him, and most Yamina voters want him out of politics

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Israeli kids on the first day of the school year in Mevo Horon on September 1, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Israeli kids on the first day of the school year in Mevo Horon on September 1, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Likud MK David Amsalem, the cabinet minister in charge of digital services, was angry on Saturday night.

“Guess which privileged population shows contempt for the regulations and distancing rules, and insists on gathering en masse and endangering the people of Israel yet again?” he fumed in a Twitter post that included photos of the culprits: anti-government protesters.

Large anti-government rallies returned Saturday after a few weeks of lockdown, as declining infection rates led to an easing of coronavirus restrictions. The government lifted the ban on traveling over a kilometer from home, allowing protesters from across the country to gather in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.

Amsalem, a close ally of Netanyahu, was echoing Likud’s months-long complaint that the protests were undermining the fight against the pandemic, acting as mass-spreading events and making it harder for the government to demand social distancing from other segments of Israeli society.

But Amsalem’s timing, at roughly 8:15 p.m. on Saturday, was unfortunate. Just 45 minutes before he posted his concerns about the protesters’ “privilege” and “contempt” for distancing rules, Haredi media outlets had reported that the leading rabbinic authority in the Lithuanian-Haredi community, the nonagenarian Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, had ordered the community’s schools reopened, including in high-infection areas, in violation of government directives.

Amsalem, like other Likud ministers — and like Netanyahu himself for a full day after Kanievsky’s order became public – glaringly omitted any criticism of the Haredi leadership for openly flouting Health Ministry directives, even though all Israelis know that the virus is spreading faster in the ultra-Orthodox community.

One political reporter, Army Radio’s Yanir Cozin, quoted a Netanyahu statement on Sunday morning that he described as “a firm stand against the decision to open religious schools in violation of the rules.”

Netanyahu was quoted lashing “the warping of the rules…. Those are incubators of the coronavirus! Rules aren’t being enforced, and no one is even trying to enforce them.”

Then the reporter threw in the punchline: “Hah! That’s what he said about the protests two months ago.”

Hasidic Jews from the Breslev sect protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding to fly to Uman, Ukraine, outside the home of Interior Minister Aryeh Deri in Jerusalem on August 30, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

It was only on Sunday night – and only after a Channel 12 poll showed 74 percent of Israelis said they believed the prime minister would cave to Haredi pressure and lift the lockdown on high-infection towns — that Likud found its voice.

“Those who open [schools against the virus rules] should expect heavy fines, losing their [school] license, and losing their funding,” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein finally declared.

Shortly afterward, Netanyahu issued his own statement. “I call on all public leaders, on the Haredi community, to follow the rules, to make sure they are followed, and in any case, there will also have to be enforcement. Increasing enforcement includes tightening the closures, and also inside the cities, we’ll be handing out fines as necessary.”

Haredi distrust

There is a widespread sense, crossing all partisan divides and even reaching deep into the Likud voter base, that Netanyahu has spent most of the past eight months chasing after polls and political maneuvers rather than leading a coherent policy to tackle the virus.

Where once it was Yamina leader Naftali Bennett and a handful of epidemiologists who complained of the government’s failure to build a contact tracing system that could prevent new closures, the same sentiment now leads editorials in the Haredi press, in the Arabic press, even in the right-wing religious press.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as then-defense minister Naftali Bennett (left) and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri confer, during a meeting of right-wing party leaders at the Knesset following election day, on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to polls, and consistently over months, most Israelis have said they believe decisions about the virus are politically motivated, and not driven primarily by the substantive challenge of the pandemic.

On Sunday night, for example, a Channel 13 poll asked point-blank, “Are the restrictions substantive or political?” It wasn’t close: 64% said “political” and just 27% said “substantive.”

“Will Israel be forced into a third shutdown?” the poll went on. “Yes” got 75%, “no” just 14%.

Asked specifically to express their level of satisfaction with “Netanyahu’s handling of the virus crisis,” 59% said they were “unsatisfied,” 21% “somewhat satisfied” and just 14% “satisfied.”

It hasn’t helped that some Likud ministers have themselves said that the latest lockdown was ordered after the government refused a more targeted and less economically devastating shuttering of high-infection areas, because those areas were mostly Haredi population centers. Netanyahu could not bring himself to anger his Haredi coalition partners — and the result has been higher infection rates, more anger at the Haredi community, and — ironically — more anger at Netanyahu even within that community.

Police clash with Haredi men during a protest against the enforcement of coronavirus regulations in the Haredi neighborhood of Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem, October 4, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“Netanyahu found a sophisticated way to scapegoat the ultra-Orthodox community as far back as the first round of the coronavirus pandemic,” the Haredi journalist Benny Rabinowitz told the Arab Israeli journalist Afif Abu Much last week in comments published in the Al-Monitor website.

“The ultra-Orthodox community has always been vulnerable to attacks, but what Netanyahu did in a very sophisticated and methodical way is to turn the ultra-Orthodox community into a target in the coronavirus crisis. Netanyahu had half a year to create an organized epidemiology network and prepare the country and its hospitals for the anticipated second wave. Instead, he did nothing. After all, the state of anarchy and chaos in the country is only to his benefit.

“Everybody knows that when Netanyahu really wants something, he knows how to bang on the table to get it,” said Rabinowitz. “He didn’t do that this time, yet ironically, with that inactivity, he was able to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, he avoided getting into any arguments with his ultra-Orthodox partners by giving them everything they wanted. On the other hand, he successfully labeled them as a problematic community.”

It isn’t a single voice; it’s a sea change. Such astonishing accusations — that Netanyahu willfully allowed the virus to spread in order to pit Israelis against each other and preserve his coalition — are now common in Haredi discourse.

Even Netanyahu’s closest Haredi allies, like the heads of the Haredi-Mizrahi Shas party, have begun to speak about Netanyahu with extraordinary bitterness.

Shas MK Yaakov Margi, a grizzled old hand at Knesset politics not known for populist overstatement, took to the Knesset podium on Thursday to accuse Netanyahu of willfully ignoring the growing divisions in Israeli society.

Shas MK Ya’akov Margi at the Knesset on August 5, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Referring to Netanyahu’s insistence late last week that the lockdown was a “success,” Margi said, “Mr. Prime Minister, I’m trying to get excited, but I can’t. I can’t get excited because the nation that dwells in Zion is divided, fractured, torn to shreds. There’s a feeling of war in the air, an atmosphere of detachment, of solidarity gone missing.

“You know, Mr. Prime Minister, that I can stand here and list your many talents and achievements over the years, and they are many from the perspective of my 18 years in this house,” Margi went on. “I know and value those abilities, and I ask myself, how is it possible that with all your talents, you don’t invest a single hour or two hours a week in working to heal this wound? To seal the fractures? What are you waiting for? Are you waiting for the streets to bleed?”

Blaming the protests doesn’t appear to be helping Likud. For one thing, the areas from which protesters hail are not leading the lists of high-infection areas.

But more basic than that, at Netanyahu’s insistence Likud has retained control of all the major civilian agencies involved in the pandemic fight, including the health, finance and education ministries and the Knesset Coronavirus Committee. Netanyahu owns the pandemic fight more than any other politician.

Religious-Zionist distrust

On Friday, a poll published by the Maariv news site and The Jerusalem Post offered one more data point to the graph showing Likud is losing control of its narrative.

The poll, conducted by Panels Research on October 11 and 12, found that most Israelis want Netanyahu gone. Asked point-blank if they wanted Netanyahu to leave political life, 54% said yes, 36% said no, and 10% said they did not know.

A protester against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a sign that reads, “Likudniks are also sick of the corruption,” on Route 3 in central Israel, October 10, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

But the really worrying findings for Likud are the figures for the right. Over a quarter, 28%, of those who voted Likud in the March elections want Netanyahu gone. And the figure for those who voted for the religious-Zionist Yamina party was 57% — higher than in the general population.

The poll asked Israelis whether they trusted Netanyahu to handle the coronavirus crisis. The same rough figure, 55%, said they did not.

Asked whether they believed the decision to impose the past month’s lockdown was made for political reasons, 51% said yes, 34% said no, and 15% said they did not know.

No wonder, then, that polls have consistently shown Likud dropping as many as 10 Knesset seats in a new election (from the 36 it won in March), and Yamina, which won just six seats last time, winning 20-24 seats, many from disillusioned Likud voters.

Fractured alliance

The ground has shifted beneath Netanyahu’s feet. He was able to retain power through three rounds of elections in 2019 and 2020 because he had managed to cobble together a loyal rightist-Haredi bloc of Likud, Yamina, United Torah Judaism, and Shas.

A meeting of the heads of the rightist-Haredi bloc of parties supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) on January 14, 2020. (Courtesy)

Three times the parties stood by Netanyahu on election day, three times they refused entreaties by Blue and White’s Benny Gantz to build a coalition without Likud, and three times they promised their voters that a vote for them was ultimately a vote for Netanyahu as well.

But the “privileged” anti-government protests have now spread to Efrat, Kfar Adumim, and other West Bank settlements. Even the Haredi metropolis Bnei Brak now sees small anti-government protests by local residents.

Netanyahu was unable to deliver a decisive win across three elections but nevertheless remained prime minister after inking a rotation agreement with Gantz last May. Gantz was roundly mocked on both left and right alike for believing that Netanyahu would fulfill a promise, however solemnly delivered, to leave the prime minister’s chair. Netanyahu hasn’t disappointed the cynics, of course, holding up the 2020 state budget almost to the end of the fiscal year in order to ensure he can topple the government before Gantz ever gets the opportunity to take over as premier.

But the coronavirus may deny Netanyahu the last laugh after all. His supporters never expected him to keep his promise to Gantz. Politics, Israelis know, are a rough and cruel game. Wily old Netanyahu lost no supporters for guilefully outmaneuvering his foe.

But in his continued politicking through the pandemic — continuing to hold up the state budget, refusing to impose politically unpalatable targeted closures, bringing the country repeatedly to the precipice of early elections, among other actions — Netanyahu has convinced some of the very base that once admired his cunning that he no longer sees past the haze of his own maneuvers, that he no longer sees their suffering.

Netanyahu needed the entire right and Haredi community behind him just to keep from losing the last three races. He’ll need more than that if he hopes to win the next one. There is no centrist or leftist challenger who can unseat him in any poll in recent months. But there no longer has to be. It is on the right and in the enraged and embarrassed Haredi street that Netanyahu’s next challenger will seek their victory.

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