Last night Benjamin Netanyahu gave another informal speech to his country demanding changes in personal behavior to combat the COVID-19 crisis. He called the pandemic a “plague, not a children’s game… a matter of life and death” and railed at the Israelis he sees crowding the beaches in Tel Aviv “frolicking” and touching one another as they pass. “Love is distance,” he said, in urging citizens to self-isolate.
Netanyahu’s fatherly tone, along with racist attacks on his rivals, and his boasting that Israel is at the “forefront” of global responses to the contagion, has put him right where he wants to be politically: the indispensable Prime Minister, even as his rival Benny Gantz struggles to build a coalition to put him out of office.
“It’s going to be virtually–I’m not going to say impossible, but it’s going to very, very difficult to oust Netanyahu at this juncture,” says Eli Kowaz of the Israel Policy Forum. “For [rival] Benny Gantz to form a minority government, now in the middle of all this– I think it would be controversial within Israel.”
Gantz has the official nod to form a new government, because 61 newly-elected members of the Knesset support his bid to be prime minister. But forming such a government is very difficult, and entails overcoming a racist campaign against Gantz’s reliance on Palestinian legislators to provide 15 “outside” votes in his favor. The coronavirus crisis has increased pressure on Gantz to make a “unity” government between the two largest Jewish parties, Gantz’s Blue and White party and Netanyahu’s Likud; and in that scenario Netanyahu would likely stay prime minister under a rotation agreement.
Netanyahu has faced criticism for arrogating executive powers in the crisis, such as cellphone tracking of citizens, and because his justice minister has postponed Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges for two months. But he has also made himself “the indispensable and sole messenger to Israel about the coronavirus,” Kowaz says.
And that has made him very popular with Israeli citizens. “There was a poll taken a couple of days ago… showing that… between 60 to 70 percent of Israelis support Netanayhu’s handling of the crisis,” Evan Gottesman says on the same IFP podcast. “So to take him out of the prime minister’s seat now?… There are going to be some people who are going to say This is not the time.” Netanyahu’s role reinforces “this image of himself that he’s built up that the’s the only responsible and competent steward of Israel’s national security, of the welfare of its citizens.”
The New York Times has a similar report. The “crisis has strengthened Netanyahu,” says political scientist Shlomo Avineri.
The counter trend in Israeli politics during the crisis is an effort led by the Palestinian Joint List to disqualify Netanyahu by pointing out how much all Israel depends on Palestinians in health care jobs.
Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Palestinian Joint List, which has supported Netanyahu’s rival, has argued that the coronavirus and Netanyahu’s racism show that the PM’s time is past. He tweets (per translation service):
Heroes. At the time of the isolation, over 600 Arab and Jewish medical professionals teach us that we can live together in peace and equality.
“The voice of an Arab citizen in the polls is the voice of an Arab doctor in the operating room”
While it is frequently noted that Joint List leader Ahmad Tibi is a medical doctor actively serving people. Tibi has been the target of endless racist attacks in recent weeks. For his part he says that Netanyahu has failed as a minister of health because hospitals are unprepared for the virus.
The only physician in the Knesset is Ahmad Tibi, Eli Kowaz says. And: “18 percent of doctors and 24 percent of nurses and 47 percent of pharmacists in Israel are Arab.”
The liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now has noted the service of Palestinian professionals in imploring Israelis and Palestinians to come to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. James Klutznick and Aviva Meyer write:
In such times, you cannot but wonder why Israelis and Palestinians do not harness their shared humanity, their common sense and their sense of common future to end the bloody conflict between them. Unlike pandemics, wildfires and earthquakes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is manmade. And this manmade calamity can be undone by humans – if they find it within themselves to relate to the other as humans, as equals, as equally human…
We also know that once Coronavirus is contained and defeated, the Israelis and Palestinians that we so deeply care about will be left with a malignant conflict that has been plaguing their societies for almost a century.
There is a viable solution to this conflict, and we hope that the traumatic experience we are currently experiencing will make the solution easier to comprehend, grasp, and achieve.