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Israeli government's tight grip on pandemic slips

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had labeled himself as Mr. Coronavirus, but now that he is at the helm, the pandemic just keeps spreading.
A family arrives for a rapid COVID-19 antigenic test at Israel's Magen David Adom medical service in Jerusalem on Aug. 8, 2021.

The Aug. 9 announcement by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it was cautioning travelers to avoid Israel due to the renewed spread of the coronavirus should be a wake-up call to the Bennett-Lapid government and the soft-handed policy it has adopted in dealing with the epidemic.

Thanks to an effective public relations campaign, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has, until now, marketed himself as being more in control of the situation than his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. Bennett really wants to convince the public that he has maintained his composure; he certainly doesn’t want to scare them. The problem is that all of his efforts don’t seem to be enough, at least not until now. The fact that a friendly country such as the United States has decided that the coronavirus situation in Israel poses a serious threat raises many questions about the way the prime minister is handling the situation.

Meanwhile, statistics released by the Health Ministry on Aug. 10 are particularly disconcerting. They seem to indicate that the government has lost control when it comes to the spread of the virus. Aug. 9 saw a record number of new cases, with 6,300 people infected in the previous 24 hours alone. What is more troubling, however, is the rising number of the critically ill, which is now approaching 400 people, a record high since April. One other figure indicating that the epidemic is not being handled effectively is the increasing number of deaths; some 80 people died of the coronavirus in the previous 10 days, after there had been many days where no one died. 

Ever since the coronavirus broke out a year and a half ago, the handling of the epidemic has come to be seen as a test of leadership for many of the world’s leaders, particularly in the democratic states. At the time — with no vaccine developed and no cure — the new virus caught even the most advanced health care systems off guard. In combination with globalization and the need to act in an environment of chronic uncertainty, the virus posed an enormous challenge to leaders around the world. Both President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost support from their respective electorates, even though the two men adopted very different approaches to handling the virus. Trump ignored it, while Netanyahu foresaw the potential disaster and imposed strict restrictions and closures. Then, once a vaccine became available, he threw his entire reputation behind it, and scored a remarkable success.

Bennett built up his reputation as the opposition to Netanyahu, who was forced to contend with the virus during frequent election campaigns. What Bennett realized was that the government also exhibited certain vulnerabilities as a result of the coronavirus, particularly the sense of public outrage over the economic problems facing people as a result of closures. In response, Bennett made the rounds of the virus hotspots and visited struggling and collapsing businesses, while attacking the government mercilessly through an effective social media campaign.

In August 2020, Bennett, then just another parliamentarian, delivered an angry speech to the Knesset that sounded more like an indictment of the Netanyahu-Gantz government. He was almost in tears as denounced its failed leadership. At some point, he actually started shouting: “Are you crazy? What did you do? What did you do? You are ruining the lives of millions of citizens of the State of Israel. You are killing them!”

That speech, which is still remembered as the “Shouting Speech,” went viral again recently, because it shows the sharp differences between an opposition Knesset member, not subject to any restraints, promising to get the virus under control in just 50 days, and a prime minister, who was handed a vaccinated country, with very few people infected, only to face the fourth wave of the virus within a matter of months.

That populist diatribe now poses a real problem for Bennett as prime minister. So does the book he released last year, “How to Beat an Epidemic.” It describes his plan to make the virus disappear entirely, though ironically, it makes no mention of vaccines. Bennett soared in the polls when his book came out. Some polls gave even him 20 seats or more. He appeared focused and driven by deep values. In other words, he was just the right man to handle the crisis. Then came the election, which turned out to be a huge failure for him. He ended up winning just seven seats. It was only because of the country’s fragile political situation and the predominant sentiment that anyone would be better than Netanyahu that Bennett was able to beat all the odds and become prime minister.

Bennett seemed to be in control, at least at first. For a short time, it looked like Israel’s battle with the coronavirus had been relegated to the pages of history. When the numbers began to climb again, Bennett presented a refreshing new attitude, very different from that of his predecessor. He told the press he was adopting a “soft approach” to halting the virus. We would have to live with the coronavirus for the long term, he explained, and we would be able to do that without any significant closures or restrictions. His plan focused on lowering the rate of infection without harming the economy. This involved a third round of vaccinations, especially for the elderly, along with minor restrictions in closed spaces. The precise words he chose and the branding of his efforts were meticulously planned out in advance.

Bennett also told the press that he always starts his day with a briefing about the infection rate, and that he asks for two sets of figures: the number of confirmed and critically ill cases in Israel, and the same numbers for Britain. At certain points, he even boasted that he communicated regularly with Boris Johnson via WhatsApp. It was his way to attack Netanyahu as an anachronism.

This mood is characteristic of the new government. There is no doubt that it has adopted a different, less heavy-handed approach than the previous government, but in terms of actual results, this “soft approach” to the virus appears to have failed. People concluded that things were under control, so they didn’t follow the guidelines. Meanwhile, the government barely instituted restrictions until recently, and failed to enforce regulations still in place.

It was only just a month ago that Bennett expressed his reservations about vaccines and claimed that they were no longer effective. Today he is entirely dependent on vaccines. Yes, he led an effort to give a third vaccine to the elderly population, but he wasted precious time and did this a month too late.

Israel is now well in the midst of a fourth wave of the coronavirus, and Bennett is trying to brand it in a way that serves his own interests. For two weeks, he has been telling everyone that the “Delta pandemic” is a whole new pandemic, and not the original coronavirus, so that everything he said earlier is irrelevant.

The problem is that the more this fourth wave continues to strike at Israel — and experts say that it has not yet reached its climax — Bennett will need to make some difficult decisions. These could include another closure, though most of his Cabinet is opposed to that. Then there is the question of whether to begin the new school year on Sept. 1. Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton insists that it is necessary, even though most experts recommend postponing it.

Although it was not too long ago that Bennett built up his reputation as “Mr. Coronavirus,” in the short time since he has found himself facing a major challenge involving his leadership. How will he navigate the crisis with a government he does not really control? Almost all of his ministers are distancing themselves from what looks to be a major failure. What stands out most is the response of Bennett’s closest coalition partner, Foreign Minister and Alternative Prime Minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid. It speaks volumes that Lapid did not even bother to attend the Cabinet meetings about the coronavirus. Then again, neither did Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman.

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