Coronavirus crisis in Israel: A lifeline for Netanyahu

Background

Benjamin Netanyahu could not even win the third election held within one year. Now, he is using the coronavirus crisis to profile himself as an indispensable statesman and secure his power – to the detriment of Israeli democracy. 

In Israel, the fight against the coronavirus epidemic coincides with a crisis of democracy: an unprecedented three elections in the space of a single year have been insufficient to end the stand-off between the Netanyahu camp and his opponents. The political deadlock therefore continued up until recently. 

On the election night, Benjamin Netanyahu had declared himself the victor in the elections in March. After all the votes had been counted, however, his right-wing religious bloc was still three seats short of the required majority of 61 seats in the Israeli parliament. 

But then the coronavirus crisis offered Netanyahu a way out of the deadlock and to secure his power. The Prime Minister very early identified this opportunity to sell himself as a political leader in the crisis and to step up the pressure on his political opponents.

Netanyahu profiles himself as an indispensable political leader 

The first case of coronavirus was diagnosed in Israel on 21 February. The Israeli government reacted quickly and energetically to the increasing case numbers and set restrictive measures in place progressively – culminating in the declaration of a national state of emergency on 19 March. 

Benjamin Netanyahu lost no time in profiling himself as a crisis manager and took personal responsibility for communication and information to the population. In the early days of the crisis, the Prime Minister was omnipresent in briefings every evening, the start of cabinet sessions and on his private Facebook account. 

This meant that it was the Prime Minister, not an expert or the Minister of Health, who dominated the media and established himself as the authority in this situation of crisis. Not only did he announce the measures decided upon, but also offered useful everyday tips, for instance demonstrating for the Israeli people the correct way to blow one’s nose.
As the Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer commented, Netanyahu has seamlessly segued his election campaign into the coronavirus crisis and is selling himself as an irreplaceable statesman in this unprecedented crisis for Israel. Accordingly, his appearances have been characterised by dramatic descriptions of the situation and historical pathos, and always accompanied by effusive praise for his own far-sighted action. 

He claims that Israel has reacted quicker and better than any other country. The aim is to make it unthinkable in the public imagination that anybody else could lead Israel through this crisis. And the message has certainly got through to the population; Netanyahu’s approval ratings have risen. It remains to be seen how long this will continue, in view of the looming economic crisis.

At the same time, Benjamin Netanyahu called on his challenger, Benny Gantz, to form a joint government to tackle the national crisis: “In the past, we also knew other moments. Two thousand years ago, when the external enemy besieged Jerusalem – brothers’ hands were raised against each other and the disaster was not late in coming.” Gantz should not make the same mistake and bring misfortune upon Israel, said Netanyahu’s clear message.

Secret service operations will also be deployed in the “war” on coronavirus 

Netanyahu uses the vocabulary of war and terror, all too familiar in Israel, to legitimise wide-ranging measures and restrictions on freedom and citizens’ rights. The war against coronavirus is framed as a “war on an invisible enemy”, requiring the deployment of the corresponding resources. 

For instance, Netanyahu announced that technological anti-terrorism resources would no longer be used solely against external enemies, but also against the country’s own citizens. The Cabinet issued an emergency regulation allowing the Israeli Security Agency, Shabak, to check compliance with home quarantine requirements by analysing location data. 

The secret services also have access to the mobile phone data of all Israeli users, to identify people who have been in the proximity of a person infected with coronavirus. All of this takes place without a court order. 

The Israeli government, which aggressively markets Israel as a start-up nation, is also laying emphasis on high-tech in the fight against coronavirus. In so doing, it is working with thoroughly controversial companies that have specialised in monitoring technologies and the use of artificial intelligence. This has been met with uneasiness in Israel. Data protection officials have reported an unprecedented intrusion into the private sphere and have expressed concerns at an expansion of technological tools, their extension in time and a misuse of data. 

However, the Israeli attorney general gave his approval. Only the High Court of Justice then ruled that the planned measures can only be continued after a Knesset committee has been set up, which guarantees oversight on the agency's use of technological surveillance. In the meantime, an interim committee has been formed thus enabling the tracking of citizens.

Coronavirus has led to the erosion of democracy 

In the case of Netanyahu – as is generally the case with populist and authoritarian politicians – the emphasis on political leadership has gone hand in hand with a weakening of democratic institutions. Since 2015, Netanyahu’s government policy has been directed against basic principles of liberal democracy such the rule of law, separation of powers or minority rights. The political scientist Gayl Talshir believes that Netanyahu wants to turn Israel “from an (aspiring) liberal democracy into a neoconservative, Jewish and anti-liberal state”. 

After the elections in March 2020, Netanyahu's primary goal was to secure his power. He has also co-opted the fight against the coronavirus epidemic to this end. For instance, his minister for justice ordered court activity to be limited to “urgent matters”. This does not include the case against the Prime Minister, who has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust; his trial has been (initially) postponed until 25 May. 

In the meantime, the Netanyahu government refused a change of government, despite its lack of majority, in a blow to the institutional foundations of democracy. For instance, Yuli Edelstein, Speaker of the Knesset, refused to convene the Knesset, set up committees and allow a vote on his succession as Speaker of Parliament. In so doing, he effectively suspended the work of the Israeli parliament out of political calculation. 

With its majority, the opposition had planned to elect its own candidate Speaker of the Knesset. This would not only have given the opposition control over the subsequent composition of the Knesset committees and parliamentary agenda, there was also a law under discussion that would have prevented a person under accusation of a crime from being elected Prime Minister – a plan that would have targeted Netanyahu explicitly (although such a law would only come into force the following legislative period).
Finally, the High Court ordered Edelstein to hold a vote within two days. However, the Israeli justice minister, Amir Ohana, advised his party colleague to refuse the court’s instructions. Already at the beginning of his term in office, Ohana had announced that not every decision of the Supreme Court had to be followed.

This bitter blow to the rule of law and democracy immediately led to protest. Many Israelis flew black flags from their windows. The Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari spoke of an attempted coup and the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin sent out a clear warning to Edelstein and the Likud party: "the coronavirus crisis must not allow us to do so much damage to our democratic infrastructure”. Edelstein finally stepped down to avoid having to obey the court.

The opposition crumbles over the state of emergency 

At this very moment of crisis for Israeli democracy, Netanyahu’s challenger, Benny Gantz, threw in the towel. Certainly, his chances of obtaining a majority of his own were slim, since a coalition or a tolerated minority government with the Arab Joint List was out of the question for some opposition Members of Parliament.

Nevertheless, Gantz announcement came as a surprise that he would stand as Speaker of the Knesset himself in order to pave the way for a coalition with Netanyahu. With this, however, he betrayed the central election promise of his Blue and White party, namely to topple Netanyahu. 

Gantz justified his decision by referring to the emergency situation, but this explanation did not satisfy all his partners and the Blue and White alliance immediately collapsed. Prominent opposition politicians such as Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon categorically rejected to participate in such a government, as they felt this would lend legitimacy to Netanyahu’s policies. Whatever the outcome of the still ongoing negotiations, Netanyahu is the major winner of this development. 

The opposition is divided, giving more opportunities for Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc to acquire a majority. The fact that the Israeli Labor Party now also wants to join Netanyahu’s government has not even generated any more bewilderment in Israel and will accelerate the end of the former ruling party. 

The crisis is throwing the inequalities in the Israeli population into sharp relief 
The measures decided upon to restrict freedom of movement and calls for social distancing are a major challenge to Israeli society. Family is of enormous importance; Shabbat dinners with parents and siblings are part of life and must now be put on hold. 

This is particularly difficult during Passover and the associated major family celebrations not only for observant Jews. The Israeli Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman, a member of the orthodox party United Torah Judaism, had only prayers to offer: “We are praying and hoping that the Messiah will arrive before Passover, the time of our redemption (…). The Messiah will come and redeem us from all the troubles of the world”. But, as Israeli songwriter Shalom Hanoch, sings in a famous song: The Messiah isn't coming and he isn't calling either. Instead, the Israeli government introduced roadblocks between cities to ban travel and imposed a curfew on Passover Eve.

On 23 April, furthermore, Ramadan begins, also bringing major challenges. On top of this, there is also the fact that many Israeli families, particularly in the urban centres, live in small flats. As the schools, parks and beaches are closed, those families are under enormous pressure. But at the same time, Israelis are used to having to comply with emergency provisions, especially as there is serious concern about the capacity of the health system.

But not all sectors have been hit equally hard. The particularly high infection curves within ultra-Orthodox communities and neighbourhoods are a cause for concern. Around a quarter of all infections can be traced to synagogues and religious meeting places. 

There are many reasons for this pattern of spread of coronavirus within the Orthodox community. The state guidelines for combating the pandemic were sometimes ignored for a long time, religious schools and yeshivot remained open much longer than secular schools, weddings and funerals took place regularly with high numbers of participants. Though the Israeli Chief Rabbinate called for compliance with all of the Ministry of Health's guidelines, not all rabbis have followed this recommendation.

In particular, those subgroups that reject the State of Israel and its authority had been openly protesting restrictions on religious practice. For instance, Anshel Pfeffer has reported on placards at synagogue doors announcing their official closure in Hebrew, but with an invitation in Yiddish to the faithful to come inside for prayer. Increasing infection rates and, in particular, high death tolls in orthodox communities in New York, however, have led to a rethink and many rabbis have revised their conduct. Moreover, the government has imposed a closure on Bnei Brak, one of the main hotspots.

Additionally, the ultra-Orthodox population are among the poorest groups in Israel. Most live in large numbers in extremely limited space and the infrastructure of their towns is inadequate, including in the field of healthcare.

The Arab-Palestinian population is also facing its own unique challenges. For instance, the Israeli health ministry initially published information on COVID-19 in English and Hebrew only, but not in Arabic, although this is the language of 21% of the Israeli population. 
Under pressure from the Joint List, mayoral offices and civil society organisations, the ministry eventually brought out materials in Arabic. Its approach to drive-in testing stations was similar. Only following intervention was the first station set up in an Arab neighbourhood. The provision for the Bedouin community, who live in places not recognised by the state, appears to be even worse. 

Nor is access to medical care assured for refugees and Palestinian workers from the occupied territories. Although many Arab doctors and nurses work in Israeli hospitals and their contribution is gratefully recognised in public, this is not reflected at political level. Calls for a genuine unity government – including the Joint List – have been rejected by Netanyahu.
 

The article was first published on boell.de (in German). Translation by Alison Frankland.