Like Trump, Netanyahu Is Running Into the Brick Wall of Coronavirus Reality

Unlike Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu is still sitting pretty in the polls. Recent surveys show that if elections were held today, Likud and the right would gain strength and Netanyahu would garner the absolute majority that has eluded him in the three elections held over the past 15 months. New elections could give Netanyahu the kind of coalition that would allow him to avert his trial, seize control of the legal system, undercut checks and balances and cement his authoritarian rule.

The same polls indicate that Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, is plunging to possible oblivion. Gantz’s Kahol Lavan garnered 33 Knesset seats in the March 2 elections, was reduced to 17 after Gantz joined the government and split from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and is now garnering single-digit results in the polls. At this rate, by the time elections come around, Gantz and his party will be struggling to pass the 3.25 percent threshold for entering the Knesset.

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Netanyahu is finding it hard to resist the temptation. Over the past few days, he has repeatedly threatened to call snap elections because of annexation, the coronavirus and his increasingly tense confrontations with Gantz in general. According to most observers, this was Netanyahu’s master plan from the outset: lure Gantz into a “national emergency” cabinet, precipitate the split with Yesh Atid, alienate Kahol Lavan from its largely anti-Netanyahu constituency and then strike while the iron is hot and call for Israel’s fourth elections within two years.

In theory, Netanyahu’s scheme is proceeding according to plan. In practice, it has run into a brick wall of coronavirus reality – on both sides of the ocean. The resurging outbreak of the disease in the U.S. has decimated Donald Trump’s prospects for reelection, weakening Netanyahu’s international mainstay and frustrating his plan to secure a presidential OK for West Bank annexation by the July 1 deadline he created several months ago.

Netanyahu not only missed his own deadline, but is now hard-pressed to ensure that annexation will take place at all. Faced with withering mockery in the media, Netanyahu cites ongoing talks with the U.S. administration, asserting that annexation is still on the table. Ministers who have spoken to Netanyahu about annexation in recent days, however, have come away impressed that his heart is no longer in it. He prefers to dwell on other matters rather than the “historic window of opportunity” he promised, which for now remains closed.

Netanyahu wearing a face mask at a ceremony in Jerusalem, June 30, 2020.Amit Shaabi

The postponement or even abandonment of annexation would nonetheless not suffice to inflict serious damage on Netanyahu’s public stature in and of itself. Other than the prime minister, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, some U.S. evangelicals and a minority of Israeli right-wingers, no one wants annexation, certainly not now. Given the threats of international censure and punishment, tension with Jordan, violence in the territories, the potential disbandment of the Palestinian Authority as well as the prospects of a Democratic triumph in November, most Israelis are probably heaving a sigh of relief that the annexation brouhaha has been postponed, hopefully indefinitely.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, is plaguing not only Trump: Israelis have come to realize that the disease is spinning out of control in Israel, as well. Over the past month, the number of total detected coronavirus carriers has doubled, from 15,000 to 30,000. The number of new infections has skyrocketed from less than 50 to over 1,000 a day. More ominously, the number of seriously ill patients is starting to climb as well, prompting hospitals to reopen coronavirus wings that had already been closed.