Israel has so far emerged mostly unscathed from its brush with COVID-19. While most Western countries suffered massive loss of life and extreme financial damage, Israel has been spared of most of the ordeal. But while the government was perhaps too quick to celebrate its success, the current Israeli crisis has other serious aspects: judicial, political — and pretty soon possibly grave strategic challenges.
Israel’s Battle Against COVID-19
The coronavirus hit European countries such as Italy and Spain, several weeks before it arrived in Israel. This allowed the Israeli government enough time to act effectively. There were other advantages: the Israeli population is relatively young (median age of 30, compared to Italy’s 47) and therefore less prone to serious illness. In addition, the country’s only “gate” to the outside world is the Ben-Gurion Airport, which in fact was almost completely closed by mid-March. Israelis who came home from abroad were instructed to self-quarantine for two weeks.
At the same time, the country entered a five week period of almost complete lockdown. End result? Only 288 deaths and slightly more than 17,000 cases by June 2 – not too high for a country of more than 9 million people.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bragged that foreign leaders frequently called him, seeking advice on how to combat the virus.
Netanyahu was less successful when trying to consolidate an exit strategy, however. Israel, it seems, resumed business a bit too quickly, and may now be facing a spike in new cases. Yet Netanyahu has recently shown less interest. He is preoccupied with his corruption trial — which began, after a two month delay — late last month. The delay, announced by his former Justice Minister because of the health crisis, allowed Netanyahu more time and space for political maneuvering. In fact, the virus has performed a political miracle for the PM: under the guise of an emergency “coronavirus government”, he has managed to convince two of his sworn enemies to join a national unity coalition, which he will lead for at least the next eighteen months.
Is Israel’s Political Chaos Finally Resolved?
After three consecutive elections in less than a year, without a decisive result, Netanyahu was able to split the major opposition party, centrist Blue and White, in Half. Two former Army chiefs of staff, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazy, decided to join Netanyahu, forswearing previous promises to never sit with a “corrupt politician facing trial”. Their former political partners chose to remain in the opposition, while many of the party’s voters, avidly anti-Netanyahu, felt betrayed. Gantz is now an “Alternate Prime Minister” (a new title) and is expected to replace Netanyahu by the end of 2021.
But according to the polls most Israelis, including Netanyahu’s own voters, don’t believe the PM will stand by his commitments. Meanwhile, Netanyahu and his party are working hard to undermine the judicial system, while using the COVID-19 crisis to erode some of the Israeli democracy’s basic principles. According to some of his critics, Netanyahu has taken a page from the notebook of his close friend, Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban. On the first day of the PM’s trial, last week, Israelis watched in disbelief as their leader convened a press conference in court, directly attacking the state’s Attorney General for indicting him.
Economic Pressure Increases
All this turmoil is increased by economic hardship and worries. More than one million Israelis — over 20% of the workforce — are now unemployed. The country’s GDP shrunk by 7% during the year’s first quarter. Many industries, in particular tourism and flights which relay on contacts with the outside world, will remain largely inactive for at least a year. And yet, Netanyahu and Gantz have established Israel’s biggest government ever, including new portfolios which would put even Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks to shame.
Trouble still lurks in the background. For one thing, the PM has announced his intention to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank in co-ordination with the Trump Administration. Presumably, this will help Netanyahu consolidate his right-wing base during his trial. It will similarly help President Donald Trump with his devout Christian supporters, which include millions of fervent evangelicals who will back Israel right or wrong come election-time this November.
But annexation may have serious implications for Israel’s relationships with the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and the Gulf States. It could very possibly lead to violence in the West Bank and endanger Israel’s long standing peace agreement with Jordan. Israel’s security apparatus has warned Netanyahu of such a scenario, so far to no avail.
Meanwhile, Israel and Iran have recently swapped blows in the cyber dimension. At first, in late April, Iran apparently tried to attack Israel’s water infrastructure, but the attempt was thwarted. In early May, Iran encountered a massive cyber-attack which paralyzed activities at the economically key Bander Abbas port in southern Iran for a few days. This may not be the end of it, yet. With or without the coronavirus, the Middle East is likely to be on the verge of quite a dramatic summer