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Big Brother Israel has become Netanyahu’s personal playground

The prime minister is using coronavirus measures as a pretext to push a self-serving agenda
Draconian measures have become a daily reality in Israel (Reuters)
By in
Tel Aviv

In today's Israel, in the time of coronavirus, the lives of citizens are scrutinised under a state microscope: armed troopers patrol the streets, army intelligence is allowed to look at confidential databases of citizens, security services monitor their locations and the police track their mobile phones and use drones for surveillance. 

The list of infringements by the Israeli government goes on to include hospitals equipped with cameras and recording devices that spy on patients, schools with installed facial recognition systems, emergency laws introduced to circumvent parliament and harsh coronavirus policies, including a new law banning protests.

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Still, even as the country descends into chaos, the government rarely meets, and when it does all decisions are taken by one person - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

When George Orwell wrote 1984, coining terms like “Big Brother is watching you” and “doublespeak”, he had in mind the dictatorial regime of Stalin’s Soviet Union. I assume he could not have imagined that his description of a submissive society under total state control would, 72 years later, apply to a country that calls itself a democracy. 

Yet the draconian measures described above have become a daily reality in Israel, and propping them up is the dire situation the country is embroiled in, eight months after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A narcissist's agenda

In the first two months after the outbreak, Israel found itself in one of the best spots in the battle against the virus. The numbers of confirmed infections, of those hospitalised with serious cases, and above all, the death toll, were among the lowest in the world, nominally and in real terms. 

Netanyahu has even prided himself that Israel is indeed a guiding light for other countries. He boasted that leaders around the globe stood in line to learn from the Israeli experience.

As is usual with the prime minister, he exaggerated, lied, overinflated his personal role in reducing the spread of the virus, and eventually bungled the situation. He declared too soon that the virus was “defeated”, lifted the restrictions and advised the public to “go and have a beer and fun”.

And people did, leading to the virus spreading again, this time exponentially. 

At the end of September, Israel found itself close to the top of a list of the most incompetent nations at curbing the pandemic with rising infections and a death toll of 1,629.

Contrary to his self-promoted image, which has been amplified by his supporters at home and abroad, Netanyahu proved to be an incompetent and failed manager. He is a narcissist, a demagogue, indecisive and power hungry. These traits and others have resulted in a managerial style that can be defined as petty and micromanagerial. Additionally, most of his decisions regarding the Covid-19 crisis are political.

Anti-Netanyahu protests
An Israeli protester waves the national flag during a demonstration against the Israeli prime minister and against the second nationwide lockdown, 1 October 2020 (AFP)

He has tried to suppress almost daily street protests against him - some of which have been in front of his official residence in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, he has allowed supporters of two ultra-Orthodox parties, without which his government would be doomed, to gather in synagogues and schools, almost with impunity and in total disregard to strict regulations.

No wonder that the health ramifications have been horrendous. 

The ultra-Orthodox community, which has Israel’s highest birth rate and lives in poverty in crowded housing, consists of 15 percent of the population, but their share in coronavirus statistics is more than 25 percent. Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose majority also suffers from poor socio-economic conditions, are second place in infection rates.

More and more Israelis - not just those who oppose him - have realised that Netanyahu has a completely different agenda. 

‘Democtatorship’

It seems that curbing the coronavirus by introducing extreme and unprecedented measures is only the prime minister’s secondary concern. His true motivation and number one priority is to sabotage the three indictments he is facing on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Police investigations began in 2018 and his trial opened in May 2020.

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In between, he faced three election rounds in a matter of 15 months, all of which ended with indecisive results. Eventually, five months ago, the main opposition, the centrist party of Blue and White headed by generals Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, joined Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and formed a national unity government. 

However, the new government has proven to be dysfunctional and seems to be breaking up every minute.

In December, Netanyahu is due to appear again in court to listen to witness testimonies. His raison d’etre, and that of his support base, is to avoid and escape the legal procedures - no matter what.

Shutting down the nation and creating, under the pretext of the coronavirus crisis, a false impression of emergency and a war-like situation serves this purpose.

Even before the pandemic, many perceived Israel not as a state that has an army, but as an army that has a state. 

The military and security apparatus play a major role in the economy, in society, politics and serve as major tools in suppressing Palestinians and policing the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Netanyahu's raison d’etre, and that of his support base, is to avoid and escape the legal procedures - no matter what

It has become clear, for years, that even Israel - with its mighty army, air force, intelligence and advanced technology - is not a match for its adversaries and enemies. 

The real threats against Israel have decreased, even Iran is not considered by security analysts as a serious danger to the very existence of the Israeli state. 

The true vulnerabilities and weaknesses are domestic - the systematic campaign orchestrated by Netanyahu and his disciples to incite one community against the other has paid off. 

Israel has never been more divided and politically and ethnically polarised: the seculars confront the religious and the orthodox, left against right, Jews against Arabs, Ashkenazi Jews against Sephardi Jews.  

Many Israelis have realised that Netanyahu has been leading the nation on a slippery slope to intentionally erode the already very fragile fabric of the society.

This process, along with the systematic weakening of the gatekeepers - the judiciary system, the state comptroller, the media, replacing civil servants with Netanyahu’s chiefs of the army, Mossad, Shin Bet and police - has brought Israel to the verge of a military “democtatorship” - a chaotic hybrid of democracy and dictatorship.