Virus-battered Israel pays the price of Netanyahu’s endless election campaign

A consensus is building on left, right and center that no pandemic or economic meltdown will convince the PM to stop electioneering long enough to manage the crisis

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets schoolchildren as he attends a ceremony to mark the start of the school year in Mevo Horon on September 1, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets schoolchildren as he attends a ceremony to mark the start of the school year in Mevo Horon on September 1, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)

The Knesset returned to work on Sunday from an abbreviated 10-day “summer recess” that in an ordinary year would have stretched till October.

There isn’t time to wait till October, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin explained last month. The country is in crisis.

After all, there’s still no state budget, a situation which if not rectified by December 23 will force the 23rd Knesset to dissolve and new elections to be called.

And so the Knesset got back to work, with politicians and aides bustling and chatting in the halls and press statements resuming their steady flow to journalists’ inboxes.

Or more accurately, the Knesset got back to trying its best to look like it was working. Very little actual work is being done.

One thousand chairs are placed at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to symbolize the deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, on September 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The system is frozen in place. Everyone smells a looming election, and it’s exceedingly hard to get anything done in the Knesset in its shadow. Elections overpower the senses and transform every decision and compromise of the sort required to produce a state budget into an unsanctionable risk. In Israel right now, they are overpowering the elected leadership’s capacity to effectively tackle a pandemic.

It’s a hard, simple truth of political life: in the run-up to an election no politician with even the most basic survival instinct examines the decisions placed before them and asks, “Is this good for the country?” The question instead is, “Will my opponents be able to use this against me?”

That may be inevitable in a campaign season, but what happens to a political system when the campaign season never ends?

The current government, that’s what.

The cabinet hasn’t met for four straight weeks, an unprecedented freeze of the country’s highest decision-making body. Some coronavirus-related decisions are still being made by phone votes, but little else.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, chairs an emergency meeting of senior ministers to decide on measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, July 16, 2020. (Chaim Tzach/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defenders insist that in a cabinet of three dozen members, meetings aren’t useful. Even if true, there are now bills and policy decisions frozen in place because even the cabinet’s legislation committee is scarcely able to meet.

And as former Likud faction chair MK David Bitan complained this week, it’s been a long time since even Likud’s Knesset members have met for a regularly scheduled faction meeting.

Everything seems to be at a standstill. Under Netanyahu’s leadership style, nothing can move without him, and in hard policy-making and decision-making terms, he’s nowhere to be found.

Corona chaos

On Sunday night, an hour before the cabinet was to vote to impose lockdowns on 30 municipalities where the coronavirus infection rate had spun out of control, Netanyahu held an urgent meeting with the heads of the two Haredi parties, Shas’s Aryeh Deri and United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman, and promptly canceled the cabinet session. There would be no lockdown.

Shas party chairman and Interior Affairs Minister, Aryeh Deri, left, speaks with United Torah Judaism party leader, then health minister, Yaakov Litzman in the Knesset, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The reason? The prime minister had just been excoriated in a public letter penned by four prominent Haredi mayors that accused him of “trampling” their communities.

“You never bothered to hear our voices, to understand our crisis, and to try to advance practical efforts to flatten the curve of infections. You weren’t listening and weren’t interested in learning,” the mayors charged in the letter, which had the support of the top rabbinic leadership of the Haredi community.

Instead, Netanyahu “imposed one lockdown after another on Haredi cities, which never made a real difference — or we’d all have supported them with one voice and implemented them of our own accord.”

Instead of working with Haredi leaders, Netanyahu was “trying to shift the media pressure” from himself by blaming “the weakest communities,” they accused.

Haredi children wear face masks as a measure to combat infection by the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak on September 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A spooked Netanyahu reversed course. The lockdown was turned into a nightly curfew set to begin Monday night.

Then Monday came and went and it became clear that even that decision could not be put to paper. On Monday afternoon the cabinet’s curfew vote was delayed till Tuesday, when approval of a longer list of nightly curfew areas was finally forthcoming, and the curfew came into effect hours later.

The constant zigzagging has been par for the course for months. Last week the cabinet decided that schools in high-infection areas would be allowed to open on September 1 for the start of the school year. Children are less likely to be contagious, declared a combative Education Minister Yoav Gallant, eager to avoid being blamed for closures.

That was last Sunday. On Monday, just 24 hours before the year’s first classes, the cabinet decision was reversed and schools in so-called “red” areas were ordered closed – but only till Thursday. They would miss the first two days of the school year so the cabinet could belatedly devote time to consider the issue.

Education Minister Yoav Gallant visits schoolchildren on the first day of the school year in Mevo Horon, September 1, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)

On Thursday red-area schools were ordered closed indefinitely.

Tens of thousands of Israeli families were forced to wait with bated breath for days to find out if they had somewhere to put their kids while parents went to work, and thousands of teachers were left to twist in the wind as to whether they had a job in the coming months.

“We decided to close our schools [on Sunday] in anticipation of the lockdown,” Wadi Ara local council head Mudar Younes, who chairs the National Union of Arab Municipalities, said on Monday.

“And we’re still waiting for a cabinet decision. This bumbling about is leading citizens to lose their trust in the government, and it’s only going to lead more people to ignore health and safety guidelines when they do emerge.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a school in Jerusalem ahead of the opening of the school year, August 25, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)

Last month saw the same day-by-day reversals with restaurants, swimming pools, fitness clubs, synagogues, and so on. No decision is ever final. The apparent priority at every turn hasn’t been combating the virus but rather minimizing anger at the government – or more specifically at its leader.

Netanyahu doesn’t seem to have noticed that the very fact that he has allowed decisions to be altered based on which of his political allies gets angry at him has led most Israelis to conclude the decisions were being made based on political calculations. (A poll Monday found 68% believe Netanyahu’s scrapping of the lockdown was a capitulation to ultra-Orthodox allies, not a reasoned policy change.)

“The entire Haredi public will not forget the injustice being done to it,” the Haredi mayors wrote — a political threat meant to force their complaint into those calculations.

They laid it on thick, to make sure their addressee understood: “We will not forget who is the man who, time and again, signed onto turning us into disease vectors and enemies of the people through selective punishment of tens of thousands of families in the Haredi community. We see in you the lone perpetrator of these punishments.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The blame campaign

Health Ministry figures Tuesday morning showed 3,392 new coronavirus cases in the previous 24 hours – the highest number since the start of the pandemic. The percentage of positive coronavirus tests also continues to climb, with the Health Ministry reporting that of the 18,414 tests processed on Sunday, 12.3 percent confirmed subjects as infected.

That’s up from 6% in the last week of August, and 1% in May.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu spent a great deal of his time in the past week insisting someone else was to blame. On Monday he sent a letter to opposition party heads, including Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Yamina’s Naftali Bennett, the Arab Joint List’s Ayman Odeh and others, calling them “irresponsible” for lashing the government’s decision making and questioning the wisdom of its ever-shifting virus restrictions.

Yesh Atid-Telem MK Yair Lapid at a protest self-employed Israelis calling for financial support from the government, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 19, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Thursday, one of Netanyahu’s closest aides, his ill-tempered son Yair, claimed the Shin Bet security service and the Health Ministry were collaborating in hiding the infections taking place at anti-Netanyahu protests – protests that Netanyahu loyalist MK Miki Zohar has blamed for the rising outbreaks nationwide.

But these efforts have shown the limits of scapegoating. Astute observers pointed out to the young Netanyahu that both agencies involved in the alleged conspiracy are under Likud control – the Shin Bet answers directly to his father, the Health Ministry to Yuli Edelstein. Some also noted that the highest infection rates are in Haredi and Arab towns, not in left-leaning or secular areas from which most of the protesters hail.

The blame game isn’t working. A Monday poll found that Netanyahu’s chief right-wing challenger, Yamina’s Bennett, has soared to 21 seats from just six won in the March election, while Likud is at 31 seats, having shed some 10 seats compared to polls in June and July, and well down on the 36 it won in March.

Bennett, for his part, ascribes his rising popularity to deep disillusionment on the right with the longtime Likud leader.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett during a visit in downtown Jerusalem on August 5, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“He’s put his politics before Israel’s citizens, and millions are suffering and living with anxiety because of him…. It’s unforgivable,” Bennett told Channel 13 on Monday.

He added: “Since Netanyahu has created this elections atmosphere, all the politicians are saying, ‘there’s an election tomorrow,’ so their leeway for making correct rather than populist decisions shrinks. You can’t run a country in a permanent election campaign.”

One needn’t go to a Netanyahu challenger for that insight. In an August 26 interview with Calcalist, former Bank of Israel governor Karnit Flug said the same thing, this time referring to the government’s fiscal and budgetary shenanigans.

“The fact that the possibility of elections is left hanging in the air will mean that the trend of populist decisions will continue, instead of focusing on taking care of the fundamental problems,” she warned.

Netanyahu’s willingness to hold a suffering country permanently on the threshold of a new vote, for the simple reason that it saves him from having to carry out the rotation agreement with Benny Gantz that he signed in the spring, is wreaking havoc on ordinary Israelis and growing ever harder to justify. It’s no accident that Likud faction chair MK Miki Zohar won’t call a faction meeting. Even in Likud one now hears grumblings about Netanyahu no longer caring about the public, or about him being in office too long.

Likud MK Miki Zohar speaks in the Knesset, Jerusalem on February 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli voters, especially right-wing voters, are loyal. Likud has had just four leaders since the founding of Israel in 1948.

But Netanyahu has hurt them, and has shown few signs that he grasps how badly his obsessive political brinkmanship has interfered with his ability to rescue his country from a dire emergency.

Ironically, and maddeningly for Netanyahu, the best advice may be that of his right-wing bete noire Bennett, who urged him on Monday to “stand up, like he stands up [on television] at 8 p.m. to announce, ‘I brought peace with the Emirates, I’m wonderful.’ Stand up and say, ‘I’ve failed up to now, here’s what we need to do, here’s the bad news,’ instead of all the shameful spin.”

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