Netanyahu Has Decided Who Will Take the Blame for the Coronavirus Crisis

The coronavirus crisis seemed to be going so well for Netanyahu at first. Early on in the pandemic, his decision to close Israel’s borders, first to the countries where the virus had spread in the initial stages, and then to the rest of the world, was hailed as far-sighted and does indeed seem to have helped save Israeli lives. Likewise, his government’s social distancing precautions and the shutdown of schools and businesses were timely. Together with the fact that Israel has a much younger population than most western countries, these steps by the Netanyahu government have so far prevented the COVID-19 death rate from spiraling.

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Of course, the crisis is also a useful backdrop for Netanyahu’s characteristic blend of fear-mongering and braggadocio. At the start of pandemic, he ominously warned of the possibility of as many as 10,000 deaths in Israel, a scenario no serious medical expert endorsed, but also promised that Israel was the country “best-prepared in the world” to deal with the threat. It was impossible to detach this narrative from the political backdrop – the third election had just taken place and Netanyahu had failed once again to win a majority.

The image of the nation’s savior worked on the public, as the polls began to show Likud’s tally of seats going up, as well as on Benny Gantz, who despite being endorsed by a majority of Knesset members, bought Netanyahu’s “national emergency” spiel.

But that carefully constructed image is becoming undone. It began with the ultra-Orthodox, Netanyahu’s closest allies, and most crucially his health minister, Yaakov Litzman, who seemed unwilling to impose the same shutdown regulations he dictated to other Israelis on his own community. There was no direct reason to blame Netanyahu for the lack of discipline on the streets of Bnei Brak, but it highlighted the autonomy of his coalition partners. Over the past year, the alliance between Likud and the ultra-Orthodox has been a weak point in Netanyahu’s political armor, exploited by his rivals.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, April 7, 2020.Emil Salman

With the infection rates climbing in Haredi neighborhoods, and Netanyahu himself being forced twice into quarantine – first after coming into contact with his advisor on Haredi affairs, and then with Litzman, both of whom were carrying COVID-19 – it seemed matters were not quite under control.

With Litzman out of the picture, it became much harder to hide the bickering among senior officials at the Health Ministry, and between them and their opposite numbers in the Finance Ministry. As the economic implications of the shutdown began to sink in, and the lack of a coherent exit strategy became evident, Netanayhu’s ratings started to dip.

Netanyahu is still boasting in his televised briefings of how his decisions early on have saved untold lives, but the shine is coming off. The number of unemployed has crossed the million mark, and business owners and parents of schoolchildren have no indication of how and when they can expect any respite. The fact that governments around the world are facing the same dilemmas hardly helps Netanyahu, since he has made such a commotion over Israel leading the pack. Israelis are asking themselves how their advantage was squandered.