How COVID-19 saved Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu owes his seat to a virus.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 8, 2020 [File: Oded Balilty/Reuters]

Former Israeli army chief Benny Gantz formed the Blue and White party just over a year ago to provide a viable alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s Likud party. Through three inconclusive elections, Gantz pledged to unseat Netanyahu, suggesting he poses a “threat to democracy” and ruling out partnership in a government led by a prime minister under indictment.

Disgust with Netanyahu and the slogan “anyone but Bibi” were the adhesive that joined Blue and White’s three constituent parties. The promise to topple Netanyahu led hundreds of thousands of traditional left-wing voters to abandon the Labor and Meretz parties, handing Gantz a centre-left bloc of 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset in the March 2 elections.

West Bank settler Avigdor Liberman, chair of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party who dubbed Arab Knesset members “a fifth column” recommended to President Reuven Rivlin that he task Gantz with forming Israel’s next government even if it entailed support by the Arab Joint List. Anything to get rid of Netanyahu.

The chair of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid, Gantz’s partner in forming Blue and White, also supported a government backed by the 15 members of the Joint List, including the nationalist Balad and Islamist Ra’am parties.

But when the time came for Gantz to translate the majority garnered by his “anyone but Bibi” bloc into a majority, albeit slim, coalition, his camp began to disintegrate. The first domino to fall was Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis, who deserted from the Labor-Meretz ticket on which she ran on March 2.

She was followed by the two right-wing ideologues of Blue and White, Knesset members Tzvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, who refused to vote for any government not backed by a Zionist majority. Former Israeli army chief Gabi Ashkenazi, whom Gantz replaced in 2011, also joined the dissenters, arguing that a government of 47 Knesset members – 33 from Blue and White, seven from Labor-Meretz and seven from Yisrael Beiteinu – with the external support of 15 Arab legislators, would not be viable.

Gantz, nonetheless, started taking advantage of his parliamentary majority to push through legislation banning a politician under criminal indictment from forming a government – a law that could have ended Netanyahu’s career.

Then the coronavirus intervened, and Netanyahu did what he does best. He started fear-mongering, appearing every evening before the cameras, warning of the dire consequences of the pandemic, dredging up the plagues of the Middle Ages and the Spanish flu. And each evening, he ended his performance with a call to Gantz to mobilise for the effort.

The subtext was clear: The state is in a state of emergency. Anyone who prefers to engage in petty politics is at best indifferent to the people’s suffering and at worst a coward fleeing the battlefront.

Netanyahu has always harnessed public fear to keep his political career: first, it was the fear of terrorism. Then, Iran’s threat to bomb and destroy the Israeli state. And now, the relentless plague. When Blue and White still declined to surrender, Netanyahu injected the Israeli public with another dose of fear.

Last week, a terrifying scenario presented to the health ministry was leaked to some media outlets warning that COVID-19 could kill 20,000 people. To illustrate the threat, Netanyahu announced that Israeli doctors could find themselves in the chilling situation of their Italian counterparts, having to choose who will live and who will die given the mass casualties.

Unlike his friends on the conservative right, such as President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who dismissed the plague as nothing but an upgraded flu and drew angry domestic criticism, Netanyahu skillfully rode the virus into every Israeli living room.

Already in February, he took the reins and ordered important and justified measures, such as cutting back on incoming flights, ordering isolation of those flying into the country, instructing people to keep their distance, and imposing a near-total lockdown on the country.

Despite persistent reports about a shortage of respirators and flaws in the testing process, trust in Netanyahu soared. A newly released report by the government watchdog agency showing the state was not properly prepared to deal with epidemics, did not dent Netanyahu’s popularity.

In a recent poll, 60 percent of respondents said Netanyahu was performing well in the coronavirus crisis, whereas only 34 percent were pleased with Gantz.

The Blue and White leader was left with two options, both bad. One was to respond to the will of the majority, dismantle the political package he had put together, provide sanctuary to a corrupt politician and abandon some of his voters – a Channel 12 poll found 56 percent of Blue and White voters favoring his decision.

The other option was to swim against the current and head for a fourth round of elections, tainted by the image of a general who had abandoned the battlefront and his troops.

He opted for the first and Netanyahu will go down in history as the first leader who owes his seat to a virus.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.