Sudden Implosion of Israel's Covid Response Might Prove Netanyahu's Undoing | Opinion

Last Wednesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a hastily called press conference. It was painful to watch. At the podium stood a man who, despite being under indictment, was sure he would go down in history for successfully navigating Israel through dangerous times. His political acumen has been unchallenged. Despite failing to decisively win three elections, he was still Prime Minister—albeit theoretically bound to a rotation agreement with Benny Gantz that nobody expects him to honor. It has been a given that Netanyahu will find a way to call for new elections and remain Prime Minister. After all, as Israel emerged from its first COVID-19 lockdown, Netanyahu's popularity was at an all-time high. Now, a mere two months later, as he announced a rapidly drawn-up plan to give every Israeli citizen about $225, his reputation lays shattered by an unseen virus, and a string of catastrophic decisions he made over the last 60 days.

Netanyahu made almost all the right decisions in the initial phase of the crisis. He took immediate action, closing Israel's skies to entry from virtually the whole world. Netanyahu did make a few serious mistakes, such as waiting too long to prohibit entry from the United States (70 percent of Israeli coronavirus cases came from the U.S.) However, by-and-large, Netanyahu's security-minded approach to the problem worked, initially. Closing Israel's borders swiftly and imposing a virtual curfew made all the difference. Israel's daily rate of new coronavirus cases dropped down to between 10-20 a day.

By May, Israelis believed the coronavirus was behind them. Netanyahu should have known better. He believes in science and had stated that Israel would reopen each of its sectors cautiously, step-by-step, making sure that no series of combined action would set loose the disease once more. However, there was a hitch: Netanyahu, whose expertise has always been security and foreign affairs, has never been known to pay serious attention to the day-to-day operations of the other divisions of the government.

His ministerial appointments have all been made to meet the political needs of the moment. As a result, with few exceptions, most of Netanyahu's ministers have done nothing to prepare them for the jobs they fill. Moreover, many view their ministerial assignments as a mere stepping stone to their next position.

Accordingly, when it came to providing economic compensation for all the businesses forced to close due to the pandemic, the government failed terribly. Netanyahu limited himself to making promises, but did little to ensure the aid was allocated properly, or even to establish the pledged assistance was actually delivered to its intended recipients. As a consequence of his poor stewardship, the pressure to reopen the economy was immense. Netanyahu, the politician, was unable to control the hunger of the country to "return to routine". So instead of restoring sectors in stages, everything was opened back up over a period of just 10 days.

Students were sent back to school. A plan had been developed for instruction to resume in stages. However, when that scenario became impractical, Israel's over-packed schools reopened as if nothing had ever happened, and the coronavirus was gone for good.

Netanyahu sensed the prevailing winds and became a cheerleader for the return to restaurant dining and bar hopping. Lamentably, five weeks ago, when the first clusters of new cases broke out, Israelis (including the government, it would seem) was so convinced Israel had beaten the coronavirus that the Education Minister refused to close the high schools, against the explicit recommendation of the Health Ministry. The government even allowed wedding halls to reopen and train service to resume. The result: Israel has been registering over 1,500 new coronavirus cases daily, and on Thursday night, the cabinet voted to impose a curfew over the weekends. They mandated a stop to in-restaurant dining, along with the return of a number of other restrictive measures.

People in Israel are angry. Economic aid has not been quick in coming to those in need. In the last few days, there have been large demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, aimed directly at Netanyahu. Some of the protests were the traditional gatherings calling for a Prime Minister who is under indictment to resign. But these days, fury is palpable on the streets, as well as in every television studio. There is rage over the economic situation, and the realization that we came so close to being a country like New Zealand (i.e., one that had beaten the virus), but sadly squandered that opportunity— despite great public sacrifice—and now find ourselves in a combined economic and healthcare hell.

The anger and lack of trust in the government is so great that last week when the bars where ordered to close, almost none did so. And on Friday morning, when restaurateurs learned they were expected to shutter their doors that same day at 5 P.M., many announced they intend to ignore the new regulation. The government was forced to cave, first they delayed the closing until Tuesday morning. When the restaurants said they would defy the edict, the government tried to reach an agreement with restaurateurs, but failed. The Knesset Committee, which is usually a rubber stamp for government actions, then overrode the government and cancelled the order closing the restaurants. In short chaos now reigns in Israel.

At the Wednesday night press conference, Netanyahu was asked candidly if he thought the government was responsible for the fact that Israel is in its current predicament. He was unable to take responsibility. Instead, Netanyahu blamed "the people who did not follow the health guidelines when schools and bars reopened". "The people," of course, are the citizens of the country who repeatedly re-elect him.

Netanyahu had hoped July would be the month he could put his mark on history by annexing some portions of the West Bank. However, his "friend" President Trump's failure to combat COVID-19 in the U.S., along with the resultant political weakening of the President, have relegated the notion of annexation to dream status. Instead, it is the renewed wave of COVID-19 with which Netanyahu has been forced to engage.

Netanyahu has been Prime Minister of Israel for over 11 years. These have been good years for the country. Israel has faced very few severe crises during the period of Netanyahu's leadership. Now, in the twilight of his administration, at a time when he is under indictment for three serious crimes, Netanyahu is seriously failing the test of leadership in Israel's greatest crisis since the Yom Kippur War. Regrettably, that will likely be his legacy.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.