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Coronavirus has saved Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career

Just when it looked like Gantz may form a coalition, the outbreak has pushed back the Israeli prime minister's trial and set him up for an emergency unity government
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a speech at his Jerusalem office regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus in Israel (AFP)
By Lily Galili in Tel Aviv, Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu will go down in history as the one human being saved by coronavirus.

Even if only temporarily, the virus that attacks the respiratory system serves for now as Netanyahu’s respiratory machine.

It supplies the man who did not win the election with the necessary amount of oxygen to remain in office and out of the courtroom, where his corruption trial was to start this coming Tuesday.

It will not. Two weeks ago, politicians close to the prime minister’s rival Avigdor Lieberman, seemingly endowed with a sixth sense, outlined to Middle East Eye the events that now appear to be playing out.

Netanyahu’s corruption trial is now set to open on 24 May, long after Memorial Day and Independence Day, the two most important national ceremonies in Israel appropriated by the prime minister.

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He will, as Lieberman's allies speculated, dominate the stage as premier. Buying time is the name of the game.

Coronavirus itself does not deserve all the credit. Netanyahu was instrumental in this turn of events.

Day after day, at the peak of TV prime time, Israelis gather to watch the Bibi-corona one-man show on all channels.

Maintaining his reputation for using props, Netanyahu has appeared on Israelis’ screens equipped with a creased tissue paper to instruct viewers how to wipe their nose, or playing a graphic video showing an enlarged explosion of uncontrolled sneezing.

He is, in fact, not conducting an anti-corona campaign. He is just running another version of his prolonged election campaign - a new improved formula of propaganda based on his favourite ingredients: fear and panic.

This TV series is overtly cynical and ridiculously self-serving. Endless boasting and name-dropping of his universal contacts and adoring leaders - it is not “me-too”, it’s an “only me” campaign. 

Time for plan B

Netanyahu always admired Winston Churchill. Now he believes he is him, but is sure, unlike Abraham Lincoln, that you can fool all the people all the time. 

The prime minister has no choice but to control the epidemic before it gets out of control and the truth is exposed to all: Israel is not ready.

The healthcare system has been neglected for years. Netanyahu bought submarines from Germany (contrary to the better judgement of the military) instead of hospital beds and respiratory machines.

That might be another blow to his ego and political career. He is doing everything possible and impossible - like using the secret service to spy on coronavirus carriers - to prevent the healthcare system’s shortcomings being exposed.

In a strange turn of events, the candidate who in fact lost the election and could not form a government for the third time in a year now again controls the political scene.

In a strange turn of events, the candidate who in fact lost the election and could not form a government for the third time in a year now again controls the political scene

Coronavirus sabotaged his initial plan to go for fourth round hoping for more conclusive results, but now Netanyahu has a plan B: temporary emergency government. He stays prime minister.

The phrasing is important: not a national unity government but an emergency government with all parts of the parliament - apart from the Palestinian Joint List – represented.

They are still Arabs who support terrorists, as portrayed in the other, behind the scenes shame campaign. That one is directed at Russian speaking MPs, mainly from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Addressing Yisrael Beiteinu MPs by name in video clips, an ominous voice asks them to say “no” to Lieberman and forming a government backed by “terrorist-loving” Arab politicians.

Netanyahu posts these videos on his social media, but he might not need them anymore. Hopes of forming a center-left Blue and White government backed by the Joint List were the first fatal victim of coronavirus in Israel.

Benny Gantz, Blue and White’s leader, has not officially announced the death of what might have been a turning point in the political history of Israel. The Joint List, on the other hand, has insinuated it would not nominate Gantz as prime minister as he negotiates forming an emergency government with Netanyahu.

Since Gantz has however rebuffed (for the time being at least) Netanyahu’s emergency government offer, all 15 Joint List MPs have recommend Gantz to President Reuven Rivlin.

“We are true to our promise to make all possible efforts to replace Netanyahu. The very idea of emergency government should be immediately rejected,” the Joint List’s Aida Touma Suleiman said as they left the president’s residence on Sunday.

An offer they can't refuse

However, that backing is conditioned. It is valid only if Lieberman with his seven seats recommends Gantz and thus secure him the 61 nominations necessary to form a government.

Lieberman refuses to make such a far-reaching commitment. So far, he plays a careful game, calling for the formation of an emergency Likud-Blue and White government only.

“I know Netanyahu too well to believe his offer is more than a setting for a future blame game and de-legitimization of all opposition parties,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

The term “emergency government” was intentionally chosen to avoid the truth that Netanyahu cannot form a government. And though the name adds a certain gravitas, coronavirus really does not care what kind of government it acts against.

In addition, most Israelis want it. Their natural fear is stoked for political gain and they are over tired after a third round of elections in a year. Sixty-six percent of Israelis, according to a Channel 12 opinion poll, are in favour of a unity government.

It will be impossible for Blue and White and Labor to refuse. They are offered parity and full partnership.

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The immediate impact, though, is close to a political catastrophe for Blue and White. Not an organic creation when formed just over a year ago, it seems to be falling apart at the seams.

At least two MPs openly opposed any cooperation with the Joint List. Now the controversy reached what they call the cockpit – the party’s foursome of top leaders.

Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi officially reject Netanyahu’s offer as “dishonest” and “not serious”.

Sources told MEE that behind the scenes, informal negotiators mediate between the parties. They say Gantz’s conditions include a six-month limit on the government, equal division of power and secured heads of parliamentary committees for Joint List MPs. 

Moshe Yaalon, the third of the foursome, is all out against. So is the fourth, Yair Lapid. 

As soon as Netanyahu’s offer was published, Yaalon tweeted: ”Blue and White cannot be a partner in the elimination of democracy by a runaway from the rule of law.” 

Two MPs from his section of Blue and White are in favour. Lieberman does not make it easier for them.

The nature of the future government remains unclear. The not-so solid foundation of Blue and White is more fragile than ever. It will pay a political price any way its members choose to go.

Netanyahu will not shed tears. It might just be a victim of the pandemic.

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