Can Netanyahu weather Israel’s COVID Storm?

Who would’ve guessed? Mere months ago, there was a near consensus among pundits that the COVID-19 outbreak had single-handedly brought the career of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back from the brink. Amidst widespread hysteria regarding the country’s preparedness to combat the pandemic, the embattled premier saw an opportunity to present himself as the elder statesman whose experience was required to lead Israel out of the crisis. It was only because of these dire circumstances – and Netanyahu’s deft opportunism – that Benny Gantz, the leader of opposition grouping Kahol Lavan, opted to join the former’s government at the expense of his own party’s unity. Nevertheless, the new coalition that was initially considered an unambiguous triumph by many on the centre-right has since presided over a regression back into the borderline psychotic farce which most have come to expect from contemporary Israeli politics. Faced with a worsening second wave of the outbreak, surging unemployment and social unrest, has the fate of Netanyahu’s premiership been sealed?

The government’s initial response to the virus in the early months of the year was swift, confident and effective. Buoyed by his successes – by late May, there were under two thousand known active cases and only a few hundred mortalities – Netanyahu decided to re-open the economy, cheerfully telling Israelis to go out and “have a good time”. However, the poor execution of this policy, in conjunction with the administration’s self-indulgent preoccupation with other matters, including theatrical deliberations over whether to annex parts of the West Bank previously earmarked for a future Palestinian state, would lay the groundwork for a sustained spike in new cases.

Despite a sudden re-imposition of restrictions, the country had 33,097 active cases on July 23 – much higher than any figure reported during the first wave. While the mortality rate remains low at under 500, at the time of writing 302 are in serious condition, 83 of which being on ventilators. Even more devastating has been the economic damage wrought by the outbreak. Israel’s rate of unemployment has reached a staggering 21%; even in the US, considered by most as the nation hardest hit by the pandemic, unemployment peaked at a lower rate of 14.7% in April, and has since dipped to 11.1%. Many more, while not technically unemployed, have seen their livelihoods threatened as a result of the weakened economy.

Predictably, the economic pain has instigated discontent toward the country’s political leadership, a sentiment which many have taken to the streets to express. On July 18 approximately 2,000 protestors assembled outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, and thousands more marched in Tel Aviv, directing their ire toward both the dire state of the economy and Netanyahu himself.

Alarmingly for the government, a vast majority of the public seem to sympathise with the protestors. According to a recent Channel 13 poll, 76% of Israelis believe the government is handling the crisis poorly, with only 15% declaring support. This marks a dramatic reversal from the state of public opinion earlier in April, when 70% stated they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the Prime Minister’s performance fighting the virus. Most likely disconcerted by this trend, Netanyahu attempted to alleviate discontent and shore up the economy with a cash handout of 750 shekels (approximately £172) to all adult Israelis. However, notwithstanding practical difficulties faced by the government in implementing this haphazard policy, many see this cynical gambit for what it is; a Channel 12 poll found that 56% of the public believe the package to be motivated primarily by political considerations.

Considering these facts, one could reasonably conclude that the outlook for the Prime Minister is a bleak one; a recent pair of polls forecast Netanyahu’s Likud party receiving 31 or 32 out of 120 seats in the Knesset if an election were held imminently, a loss of 4 or 5 compared to their current take of 36 seats following the most recent election in March earlier this year. Additionally, the loss of credibility inflicted upon the premier outlined earlier will most likely be long-lasting, particularly if the current economic crisis deepens over the coming months. Nevertheless, it is still too early to write off Netanyahu, an individual who many commentators have described both adoringly and cynically as the “magician” for his sheer political survivability – although in this instance he has the cold, hard logic of Israeli politics to thank rather than his own supposedly miraculous talents.

Israel’s proportional electoral system by design inclines it toward ‘bloc’ politics. While elections are generally contested by a wide array of parties, many smaller outfits openly concede that their primary aim is to enter a coalition government with the larger party which it enjoys the closest ideological proximity to. A vote for a minority party thus isn’t necessarily a vote to have their candidate become Prime Minister, but rather a tactic to maximise their potential leverage and influence in the new Knesset. For instance, the two parties representing Israel’s ultraorthodox Jews – United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas – have been consistent coalition partners of the Likud, securing concessions for their supporters while in government. Most recently, the right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu has been constituted by the aforementioned three parties and Yamina, an alliance of hardliners and religious Zionists further to the right of the Likud.

The dynamic of the blocs is particularly pertinent at this moment in time as Yamina has unquestionably been the largest beneficiary from the slump in support for the incumbents. Recent polls project the far-right slate to win 15-16 seats if a fresh election were called – a staggering result, more than doubling their current representation (6 seats). In particular, the alliance’s leader, Naftali Bennett, has experienced a surge of popularity over the last month; his recent move to establish a “Civilian Coronavirus Cabinet” comprised of himself and various former officials provides a stark contrast to the rolling shambles of the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition government.

Voters disenchanted with Netanyahu have shifted their support toward Bennett – that much is clear. However, the latter’s appearance of competence vis-à-vis the virus has evidently caused his slate to attract supporters from other corners of the political spectrum as well, and it is this which may paradoxically prove to be the embattled Prime Minister’s saving grace; the polls project the aforementioned Likud-Shas-UTJ-Yamina bloc to win 60-63 seats in a prospective contest, an outcome which could provide the majority that has continually eluded Netanyahu despite calling an unprecedented three elections within a single year. Known to be a devout poll-watcher, the Prime Minister is most likely conscious of this development. Recent reports that he is contemplating collapsing the government and triggering a fourth – let me repeat, a fourth – successive election during a viral outbreak indicate as much.

That said, the above scenario is predicated upon the assumption that an empowered Yamina would still countenance re-entering government with the Likud following a successful spell in opposition. In a recent interview, Bennett insisted that the alliance would “no longer automatically recommend him [Netanyahu] to be prime minister”. Nevertheless, what alternatives are there? It is improbable to imagine a centre-right coalition having the numbers to govern without the Likud, unless it enlisted the support of the ultraorthodox parties - a doubtful prospect considering the hostile rhetoric directed toward them by Avigdor Lieberman and Yair Lapid, leaders of the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and centrist Yesh Atid-Telem alliance respectively. Even less probable is the prospect of Bennett, a staunch ally of settlers in the West Bank and a relentless opponent of Palestinian statehood, joining up with either the left-wing Meretz party or Joint List of Arab parties.

Ultimately, Yamina would face overwhelming pressure to reconstitute the right-wing bloc and enter government with the Likud. Doing so could even be highly lucrative for them. With the official resumption of his corruption trial looming in January, the highest priority in Netanyahu’s eyes is retaining the Prime Minister’s office and by extension the legal insulation it provides. While the Likud leader personally resents Bennett, he would have few qualms showering the latter with concessions if it meant avoiding incarceration. In fact, he did precisely this last year, appointing Bennett as Defence Minister – one of the most prestigious roles in Israeli politics – in order to ensure his loyalty in a moment of intense vulnerability. As such, a continuation of the Prime Minister’s tenure is more than feasible.

Netanyahu has deservedly been spurned by the public for his failures vis-à-vis the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, the realities of Israel’s electoral system could yet provide him with a new lease of life. After all, if there is any iron law to be gleaned from the last two decades of Israeli politics, it is to never bet against the magician.

Image: Flickr / Amos Ben Gershom, GPO

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