The Coronavirus Shows Israel the Government It Needs

Zev Chafets

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The last few weeks in Israel have been a time of frantic efforts to corral the coronavirus and an equally frenzied political squabble over the creation of a national unity government. Both are urgently needed; neither has yet been achieved. 

As always, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been center stage. He was quick to perceive the danger that the virus posed to the lives and livelihoods of Israeli citizens and to national stability. He was (and remains) a caretaker prime minister with a minority in the parliament and a cabinet of mediocrities. Netanyahu himself is to blame for this — the appointments were his, after all — but he didn’t waste time looking for qualified replacements. He simply took the management of the crisis on his shoulders.

What followed was a series of bold, unilateral decisions. He took it upon himself to close down Israeli flights abroad, virtually isolating the country from the rest of the world. He ordered Israelis to stay at home for protection. He shut schools, banned large gatherings and brought a hyperactive economy to a halt. These measures seemed extreme at the time, especially for an open society. But within weeks they have become standard practice in countries in Europe and around the world.

Netanyahu did not hesitate to use the full range of his powers. He deployed the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, to track down and sequester potentially infectious citizens; sent the Mossad on foreign missions to bring home essential medical supplies; and insisted on the last word over economic and medical policy. And, in calm but stern televised appearances, he sold the country on the need to accept onerous government restrictions as the price of fighting the virus.

It is too early to assess the efficacy of these policies. But so far, the hospitals have not been overwhelmed by patients, and there have been only two Covid-19 related deaths. Experts here are certain that there will be many more, and Netanyahu concedes this is true. But thus far, Israel has done an effective job in curbing the pandemic. The economic price has been terrible and has already been disastrous for whole segments of the population who are out of work and unlikely to find employment even after the crisis passes.

And yet, the country is following Bibi’s lead. “The common public sentiment right now is that this time of fear is not the time to replace the government,” wrote Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy earlier this week. “Netanyahu is seen as someone who is handling the crisis well.” And the public needs a leader it can trust at least in this. Levy, long one of Bibi’s most virulent and uncompromising left-wing critics, shocked and infuriated his readers by calling for a government of national unity under Bibi’s leadership. “The warnings about the end of democracy, the destruction of Israel and the end of the world, the slogans [of the protesters] can wait a bit,” he says. 

The warnings don’t match reality. The Knesset is in session and its key financial and security oversight committees are in the hands of Bibi’s opponents. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled against Likud Speaker of the House, Yuri Edelstein, who has used parliamentary maneuvers to keep his job. The mainstream media is as hypercritical as ever. And, despite the many restrictions imposed by the anti-virus regimen, the right to public protest has been preserved.

The best proof that Netanyahu is not the dictator his critics portray is willingness to share power with Blue and White opposition leader Benny Gantz. Netanyahu has publicly offered to form a government based on a 50-50 split of cabinet seats, senior ministerial positions and collective responsibility. The government he proposes would serve for three years, with Bibi and Gantz rotating as prime minister after eighteen months.

Gantz has made it plain that he would like to join such a government and has accepted the principle that Netanyahu, who got more votes in the last election, should get first turn. But he has, thus far, been unable to take the final step. He is afraid of the hardliners in his party, who ran on a promise not to serve under the indicted Netanyahu. The law allows Netanyahu to stay in office unless proven guilty. The hardliners, led by former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, are determined to change that law and end Bibi’s career. Naturally, Netanyahu will not go quietly.

Gantz has proved indecisive. His to-be-or-not-to-be routine has hurt his stature and upset a shaken country yearning for unity.  Joining Netanyahu on reasonable terms is not defeat. It would be greeted with relief both by those who want to see Netanyahu handle this crisis and those who do not want him to handle it alone. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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