JERUSALEM – After Israel’s politicians put themselves in a kind of mindless quarantine from each other a year ago, failing to form a stable coalition, the State decided to put itself in actual official quarantine this week, requiring returning Israelis and visitors to self-isolate for two weeks upon arrival, for fear of spreading the coronavirus.
“As I say and have said repeatedly, we are in the midst of a global plague, even if it has not been officially proclaimed as such,” declared caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a special cabinet meeting, announcing the measures against the virus.
Israel’s precautions have kept virus carriers at a lower level than many countries in Europe, and Netanyahu says he prefers to be overly cautious rather than complacent, but some critics say he has overreacted and harmed Israel’s economy.
While the coronavirus appears to be less fatal than other flu-like viruses like SARS and MERS, it seems more fatal to the elderly than common flu viruses. However, one thing is already clear: it is definitely causing severe damage to Israel’s tourist industry and the entire economy.
Many hotels, travel agencies, guides, and even the national airline carrier El Al are in desperate straits, firing large parts of their workforce, fearful of going bankrupt. The virus-induced economic blow aggravates the problems because Israel has over-spent (three inconclusive election campaigns) and misallocated other funds because it is run by the lamest of lame-duck ministers whose last official budget was planned in 2017.
Israel’s three elections this year are starting to resemble a playoff series: Likud and the right have barely won two of three. The trouble is this is no game, and people’s lives are at stake. Terrorists and viruses are at the door, and the politicians keep calling each other liars, traitors and thieves.
Over three rounds, Likud’s rightist bloc dropped from 60 to 55 and is now back to 58 seats – not enough for a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Over three rounds, Likud’s own vote went from 35 to 32 and is now back up to 36 seats – a mixed message. Blue and White went from 35 to 34 and now to 31 – a downward spiral.
Over three rounds, Blue and White’s leftist bloc went from 45 (50, if you count Avigdor Lieberman) to 44 (52 with Lieberman) and now to 40 (47 with Lieberman). The difference this time is that the Israeli left of Labor and Meretz have collapsed entirely, while anti-Zionist Arab parties, who are united in one list, went from nine to 13 and now to 15, eliminating “wasted votes.”
Essentially, Netanyahu “won,” but Gantz has a “spoiler’s bloc” or “Gush Hosem” (Hebrew) of 62 seats. It is quite impossible for Gantz to form a solid coalition with the right-oriented (but Netanyahu-hating) Lieberman and the anti-Zionist United Arab List, whose members do not hide their support for Palestinian terror groups.
On election eve, Gantz promised that he would never form a government with the active or even tacit support of anti-Zionist Arab parties, because such a government’s policies with regard to Hamas in Gaza or Iranian forces in Syria would be hostage to the whims of anti-Zionist parliamentary deputies.
Still, that is exactly what Gantz and Lieberman have proposed – completely violating all their campaign promises and vindicating Netanyahu’s aggressive campaign questioning Gantz’s fitness for office, and charging that Blue and White would get into bed with the anti-Zionists.
Netanyahu is hardly loved among the Israeli media, but even commentators at the left-oriented media here admit such a minority government – if it rose at all – would fall overnight and produce another round of elections where Gantz and Lieberman would likely face disaster from an angry electorate.
“This would be tremendous fuel for Netanyahu in another round of elections,” stated Shelly Yehimovitz, a radio commentator who was once the head of the Israeli Labor Party.
“All steps leading to a narrow government have a heavy price for the politicians involved,” agreed Dafna Liel, political commentator for Israel TV Channel 12.
Members of Gantz’s own party from the more hawkish Telem faction – Yoaz Hendel and Shmuel Hauser – have pointedly objected to the proposed minority government.
Why would Gantz go for such a risky gamble? The answer may be “now or never.” Gantz – who performed lackadaisically in the third round – realizes that this might be his last chance for power before Blue and White, an alliance of three parties, splits up.
A sense of time running out may be influencing Lieberman, too. One poll shows only 21 percent of his voters support a minority government. So, if Lieberman and Gantz leap and fail, forcing a fourth election, the Likud may increase its totals, while Lieberman’s party could miss the cut-off and disappear.
“Netanyahu, you are poisoning Israel,” declared Gantz in the last week of the recent campaign. He has not walked back any of his remarks, insisting he will not allow Netanyahu to remain in office and “escape justice.”
Gantz is wrong on at least one count (because Netanyahu’s trial opens on March 17), but Gantz wants to keep the campaign promise of not sitting down with Netanyahu. Two days before the trial opens, President Reuven Rivlin is set to meet all the political parties and confer the formation of a new government on the winner.
Moses once got water out of a rock, but Rivlin’s job may be harder.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, a Jerusalem-based journalist, is the author of “Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat.”