Exactly eight months after Israel’s COVID-19-carrying “Patient Zero” arrived here on a flight from Rome, the country is still in the midst of its seesaw battle with the virus. Israel was one of the first countries — heeding advice from Italy — to close its borders and soon it later announce a general lock-down.
Israel Could Have a Third Lockdown by December
But Israel also came out of lock-down earlier than most countries, witnessed a dramatic rise in morbidity (in fact, leading the world in number of cases per million for a short time in early October) and then enforced a second lockdown. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is already bragging that his country is “one step ahead” of the West when it comes to taking measures against the pandemic.
In reality, it seems that Israel is only moving slightly quicker than other countries. All signs lead to the conclusion that a third lockdown could be in the cards by December.
Israel’s Responses to COVID Reflect a Wider Volatility
Israel’s handling of the Coronavirus is quite reminiscent of its behavior in many other areas. It is an erratic attitude, throwing the country from a carefree atmosphere to over-reaction and backwards, repeatedly, without ever gaining long-time control of the pandemic’s spread. Netanyahu’s boasting has no justification.
Considering Israel’s prior advantages when dealing with a pandemic – one point of entrance, essentially making Israel an “island-state” and a relatively young population – we could have been doing much better. Yet it is evident that the government’s performance is deeply tied to the premier’s delicate situation, facing enormous problems, both legally and politically.
Israel: More Than 310,000 Recorded Cases of COVID-19
More than 310,000 COVID-19 cases have been identified in Israel since that first case in late February. More than 2,400 Israelis have died. The CFR (Case Fatality Rate) remains rather low – 0.075%, while the percentage of positive tests has significantly dropped, to less than 3%. Full lock-down was maintained for four weeks until mid-October, but this time the economy is recovering very slowly: restaurants and cafes remain closed, while only kinder gardens were opened this week, as older children stayed at home.
Experts warn of lost educational years and parents are finding it hard to go back to work, since most children remain at home. Almost one million Israelis are unemployed and international companies are considering a downgrading the country’s credit grade. For political reasons, Netanyahu has insisted on not approving the state’s budget for this year. Economists already fear a “lost decade” for Israel, just like the one it went through after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Netanyahu Fails to Mention the Failure to Properly Shift Out of the First Lockdown
What Netanyahu forgets to mention is that the second lockdown has only become a necessity because of his government’s failure when it moved too quickly, without any serious planning, out of the first one. At that point, in May, the PM called on the citizens to “go out and have some fun”. No cautionary steps were taken, as the government allowed the resumption of weddings and other family gatherings with hundreds of participants each. By September, Israel had been registering 10,000 new cases a day. A second lockdown was inevitable.
COVID-19, in Israel as everywhere else, operates like a perfect X-Ray, accurately exposing each country’s weaknesses. In Israel this has to do, first and foremost, with a lack of long-term planning and lack of cooperation from the public. The combination of a Western-style democracy and a culturally Mediterranean population does not bode well for attempts to handle the pandemic.
This trend only becomes worse because of domestic tensions between different parts of the Israeli society. Each group is busy looking for eased restrictions for itself, while complaining that is being discriminated in comparison with other groups.
Netanyahu’s Problems and Their Relation to the Pandemic
Add to this Netanyahu’s personal problems. He is on trial for three counts of corruption and the Jerusalem District Court would resume discussions in December, this time expecting the PM’s presence at least part of the sessions. He no longer hides his intentions to stop the trial, by any means necessary. But for this to happen, Netanyahu needs new elections, hoping to finally achieve a solid majority of Knesset members who would support his efforts to change the law and forbid indictment of a sitting prime minister.
The obstacle? The combination of the pandemic and the worsening of the economic troubles have hurt his popularity. Yet Netanyahu never loses hope. He is still searching for ways to disband the national unity government and hold a new election.
For this plan to have even a slight chance, he desperately needs the support of two Ultra-Orthodox Jewish (Haredi) parties, which have been his natural political partners for most of the last decade. However, it is these parties’ voters who were hurt most by the pandemic. The Ultra-Orthodox population mostly has large families, lives in poor conditions and in over-crowded apartments. They are also extremely suspicious towards the government and other state organs. The number of cases and fatalities among this group is three times bigger than their share in the general population.
But their religious leaders, the Rabbis, are growing more worried by what the lockodwns have done to their flock’s beliefs. In order to maintain their conservative, rather archaic, values, they forbid their followers to use the Internet or watch TV, in fear that this would expose them to “immoral” content. Therefore, learning from home through computers is virtually impossible. This is why the Rabbis insisted that all Yeshivas (biblical schools) will re-open immediately as soon as lock-down has been eased, Netanyahu surrendered to their pressure and didn’t send the police to enforce closure. He is too dependent on the Haredi parties to risk a confrontation.
Double Standard Drives Israelis Crazy
This, of course, drives other Israelis crazy. Not only do they pay more taxes than the Ultra-Orthodox and are required to serve in the army (while most Haredim are exempted from service), now they have to watch their kids stay at home, as others return to schools.
This apparent, blatant, discrimination, combined with the economic woes, have hurt Netanyahu’s chances according to frequent public opinion polls. Most of the Israeli public thinks he has failed in dealing with the virus. And for the first time a right-wing contender Naftali Bennet is breathing down his neck in recent polls.
Netanyahu’s Diplomatic Feats Still Continue
In the middle of this mess, Netanyahu has still managed to perform some breathtaking diplomatic moves. After the surprise announcements of normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in September, last week brought a third agreement, this time with Sudan. There’s still talk of another breakthrough, with American assistance, possibly with Saudi Arabia or Qatar.
But here, precisely, lays Netanyahu’s tragedy. An extremely talented statesman, he is no longer capable of thrilling the Israeli public. Just as his old narrative, about bypassing the Palestinian conflict and improving ties with the Arab world has finally proven to be true, many voters couldn’t give a damn. They want their old lives back.
Netanyahu, who isn’t capable of delivering such a miracle at this time, blames the public for being ungrateful. COVID-19 may still be his downfall, even before the court reaches a final verdict.