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After early success, Israel’s Netanyahu faces fury for flubbing virus fight

Many were not even of voting age when Netanyahu took office in Israel 11 years ago. But their anger signaled that his storied political survival skills are confronting a new risk. “We have woken up,” read an enormous banner on a nearby building.

By: New York Times | Jerusalem |
July 25, 2020 2:18:09 pm
Israel coronavirus, Benjamin Netanyahu, Netanyahu Covid-19 fight, Israel news, world news Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (File)

Written by Isabel Kershner

For three nights this week thousands of young Israelis, provoked by what they see as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s flubbed response to the coronavirus scourge, shook off a long political slumber, blocked the streets outside his official residence and demanded that he quit.

Many were not even of voting age when Netanyahu took office in Israel 11 years ago. But their anger signaled that his storied political survival skills are confronting a new risk. “We have woken up,” read an enormous banner on a nearby building.

“We’ve learned that we have to look out for ourselves,” said Maayan Shrem, 25, a youth counselor and former combat soldier who came to Thursday night’s protest from his hometown, Karmiel, a two-hour bus ride from Jerusalem. Holding a placard that read “We will not cease to fight for our country,” his friend, Oren Gery, 26, added, “Change has to come from the bottom up.”

While the fury reflects a multitude of grievances, they have converged around one man: a prime minister who is a defendant in a corruption trial, is now blamed for a colossal failure in dealing with the health and economic crises caused by the virus pandemic, and is resorting to what critics call undemocratic measures to retain power.

The public revolt signals yet another stunning turnaround for Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, who has managed to cling to his seat through three touch-and-go elections since April 2019.

Above all, a prevailing sense of chaos pervades the government’s handling of the recent resurgence of the virus, prompting growing criticism even from the heart of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party.

“There’s a disconnect between the government and the public and the local authorities,” Haim Bibas, the Likud mayor of the central city of Modiin and the powerful chair of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, said in an interview Friday. The local authorities have been instrumental in battling the virus on the ground.

“It feels as if there is no leadership and no governance,” said Bibas, who has run election campaigns for Netanyahu.

Just two months ago, Netanyahu appeared to have outsmarted political adversaries for what seemed like the umpteenth time. He formed a national unity government with his main rival, centrist Benny Gantz, neutralizing him as an opposition force.

Praised for his initial success in handling the pandemic and with coronavirus wards closing for lack of patients, he abruptly opened up the economy in late May to try to resuscitate jobs and commerce, telling Israelis in a televised victory address to get some air, grab a coffee or a beer and, while taking the necessary precautions, to “Go out and have a good time.”

An international survey published May 19 by the Israeli Keevoon research group and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation found 67% of Israelis happy with his handling of the crisis, one of the top scores. Netanyahu’s Likud party was soaring in the opinion polls.

Within weeks, everything went awry.

Daily infections rapidly spiked, from double-digit figures in May to about 2,000 per day now. All children were sent back to school to finish the semester before summer break, which caused new outbreaks. The government zigzagged, sometimes within the space of a hot summer day, on policies regarding the opening and closing of restaurants, swimming pools and beaches, leaving Israelis bewildered. Nearly 1 million people were by now unemployed out of a population of 9 million. Many self-employed Israelis whose businesses were wiped out had received pittances in state assistance or nothing at all.

No clear plans had been made for a second wave of the virus. Now, some polls show only about a third of Israelis are satisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis.

Instead of focusing on the economic distress, Netanyahu took time to obtain government approval for nine years of retroactive tax refunds on his personal expenses, worth more than $250,000. (He later apologized for the insensitive timing.) And he invested huge efforts in plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, an issue that few Israelis cared about.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu turned all of his energies and clout toward the possible annexation at a time when millions of Israelis were concerned with the possible annexation of their own homes by their landlords and the banks because they can’t pay their rents and mortgages,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster and director of Keevoon, the research group, who worked as an aide to Netanyahu in the 1990s.

Adding to the tumult, a Jerusalem court decided this month that the next phase of Netanyahu’s trial will begin in January, with three hearings a week. He has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Political analysts say that fear of a possible future Supreme Court ruling calling on him to suspend himself from office is driving Netanyahu to consider engineering a fourth election as early as November, in the hope of winning enough of a majority to grant him some immunity from prosecution.

A budget dispute between Netanyahu and Gantz could offer a pretext. Gantz is insisting on a two-year budget, in line with their coalition agreement, while Netanyahu is insisting on a single-year budget. Without an agreement by an Aug. 25 deadline Parliament will automatically disperse, sending an election-weary populace back to the ballot box three months later.

“The question is who will blink first,” said Ayelet Frish, an Israeli political consultant.

The government, in the meantime, pushed through contentious legislation this week granting itself powers to decree emergency regulations to fight the coronavirus, a measure that many critics have described as a perversion of the democratic process.

In a sign of growing infighting and dysfunction, Israel Katz, the Likud finance minister, and Miki Zohar, the Likud whip and coalition chair, publicly accused each other of advocating for the opening up of businesses owned by their relatives.

Even a plan hastily announced by Netanyahu in mid-July to give every Israeli an immediate, one-time cash gift worth more than $200 backfired. Finance officials panned it as populist and unhelpful. Gantz insisted that the richest receive less than the poorest. Thousands of Israelis pledged to give their money to charity, accusing Netanyahu of trying to bribe protesters into submission.

No payments have been made yet. Protests have swelled.

Netanyahu has blamed Finance Ministry bureaucrats for the shambles in distributing assistance and has denounced the street protests as the work of leftists, a code word in right-wing circles for unpatriotic Israelis.

“The cat is out of the bag,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter after a Palestinian flag was briefly raised at one protest outside his official residence.

The neighbors, including Netanyahu’s younger son, Avner, have complained about the noise. Police have dispersed the protests after midnight with water cannons.

“I am here because I’ve had enough,” said Tzlil Levi, 28, a student of law and social work, at Thursday’s protest. She said she was no leftist. But, she added, “There’s no leadership. This is not about left or right. This is a political collapse.”

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