Three normalization and peace agreements, three indictments, US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory and ultimately the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all rest on Israel's success against the coronavirus. He, his opponents and the Israeli public all know it.
Netanyahu is fighting on many fronts these days. His goal of winning a 61-seat Knesset majority, which has eluded him through three consecutive elections, appears further away than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has reshuffled the political deck and the March 23 elections hinge on two races directly related to the pandemic. Will the achievements of the massive COVID-19 vaccination campaign, in which Israel leads the world, outshine the effects of the harsh economic downturn and the government’s many failures in handling other facets of the crisis?
At a recent online meeting with representatives of the small business protest movement known as the “Schulmans,” video of which was leaked to the media, Netanyahu was heard saying that his Likud could realistically garner 42 Knesset seats in light of the vaccination drive and the peace agreements he engineered with several Arab and Muslim states. The greater the number of COVID-19 cases, he added, pointing to graphs on a white board behind him, the lower the voter support for the Likud, and vice versa.
Netanyahu’s remarks now feature in his opponents’ campaigns as proof that the prime minister is so cynical that he's exploiting a deadly epidemic that has taken the lives of more than 4,000 Israelis to his political advantage.
Despite his cynicism, Netanyahu is right. After the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, when Israel appeared to have eradicated the virus and Netanyahu lifted all economic and social restrictions and exhorted Israelis to go “have fun,” he soared in the polls and came within touching distance of 40 seats. Such a result at the ballot box would make Netanyahu omnipotent, allowing him to push through wide-ranging legislation to stop his criminal trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust and continue his takeover of the state’s law enforcement system.
However, a second lockdown followed by a third exposed the government’s many failures in dealing with the crisis, and support for Netanyahu plunged correspondingly to below 30 seats. Even his own voters gave him poor marks for his performance against the virus. Netanyahu reached a new low and even considered dismantling his government in the fall and calling new elections, a decision that appeared suicidal given the soaring infection and death rates and negative economic growth.
Everything changed with the vaccination drive. Even without signing any binding contract in advance with Pfizer for its vaccines, Israel managed to persuade the drug maker to provide it with millions of the precious inoculations. Netanyahu did most of the work, getting on the phone to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla in early November and campaigning to win him over. No one in the world is more suited to such a task than Netanyahu, who tapped into Bourla’s Jewish ancestry and leveraged it with great skill. Israel then mounted a speedy nationwide vaccination campaign with somewhat surprising efficiency by virtue of Israel's particularly well developed public health system.
With every shot that was administered, Netanyahu’s polling numbers rose. He was soon back at the 30-seat mark, allowing him to start planning the blitz he would unleash on his rivals come March. However, the coronavirus proved more devious, setting Israel back on the pandemic rollercoaster with the so-called British variant and probably the South African one, as well. The variants highlighted the government's persistent failure to shut down Israel’s main port of entry, Ben-Gurion Airport, and sent the number of hospitalizations and deaths soaring.
Over the past week, the vaccinations seemed to be lagging behind the virus mutations in the race to quell the disease. Netanyahu and his government did little to prevent the mutations from entering the country, even long after their dangers became obvious. Israel could have efficiently sealed itself off from the variants, given that it only has one international airport and its land borders are closed. Instead, it let them enter and spread like wildfire, which brings us to this point.
Netanyahu is counting on quashing COVID-19, completing the vaccination operation with a boisterous victory parade portraying him as the savior of the Israeli people that will catapult him to the coveted 40-plus Knesset seats.
Meanwhile, he is trying to extricate himself from the bear hug of his most loyal and important political allies, the ultra-Orthodox parties. Although they constitute some 12% of the population, the ultra-Orthodox currently account for some 50% of those testing positive for the coronavirus and for most of the seriously ill, filling hospitals to capacity. Significant numbers of ultra-Orthodox continue to flout the restrictions, opening their schools even as all others are shuttered by government decree, conducting prayers and holding large weddings.
Netanyahu is unable to bring himself to order police to enforce the nationwide lockdown on the ultra-Orthodox community for fear of their vengeance on election day. Other Israelis are furious, providing Netanyahu’s rivals with fodder for their campaigns. Their prospects of success are hard to gauge at this point.
Earlier this week, it turned out that Netanyahu, who was the first Israeli to be vaccinated, had taken the syringe with which he was inoculated live on television Dec. 19 and placed it in a glass display case in his office as a trophy of valor. He posted a video of the syringe with a voiceover describing his achievements in “saving” the people of Israel from a deadly plague.
It was the quintessential Netanyahu, devoid of shame and inhibitions. No other player is as skilled in leveraging every situation into a vote-churning machine. He now needs a lot of luck and must be praying that no vaccine-resistant variant emerges to rain on his parade. In two months, we will know whether his prayers have been answered.