Only one person to blame for Israel’s virus omnishambles
Some record-breaking achievements are nothing to be proud of, particularly that of clocking up the highest coronavirus infections per capita in the world. Last week it was Israel’s turn to wear the leader’s yellow jersey after averaging 199.3 new cases a day per 1 million residents.
It is even more frustrating for most Israelis because the first wave of COVID-19 was very much under control, and by spring infections were as low as 16 per day — compared with more than 3,300 per day recently days, with a consequent increase in mortality. In August there were 416 deaths from the virus, over twice as many as in April, the previous record month. Something has gone horribly wrong, and it is not a mystery. Much of the responsibility must be laid at the door of the government, and especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is cynically and irresponsibly playing politics with the lives of those to whom he owes the ultimate duty of care.
It must be said that, as in any other country, much of the responsibility for battling this wretched pandemic lies with every single individual, from social distancing to wearing masks and avoiding mass gatherings. This is our duty to our fellow human beings, and especially the vulnerable ones. But providing a coherent strategy and guidance for dealing with it is the task of the government, and in that it has to show leadership, to mobilize all the necessary resources, to instil a sense of unity of purpose, and not let ulterior motives, whether personal or political, to enter into its calculus.
The Israeli government has failed on all these counts. In times of crisis, one of the most essential tasks in battling the danger is to build trust with the populace. However, trust in the Israeli government, and especially in Netanyahu, to deal with this pandemic has completely evaporated, and with it the necessary discipline to follow government guidelines, mainly because these have been inconsistent; instead of following scientific advice, Netanyahu has prioritized the demands of his coalition partners and his own efforts to derail his corruption trial.
As the situation stands, there is no need for anyone to encourage anarchy; Netanyahu has already instigated more than enough of it himself.
To that end Netanyahu is deliberately spreading chaos, for which in return he can scapegoat his political rivals, the media, minorities, and the civil service, for the purpose of tightening his grip on power, and delaying his trial even indefinitely. If one aspect of his character is that for self-preservation he is ready to sacrifice anything and everything around him, the other is that he is plainly a lousy manager, and in times of crisis he has neither the ability or the willingness to deal with details, nor the courage to take the necessary bold decisions. A previous Israeli prime minister, the controversial Ariel Sharon, once declared that Netanyahu was not fit to be prime minister because he buckled under pressure and lacked the “nerves of steel” that this position demands.
In a rather uncanny way, Israel is experiencing two different Netanyahus. The first is comfortable with being Israel’s supreme spokesperson on the world stage, reaping rewards from the current international zeitgeist, especially in Washington, and dealing with the geo-strategic situation in the Middle East in order to fulfil his dream of normalizing relations with the region. The other Netanyahu is more interested in the web of Israeli political intrigue, and is embroiled up to his eyeballs in his trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust, which preoccupies his thoughts and also dominates his judgment, or more accurately his lack of it.
Israel’s failure to contain the coronavirus means that there is a nightly curfew in 40 “red” cities which have a high infection rate, many educational institutions are closed, and the livelihoods of many are at risk. The newly appointed coronavirus czar, Professor Ronni Gamzu, has introduced a “traffic-light” system for determining coronavirus levels in different parts of Israel. As it happens, most of the places judged “red” are those with majority populations of either Palestinian-Israelis or ultra-Orthodox Jews, and are areas which have been hit hard by the crisis both health-wise and economically, whose people to begin with are among the poorest in the country, many of them with large families. While the government’s plan was to impose full lockdowns on these 40 coronavirus hot spots, a forceful and angry reaction verging on rebellion from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners led to the lockdowns being applied on an overnight-only basis.
However, for Netanyahu to reverse his decision for the sake of holding on to his coalition, and with that his job, is criminally irresponsible, will probably lead to more infections and deaths, undermines the medical professionals he appointed to provide advice and influence policy, and with that will lose whatever trust is left among the public. Instead of giving some rational explanation for this decision, or apologizing for a possible error of judgment, he chose to repeat his son’s demagogic accusations that the anti-Netanyahu protesters are a hotbed of infection and are protected by the “deep state” that is after him.
As on previous occasions, when the going gets tough, the not so tough Netanyahu is collapsing under the pressure, which may soon lead to a costly and unnecessary general lockdown. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the opposition Yisrael Beiteinu party, himself never averse to employing populist rhetoric, called on the public to “act in accordance with common sense and not in accordance with government guidelines,” which predictably led to Netanyahu accusing opposition leaders of “encouraging anarchy.” But more than ever before, Lieberman’s call for civil disobedience may resonate with many Israelis.
As the situation stands, there is no need for anyone to encourage anarchy; Netanyahu has already instigated more than enough of it himself. However, on this occasion the cost of such deliberately induced turmoil will lead to unbearable human suffering and will strain society to breaking point. If we needed yet another reason why Netanyahu must suspend himself until the end of his trial, his handling of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic has provided it.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.