The coronavirus betrays Netanyahu

The mishandling of the pandemic fallout and his bid for early elections could bring down the Israeli prime minister.

A protester holds a sign depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
A protester holds a sign depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a demonstration outside his residence in Jerusalem, on July 31, 2020 [AP/Oded Balilty]

Not long ago, I wrote an opinion piece for Al Jazeera English, suggesting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “will go down in history as the first leader who owes his seat to a virus”.

Indeed, in April, it was the public fear of the pandemic that made Blue and White alliance leader Benny Gantz violate his election promise to voters not to form a coalition with Netanyahu.

The incumbent prime minister had used the military call for everyone “to get under the stretcher” to urge his political rivals to join forces with him in defeating the common viral enemy. He had presented an either-or option – either a so-called “unity government” merging the political right and centre-left, or a fourth legislative election, which would be a blatantly unpatriotic, virtually treasonous choice.

Gantz heeded his call and is probably already regretting it. Today, it increasingly seems like Netanyahu is not only unable to handle the political and economic fallout of the pandemic, but is also willing to throw the country into turmoil to save himself from jail.

While Israel is facing a second COVID-19 wave, hospitals are filling to capacity, unemployment and bankruptcies are surging, and a budget hole is threatening Israel’s global financial standing, Netanyahu is pushing for a new election, despite just months earlier demonising such a prospect.

In July, reports in the Israeli media revealed that the prime minister is seeking to dissolve the coalition and trigger early elections in a bid to regain control of the justice ministry and make sure that he is not forced from his seat to face trial.

In effect, Netanyahu is dragging Israelis to the ballot box for the fourth time in less than 18 months at the start of what is forecast to be a grim winter. But this time, it may bring about his political demise.

On August 2, coalition whip Knesset member Miki Zohar likened the relationship between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White to a couple that “wants to divorce and are about to sign on it any minute”. The brash lawmaker, who is one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants, added that “it doesn’t matter what we do, it is about to be over between us and Blue and White”.

Netanyahu has no guarantee of getting custody of most of the children, especially the many undecided and unemployed who are so sick of the whole thing that they may just leave their political home altogether. An April poll gave Netanyahu’s handling of the health crisis a 68 percent approval rating, whereas in the July Israeli Voice Index conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute only 25 percent of respondents approved of his performance in dealing with the crisis, and only 30 percent of the way he is running the government.

In the spring of 2020, the coronavirus smiled on Netanyahu, portraying him as a national hero who brought the epidemic to heel, an irreplaceable unique leader worthy of glory and, of course, clemency. When the epidemic reared its head again in June, and Israel starred among the world’s most dangerous states, Netanyahu’s bragging that Israel was doing “better than most countries” became comedy stand-up grist. 

Netanyahu, who initially imposed stringent measures to stem the COVID-19 spread, decided to ease restrictions at the end of May under strong public and political pressure. He ignored the experts advising his National Security Council who insisted on adopting an orderly model for easing the lockdown, which might have significantly reduced the spread of the disease.

In a June 27 letter to Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, the team wrote that the country “has lost control of the pandemic” and warned that absent immediate steps to stop the infections, Israel could find itself under another lockdown.

Along with disregard for the advice of medical experts, Netanyahu displayed insensitivity over the economic plight of the many Israelis hard hit by the pandemic, including some one million unemployed and tens of thousands of small business owners. The government financial support to those in need has been too little and too slow. 

Despite the growing public anger, at the end of June, Netanyahu demanded that the Knesset approve retroactive tax refunds for expenses at his private villa in Caesarea. He eventually expressed regret over the timing, but not over the actual demand, which the Knesset granted

His next lapse in judgement, which could cost him his seat, was lashing out at those demonstrating outside his official Jerusalem residence against government corruption, alongside artists, students, social activists and many others who feel the government has abandoned them to their fate

Netanyahu painted the protesters as “anarchists” and “leftists” out to topple “a strong right-wing leader”.

Contrary to his claims, the tens of thousands of protesters in Jerusalem and elsewhere around the country are hardly anarchists funded by extreme left organisations. Among the protesters I met, there were Likud voters, religious and ultra-Orthodox Israelis and even fans of the Netanyahu family.

On July 31, Channel 12 aired a monologue by interior designer Moshik Galamin who had previously starred in Netanyahu’s election campaign clips. “I am concerned about my future and that of my self-employed friends, those about whom you up there do not give a damn,” the Tel Aviv celebrity opined on primetime television. “This is definitely not an issue of right or left and I am quite definitely not an anarchist. You obviously know that I am not against you. I am simply Moshik Galamin, an independent businessman, a concerned citizen living in this country, who wants you to take me into account, too.”

The July Israeli Voice Index indicates that most Israelis do not want elections at this time – not over the budget impasse between Netanyahu and Gantz or for any other reason.

Netanyahu is already pointing the finger of blame at Gantz, who insists that Netanyahu honour his coalition agreement with Blue and White and submit a two-year budget rather than the one-year budget on which he now insists for what is left of 2020.

The near future does not bode well for Netanyahu, and not only because of the refusal of the virus to meet his personal interests. In November, he may not only lose the election but he could also lose his White House benefactor and find himself having to deal with Democratic majorities in both chambers of the US Congress. As of January 21, his diary will be full of court appearances to defend himself against charges of corruption, and invariably against petitions arguing that he is unfit to remain in office.

The virus that put Netanyahu in control now seems to augur his political demise.

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