JERUSALEM – Israel has vanquished many crises in its 72 years, but the current virus crisis is one of the strongest and strangest – a hybrid affair granting big mileage to the media who themselves are more distrusted than ever.
Some leaders faced public wrath after mishandling wars in 1973, 2000 or 2006 (Golda Meir, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert), or economic mismanagement (Menachem Begin’s Likud produced record inflation in the 1970s). Those crises reduced their popularity and eventually forced them from office.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, faces a virus crisis that even his foes admit he did not cause. Also, he entered the crisis as Israel’s economic situation was quite good and his own standing still quite strong, despite being the target of corruption charges. Polls still show he is the number one choice for prime minister.
For one, Israel deftly defeated the worst element of the virus crisis in March/April, using social distancing, short-term lockdowns and border closings. Its casualty toll was lower than almost any developed country. In addition, Netanyahu is a world-renowned “player,” with a foreign policy that has netted major achievements with the U.S., India and with Arab and African countries.
Yet, Netanyahu had serious lapses in the crisis and did not prepare a long-term recovery or maintenance plan. Israel was struck by a second wave of virus and a typhoon of unemployment (estimates of over 21 percent).
Moreover, the public got conflicting messages from officials who seemed to be fighting turf battles over who should handle virus testing. They could not agree whether or how to re-open schools, or whether to close down or limit swimming pools and gyms. But seemingly they were not worried about opening large stores or public demonstrations.
F-A-U-D-A. That is the Arabic word that is also the title of a famous Israeli TV series. It means ANARCHY. That sums up the impression of disorder that has plagued Netanyahu and senior officials in the last six weeks.
“I don’t believe anything they are telling us anymore,” asserted Ami Cohen, who owns the Say Wedding Hall in Rishon Lezion, a prosperous business in a once-bustling and fast-growing town just south Tel Aviv, and he does not trust official promises of economic aid. Cohen and many of his colleagues say they will reopen their businesses in a few days in defiance of government rules regulating social contact in large indoor spaces.
Cohen, like others with restaurants, wedding halls, theater companies and comedy clubs, has been going bankrupt after being closed for five months. The government announced a relief package and subsidies, but many independent and small businesses got little or nothing, while larger businesses seemed to be doing just fine and to have gotten subsidy checks.
Mounting discontent – some of it inside Netanyahu’s own political base – has cost him badly in the public opinion polls. He dropped from a high of 40 or 42 (of 120) seats in various surveys to a level of 30 or 32. Despite this, however, Netanyahu would likely beat Yair Lapid (leader of Yesh Atid) or Benny Gantz (leader of Blue and White) in any election. Yet, he is clearly sliding, and on every front he seems to be in trouble.
Netanyahu finds it very hard to control a large but internally divided coalition that tugs in several directions, making it hard to pass emergency rules and legislation. But his biggest problem is personal.
He faces a lingering cloud of corruption and a trial on three indictment charges. Some legal experts believe two of the three charges are weak and legally unprecedented. The trial may last many months, and this will hamstring Netanyahu. It will require his attention and demand that he raise large sums for his legal team just when he must handle the kind of complicated socio-economic-health crisis that no Israeli leader has ever faced. This all comes at a time when there are signs of increasing tension on the Lebanese border.
Netanyahu’s opposition has seized on the health and economic crises to press for a change in leadership only weeks after Netanyahu and his main foe, Benny Gantz, joined to form an emergency but unwieldy coalition. Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition, says Netanyahu has lost the moral authority to lead.
Lapid and the mostly anti-Netanyahu press corps have defended and highlighted the increasingly rancorous and violent protests around Netanyahu’s house in Jerusalem. The protesters are divided between those with clear economic complaints (who are largely non-violent) and those who have always wanted to topple Netanyahu at all costs, even closing Jerusalem’s streets for weeks on end.
The loudest protesters have made nights a living hell for many Jerusalem residents. The protesters camp out on streets and in parks, often defecating and urinating in public, creating a public health hazard, and few of them are practicing social distancing during the virus crisis.
“This is virus bonanza,” said a police official who tried to enforce mask wearing. At most demonstrations, there have been few arrests, but 161 people were cited for not wearing masks. Some Israeli media – particularly the three TV outlets – say the government wanted to use the virus to close down the protests.
Some Israelis – especially on the Israeli Right – claim the anti-Netanyahu protesters have gotten kid-glove treatment even when they close down streets or cause injuries or major property damage. Still, the scenes of Israeli residents being drilled with water cannons by their own police has caused concern throughout the country.
Amit Segal, political commentator for Channel Two TV recalled that the police and the courts were far less tolerant of Israelis protesting the withdrawal and forced evacuation of Gaza, led by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This week marks the 15th anniversary of that withdrawal.
Then, in 2005, non-violent demonstrators who sat down at one road junction were arrested on charges of hamrada – insurrection. The press enthusiastically backed Sharon and his false charges that right-wing settlers planned to kill police and throw acid at soldiers. Buses of protesters were intercepted even before they could unfurl a banner. Children as young as 10 were swept up in massive arrests and held for interrogation and incarceration for several days.
In 2005, the press supported the aggressive arrest policy as well as the Gaza withdrawal. Fifteen years later, the country, but not the press, has moved to the right ideologically. The Gaza withdrawal is now seen as a failure. Hamas took over Gaza and used it to launch rockets at Israel. The media is seen as Leftist.
A recent Israeli Democracy Institute survey reported that only 36 percent of Israelis trust the press. Most of that trust is on the Left. On the Right, under 15 percent believe the press.
Meanwhile, the Iranian-funded Hezbollah terror organization is stepping up combat probes on the Lebanese border. They do not discriminate between Rightist or Leftist Israelis.
Michael Widlanski is a Jerusalem-based journalist.