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Poll: Chaos aside, majority of Israelis think political system handled pandemic well

Pew survey also shows many Israelis think COVID crisis left the country more divided — though results lower than in many other nations

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Officials prepare a polling station for COVID-19 patents at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa for the March 2021 election (courtesy of Rambam Medical Center)
Officials prepare a polling station for COVID-19 patents at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa for the March 2021 election (courtesy of Rambam Medical Center)

In a turbulent Israel headed for another election — the fifth in less than four years and the third since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic — comes a major surprise in public opinion. A new poll indicates a majority of citizens think the country has been effectively handling the coronavirus outbreak, in ways that show the strengths of its political system.

The Pew Research Center surveyed 19 countries on various attitudes toward the pandemic.

Asked whether the country had effectively handled COVID, showing the strength of the political system, or failed to do so, thus exhibiting its weakness, 58 percent of Israelis answered the former, with only 33% taking the latter view.

Those numbers are surprising, considering the governmental and parliamentary turmoil and chaos that surrounded coronavirus rules and regulations over a two-year period.

Israel was unusual in that attitude. In the US only 32% took a positive view, in France 43% and in the United Kingdom 46%.

Only two countries beat Israel: Singapore with an off-the-charts 74% and Hungary with 59%. Sweden was tied with 58% as well.

A Pew survey of 19 countries asked whether COVID-19 had highlighted the strength or weakness of their political system (Pew Research Center)

Meanwhile, in a second question that did not take politics into account, an even stronger majority of 71% of Israelis said the country had generally handled the pandemic well, compared to 26% who thought it did so poorly — once again one of the higher scores among the countries surveyed (6th of 19).

Dr. Yonatan Freeman, a Hebrew University political scientist, said that for all the political backbiting, Israeli politicians mostly pulled together on the key issues of the pandemic, such as social distancing and vaccines — a sharp contrast to countries like the US where these became ideologically divisive issues. The Israeli political system simply didn’t feature very strong anti-vaxxer, anti-masking or anti-lockdown lobbies.

“At times when a possible threat is seen to the country’s well-being, most of the political parties combine forces, and this is what we saw,” he told The Times of Israel.

“The same is true for various actions that preempted much of the world in the face of this virus — whether limiting flights from some countries very early in the pandemic or having vaccines brought as soon as possible and having a majority of citizens and soldiers vaccinated.”

He noted that it was in the midst of the pandemic that an unusually broad right-to-left government was formed, based on an alliance between the rightist Naftali Bennett and the centrist Yair Lapid, and including the Arab Islamist party Ra’am.

A Pew survey of 19 countries asked whether the nation had handled COVID-19 well or badly (Pew Research Center)

In addition to revealing what Israelis feel about their leadership’s handling of the pandemic, the Pew survey also probed the crisis’s impact on societal divisions.

Questioned on this, 56% of Israelis said they thought the country was now more divided than before the pandemic. While this may seem high, it was lower than most other countries. In the US the figure was at 81%, in the Netherlands it was 80%, in France 72% and in Hungary 66%.

The only countries out of the 19 surveyed to get better scores were Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Italy, Sweden and Belgium.

Just over a third of Israelis — 36% — said the country was actually more united now than before the pandemic.

During the pandemic, there was a strong focus in Israel on disproportionately high infection rates among ultra-Orthodox communities and Arab communities. This was partly attributed to high-density living and other factors related to living conditions, but there was also intense criticism of conduct in such communities, and a lack of adherence to health guidelines.

Many Haredi schools flouted lockdown regulations to operate at some points, and there was widespread disregard for COVID restrictions in parts of the Haredi community. In the Arab community many weddings, seen as super-spreader events, were held at times when they were prohibited.

Given this background, the survey’s findings are once again somewhat surprising.

Freeman thinks that years of war and terror have taught Israelis to unite in a crisis and quickly put aside grievances, explaining the polling figures.

“Israel especially has continued to face threats and events — for example terrorism, military operations — which have worked to remind everyone that all Israelis are in the same boat together and should look to be united, or fall divided,” he said.

“I think that this has been a trend throughout Israeli history. In the end, Israelis are great at pointing fingers at each other and blaming each other, but above all [they] recognize first off that they are all neighbors to one another.”

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