Two months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was confident — probably a little too much — in Israel’s management of the coronavirus crisis.
The numbers of new Covid-19 cases had plummeted to the low double digits per day in May — a far cry from late March, when hundreds of new cases were being reported every day. In the midst of Israel’s success, Netanyahu announced on May 26 that Israel would finally begin to reopen.
“We want to make your lives easier, to allow you to go out and get some air, to go back to routine as much as possible,” Netanyahu said (and later tweeted). “So, first of all, enjoy yourselves.”
So businesses reopened, kids went back to school, people gathered for weddings — life seemed to be heading toward the normalcy and economic recovery people craved. The problem? Israel wasn’t ready to reopen — and definitely not so quickly, according to public health experts.
Just look at how many cases Israel is recording per day now: It’s easily more than twice as many as were reported during the first peak in late March and early April — more than 1,000 cases have been logged every day for the past week. To date, Israel has recorded a total of 42,813 cases and 375 deaths.
Now, Netanyahu faces a set of problems he almost certainly didn’t anticipate when he reopened Israel in May. With the pandemic hitting new highs, he has to limit the spread of the virus while keeping the damaged economy afloat and rebuilding his credibility among the Israeli people, which has plummeted since cases spiked and the economy crumbled.
“There’s a major decline in public trust, both in Netanyahu himself and in other health authorities and economic decision-makers,” Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, told me. “This clash, I think, is the most dangerous thing.”
How Israel managed the first outbreak
To its credit, Israel made the right moves at the beginning. Shwartz Altshuler told me that Israel is often successful in managing short-term emergencies, which is why the government was able to initially limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Where the government struggles, Shwartz Altshuler said, is with long-term planning — like reopening gradually and safely while keeping case numbers down.
Before the outbreak had even hit Israel, the government acted quickly, suspending flights from China in January and from additional East Asian countries in February. On March 18, travel to Israel was completely blocked off to all non-citizens.
Israel reported its first coronavirus case on February 21: a woman who flew home to Israel from Japan after being quarantined on a cruise ship. Within days, Israel mandated a 14-day quarantine for travelers returning from Japan and South Korea; mandatory quarantines were extended to all returning travelers on March 9.
In mid-March, as hundreds of people were testing positive daily, Israel’s population of nearly 9 million (think the size of New Jersey) entered a near-complete lockdown, with most businesses and public gathering places forced to close. Israelis were also urged to stay home unless absolutely necessary.
Ran Nir-Paz, an infectious disease expert and doctor at Israel’s Hadassah Medical Center, told me that the lockdown was critical for bringing down the number of new infections, and the Israeli people largely complied with the measure.
By May, daily numbers of new cases were down to the low double digits.
But as the Israeli government looked forward to reopening the economy, Nir-Paz said that a few serious missteps reversed the progress that Israel had made toward flattening their curve.
Israel’s coronavirus success soon became a grave mismanagement
The coronavirus decimated the global economy, and Israel is no exception. By April 1 — when the economy was still on lockdown — Israel’s unemployment rate jumped from 4 percent before the outbreak to 24.4 percent.
Between the economic crisis and the successful management of the first Covid-19 outbreak, the government faced pressure from the Israeli people to reopen the economy, Neri Zilber, a Tel Aviv-based journalist and adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, told me.
Zilber said that the message from Netanyahu’s administration was that Israel had defeated the coronavirus. So the government rushed to reopen, and the Israeli people took Netanyahu at his word that the worst of the pandemic was over.
The government reopened the economy almost completely within a two-week period, Nir-Paz told me, which really wasn’t gradual at all.
One especially controversial move was to reopen schools without restrictions — which led to new coronavirus outbreaks, infecting more than 1,300 students and 600 staff members, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Journal also reported that there was little enforcement of rules requiring masks to be worn in public.
Schools are now being directed to close if they face outbreaks. Since May, 125 schools and 258 kindergartens have temporarily shut their doors, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The rapid reopening of the economy, and the government’s promises that the pandemic had been mostly eliminated, caused people to feel comfortable going about their normal lives again when they should have been more cautious, Shwartz Altshuler told me.
Another failure was that the Israeli government didn’t take the time they had, when the outbreak was controlled, to develop a reliable testing and contact-tracing infrastructure. Contact tracing, which helps identify who may have come in contact with a Covid-19 carrier and thus may be at risk of contracting the virus, has helped countries like South Korea and Australia contain their respective outbreaks.
“They basically squandered the time that they had rightfully earned during and after the first wave, and never actually set up the proper infrastructure to handle a second wave,” Zilber told me. “So you have something like two or three dozen nurses trying to handle an entire country’s contact tracing.”
To try to control the new outbreak, localized lockdowns in neighborhoods and cities bearing the brunt of the new wave of infections are being imposed — but the lockdowns are sparking protests from ultra-Orthodox Jews, who allege that their communities are being unfairly targeted. The Times of Israel reported that after police announced plans to step up enforcement of social distancing guidelines, ultra-Orthodox news sites and social media accounts shared videos showing police disproportionately targeting ultra-Orthodox communities.
Netanyahu faces a serious political test
The coronavirus pandemic upended the world at the same time that Israel was dealing with its own political strife.
First of all, Netanyahu was indicted for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in January, all of which he denies. His trial started in May.
Israel was also forced to tackle the beginning of the pandemic without an officially formed government. In March, right at the beginning of the pandemic, Israel held its third election of the past year — which delivered the third consecutive inconclusive result.
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explained in March, neither Netanyahu nor his political rival, Benny Gantz, was able to achieve a parliamentary majority, which requires control of 61 of 120 legislative seats. Netanyahu’s Likud and other right-wing parties won 58 seats, while Gantz’s Blue and White party and center, left, and Arab parties won 55 seats, leaving both potential coalitions unable to claim a majority.
Neither of the two previous elections — which were held in April and September 2019 — produced a majority, which Shwartz Altshuler told me was unprecedented in Israeli history.
Gantz originally vowed to form a government that excluded Netanyahu. But as the pandemic threatened to plunge the world into crisis, Gantz agreed to form an emergency coalition with his political opponent. After weeks of negotiations, the terms were finalized in late April: Netanyahu and Gantz would rotate terms as prime minister, with Netanyahu starting off and Gantz taking over after 18 months. The government was sworn in on May 17.
Some Israeli critics have argued that Netanyahu exploited the coronavirus crisis to keep himself in power.
“He used Covid-19, I would say, as an excuse to call his rivals and tell them we need to have some kind of an emergency government, and they got convinced by this theory,” Shwartz Altshuler said.
So Netanyahu had to tackle the pandemic with an unstable government that critics have already lambasted as too bloated and unnecessarily expensive. To make matters worse, Netanyahu reportedly delegated most coronavirus policy decision-making to himself, without consulting public health experts (which sounds strikingly similar to the United States’ approach, which clearly isn’t working).
And Netanyahu himself hasn’t set a proper example for the Israeli people. After urging Israelis to refrain from celebrating Passover with family they don’t live with, he apparently violated his own rules by celebrating with his son, whom he doesn’t live with, prompting criticism from many Israelis who’d refrained from gathering on the holiday.
The botched reopening of the Israeli economy now puts Netanyahu at a crossroads. With the economy heavily damaged and coronavirus cases dramatically rising, reimposing a large-scale shutdown would devastate the economy — Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper, reported that the worst economic fallout has yet to come.
But at the same time, the government needs to control the virus, and Shwartz Altshuler told me that the volume of new cases could threaten to overwhelm the hospital system.
This time, Netanyahu faces a roadblock he didn’t exactly encounter with the first wave: he has to deal with a severe lack of trust in the government among the Israeli people. An Israel Democracy Institute study published on Tuesday found that just 29.5 percent of Israelis trust Netanyahu to manage the coronavirus crisis — down from a high of 57.5 percent in early April.
Respondents were also asked to choose from a selection of six words to describe how they felt about the government’s coronavirus management. The most popular responses: “angry,” “disappointed,” and “alienated.”
Thousands of angry Israelis protested in Tel Aviv on Saturday, demanding that the government distribute promised aid to small businesses. And on Tuesday, thousands of demonstrators outside of his Jerusalem residence demanded that Netanyahu resign because of his pandemic mismanagement and corruption charges.
Netanyahu has also had to sideline other major political issues facing Israel, including the planned annexation of parts of the West Bank. As Vox’s Jen Kirby explained earlier this week, plans have stalled due to the pandemic and hesitations — or outright condemnations — from other countries and the United Nations.
Netanyahu is in an impossible situation, politically, and whether he can lead Israel through a pandemic, revitalize the economy, and rebuild his credibility — all at the same time — remains to be seen.
“Coronavirus, for all its faults, exposes each country’s dysfunction,” Zilber told me. “For the person who’s been leading the country for 11 straight years, politics oftentimes comes first, and there’s no real urgency on the part of the political class to actually put the public’s interest first.”