Netanyahu vaccino (La Presse)

Israel and COVID

Israel is about to break a world record. By Sunday morning, January 3, more than 1 million Israelis had been vaccinated against COVID-19, about 12% of the country’s population.

While Israel, like many other western countries, has failed quite miserably at containing the virus’s spread, it is much better suited to the current challenge – quickly completing vaccination of its most vulnerable population, about 2 million over-60 year olds along with citizens suffering from comorbidities. Within another week, most of these people would have received the first round of vaccine. As a result, the number of deaths and severe cases of illness is expected to diminish pretty quickly.

COVID-19 Exposes National Weaknesses – and Strengths

All over the world, the disease has acted like an X-ray, exposing each country’s weaknesses. For Israel, it was mainly lack of long-term planning, leadership and self-discipline. As I’ve noted here before at InsideOver, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal woes have made the situation even worse.

Netanyahu, who will soon be facing a fourth round of elections in two years, remains absolutely at the mercy of his political allies. Since he desperately needs their support in his efforts to stop the judiciary from moving ahead with his criminal trial, he depends on the Ultra-Orthodox parties and therefore cannot allow himself to frustrate them.

This is why Netanyahu didn’t force much-needed public health limitations on Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox communities, where the virus had been allowed to run wild. The result? The country is now in the midst of a third general lockdown, with all Israelis paying the price for the negligence among specific communities.

Israel’s Vaccine Advantage

Yet vaccinations are practically Israel’s thing. The country’s origins, as a mostly socialist state, are actually quite helpful this time. David Ben-Gurion and his partners left us with a reliable, efficient, healthcare system which registers every Israeli with government-linked insurance agencies. Those agencies, along with the hospitals, are very effective at delivering vaccinations and collecting data about the national operation.

The Israeli public is extremely positive towards all vaccinations. What’s more, the country is small and it doesn’t take more than a few hours to deliver vaccines to every town and village.

Political Implications for Netanyahu

Netanyahu has already promised Israeli citizens that their country will be the first in the world to overcome the coronavirus. This time he may be right. If Pfizer and Moderna fulfill their commitments and provide Israel with more vaccines during the next month, over half the Israeli population may be vaccinated by early March. This is especially crucial to Netanyahu’s party, Likud’s, campaign.

Netanyahu’s whole campaign relies on the narrative: I’m bringing you the vaccines and saving you from the virus and our economy will quickly recover, much earlier than everybody else. Many voters will buy into this logic, in spite of his failures handling the pandemic. Netanyahu can also present the public with his recent diplomatic achievements, signing normalization agreements with three Arab countries (United Arab Emirates, Bahrein and Morocco), possibly a fourth (Sudan), and maybe, maybe even a fifth (Saudi Arabia).

However, the prime minister remains a deeply divisive persona. Slightly over a half of all Israelis regard him as a persona non grata according to recent public opinion polls. A new, enthusiastic, protest movement has also led to demonstrations demanding his resignation all over the country, a few times every week since the beginning of the pandemic. Protesters accuse Netanyahu of corruption and justifiably point out that his refusal to face trial has led Israel into a long and unprecedented political and economic crisis (the PM also refuses to pass a budget).

Gideon Sa’ar — formerly a senior Likud minister — recently left the party, challenged Netanyahu’s leadership and established a new party, unsurprisingly called “New Hope”. The animosity between Netanyahu and six different leaders of other parties, most of them former partners, may just prevent the PM from establishing a new coalition after the elections.

Netanyahu Shouldn’t be Counted Out Yet

On the other hand, we shouldn’t ignore the prime minister’s knack for exhausting and destroying all political opposition. Netanyahu has ruled Israel for almost twelve consecutive years, following a short and unsuccessful term for three years in the late 1990’s.

Last March he used the pandemic as a pretext to lure his main opponent, former army chief of staff Benny Gantz from the newly established Blue and White party, into joining an emergency national-unity government. Less than a year later, Gantz is a washed-out political has-been, his party shattered into pieces. It remains doubtful whether Gantz will even run in the next elections.

Netanyahu, it turns out, never meant to respect his commitments of working together and allowing Gantz to replace him as prime minister this November. He was only playing for time, waiting for a better opportunity. In less than three months, we will know if he, uncharacteristically, grossly miscalculated.

All of this may sound slightly similar to many Israelis’ perception of Italy in the 1980s and the 90s — a long national malaise, corrupt politicians and an endless cycle of collapsing governments and frequent elections. As one of Israel’s most capable politicians recently told me, all this comes with a significant distinction from Italy that makes Israel’s political situation different.

“Our coffee, ice cream and football teams were never that good”, he gloomily admitted.