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Covid-19: Netanyahu basks in vaccine success as Israelis suffer his pandemic failures

Coronavirus is running amok in Israel, but the prime minister won't let you hear it as he embarks on yet another election campaign
Benjamin Netanyahu receives a Covid-19 vaccine injection at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv (Reuters)
By Lily Galili in Tel Aviv, Israel

Muslims pray five times a day; observant Jews three. Christians are expected to attend Sunday mass, the more devout ones address God morning and evening as well.  

That’s how it was for thousands of years. Not anymore.

Israelis, of all denominations, now adhere to a different schedule: worshipping a lord known as “Bibi” every hour - on the hour - when news broadcasts mention the man who brought them vaccinations.

Rejoice, Israelis are told, for Benjamin Netanyahu has brought you Pfizer and Moderna (acquired, by the way, at an exorbitant price with their own money).

If, by chance, Netanyahu’s name is omitted, the prime minister and his dedicated advisers are there to remind us who to thank.

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No commentator or opposition politician is safe from reproach if they dare raise a question about the prime minister’s performance.

“That’s what he or she does,” the Likud Party spokesperson would retort. “Playing politics while Netanyahu is busy securing more vaccines and making Israel the first country to defeat Covid-19.”

Rejoice, Israelis are told, for Benjamin Netanyahu has brought you Pfizer and Moderna (acquired, by the way, at an exorbitant price with their own money)

It is always the same text, regardless of the context. To make things worse, the mantra stands in painful contrast to the rather gloomy reality.

Numbers of severely ill and dead spike. Intensive care wards and medical teams, neglected for decades under Netanyahu’s rule, are on the verge of collapse. Unemployment soars.  

Netanyahu never refers to those. Facing a fourth round of elections in two years on 23 March, Netanyahu’s trump card is the vaccines. 

In fact, it is his only card. The vaccine is supposed not only to work against the virus; it is expected to be accompanied by the much-coveted side-effect of forgetfulness: forget the unbelievably negligent management of the pandemic, forget the complete lack of logic and human sensitivity in handling the crisis; forget the mistakes and blunders that cost many lives.

Remember the vaccines. Remember that Netanyahu - in person - spoke 17 times with Pfizer’s chief executive over the past several weeks.

How do we know that? Because Netanyahu told us so on TV.

Remember the syringe used in Netanyahu’s vaccination on live TV? It later became almost sacred.

Netanyahu has gone to the trouble of framing it in a glass case, decorated with scripture: “One small injection for one man, one giant leap for the health of all of us.”

That butchering of Neil Armstrong’s historic words is now splashed across Netanyahu’s Facebook page.

Deadly 'peace'

All of the above might be interpreted as a series of non-serious trifles, if not for the dramatic motivation behind it.

All these steps taken in the uphill struggle against the tricky virus are politically motivated and meticulously calculated to be in sync with the upcoming elections and the opening of Netanyahu’s trial on charges of bribery and fraud.

Some claim that in return for the speedy delivery of the Pfizer vaccines Israel agreed to become the biggest ever field of medical experimentation. That might be worth it.

But the reality is very different. Netanyahu has turned nine million citizens into a field of political experimentation. Pfizer is now his personal vote machine.

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Without Netanyahu, the political factor could have been very different. Israel is an island of sorts, with one public entry into the country: Ben Gurion international airport.

Had it been closed for traffic in time, less Covid-19 and no dangerous new variants would have found Israel’s door wide open. That is what, for example, New Zealand did.

Netanyahu did not. He could not shut out flights from Trump’s United States out of fear of offending the “best friend Israel ever had”, the man who bestowed the Israeli prime minister with political and diplomatic gifts such as the Arab normalisation deals, which are proving useful in this election campaign.

Tourists and American Yeshiva students arrived to Israel with Covid-19 in their hand luggage, and everyone knew about it but no one seemed to care.

It’s the same with the craze that has seen tens of thousands of Israelis flying to Dubai, personally encouraged by Netanyahu to take advantage of the new “peace”. What is “peace” without cheap flights and a shopping spree?

In return, Dubai offered the new variants imported home by enthusiastic Israelis.

Despite the dangers, Netanyahu treats every flight between Israel and the UAE as a campaign clip.

Many have warned against this cynical behaviour, but nobody said it better than the head of public health, Dr Sharon Alroy-Preis.

According to Channel 13, Alroy-Preis told a closed meeting: “More Israelis died within two weeks of peace with Dubai than during 70 years of war with Dubai.”

The cynical remark says it all. Israelis are pawns in the ruthless political game of their leaders.

Placating the Orthodox

With elections less than two months away, Netanyahu needs us healthy and relatively happy. At least enough of us to give him the power to finally form a coalition he can fully control. He failed to do so in three consecutive election rounds. He has to do it now, with the legal clock ticking simultaneously as his corruption trial looms.

The first cornerstone of success Netanyahu has to secure is his long alliance with what he calls “his natural partners” – the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox bloc.

What seemed to be a political walk in the park has been turned by coronavirus into an obstacle course. For many sociological and religious reasons, the one million-person-strong Orthodox community turns out to be both a hothouse for the virus and taking orders from their spiritual leaders only.

The state is irrelevant, and so is Netanyahu. Schools close under lockdown? Not for the Orthodox. Weddings and festive ceremonies are heavily restricted? Not for the Orthodox. Citizens (especially in Palestinian villages) are fined for minor disobedience? Not the Orthodox.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein attend the arrival of a plane with a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines, at Ben Gurion airport (Reuters)
Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein attend the arrival of a plane with a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines, at Ben Gurion airport (Reuters)

Not all of them, of course, but enough to cause anger and fear in society at large. Netanyahu finds himself caught between the need to cater to their needs and losing the secular vote. Even he gets lost in the labyrinth of contradictory needs.

So far, he seems to be opting for the Orthodox option. In a moment perceived by many as humiliating, he called the grandson of a prominent Orthodox leader, 93-year-old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, and begged him to convince his grandfather to close schools.

The grandson politely promised to consider the request, but in the end most Orthodox schools remained open while secular and religious ones have been closed for months.

The rift between communities is deepening dangerously. The disease in certain concentrations of Israel’s Orthodox population is skyrocketing, spilling over into wider society.

That could have been easily solved by different lockdowns where needed, though that solution is simple but unrealistic: Netanyahu cannot allow himself to anger his “natural partners”.

So far, it pays off. At least two of the Orthodox MPs have already renewed their vows to back the prime minister, who has proved loyal to them. Or rather, to his own interests.

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“We pay a high price for the deal between Netanyahu and the Orthodox parties,” wrote head of the Yisrael Beytenu party Avigdor Lieberman on his Facebook page, saying Rabbi Kanievsky’s grandson had replaced the prime minister as the man calling the shots in the country.

Opposition politicians are infuriated and frustrated. What words can penetrate the iron dome of cynicism that protects Netanyahu?

And even the Teflon prime minister himself is first to admit he sees his political fortunes in the health crisis.

In a Zoom meeting with self-employed Israelis struggling to earn during the pandemic, he reprimanded them for voting for other parties. “When coronavirus figures are up, we are down; when the numbers are down, we are up. It’s that simple,” he said.

Some, like Haaretz columnist Nechemia Shtresler, say Netanyahu is more guilty of having blood on his hands than Golda Meir, the prime minister held responsible for the outbreak of the 1973 war.

Many agree. So what? Netanyahu takes all the credit, assumes no responsibility. It will take more than lethal pandemics to change his personality.

Netanyahu claims success when he fails, and victory when he, despite the vaccine rollout, is losing the battle to stop Covid’s spread.

A few days ago, Facebook removed a post by the prime minister urging citizens to provide medical information and send him details of people over 60 not yet vaccinated so he can convince them to get the jab.

Despite the clearly concerning attempt to harvest citizens’ personal information, Likud argued that “the goal was to encourage Israelis to get vaccinated to save their lives after PM Netanyahu brought vaccines to every citizen”.

Robin Hood couldn’t have phrased it better. A nice soundbite for the election campaign.

Master of manipulation

Netanyahu is an expert at manipulating people and dismantling rival political forces.

Most recently, he was successful in bringing the downfall of the Blue and White party headed by Defence Minister Benny Gantz. Currently boasting 33 seats in the parliament, the party will now struggle to pass the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset.

Similarly, he was quite efficient in dismantling the Arab Joint List, creating just enough chaos to lower Palestinian turnout at the polls.

For the first time in his political life, Netanyahu faces a rival that is instead manipulating him: Covid-19

But for the first time in his political life, Netanyahu faces a rival that is instead manipulating him: Covid-19.

Just three weeks ago he promised Israelis that, unlike last year, they will celebrate this Passover with their extended families. It so happens that Passover coincides with the elections, and grateful subjects were expected to vote for the saviour who led them to freedom out of the slavery of the pandemic. The coronavirus variants, less obedient than Israeli opposition parties, beg to differ.  

As Netanyahu said himself, there is a correlation between Covid-19 cases and his polling. Other than that, little is known.

The biggest secret in Israel now is the number of vaccines acquired and available. The number of cases and their severity is manipulated according to political needs. Cabinet meetings dealing with pandemics remain secret for 30 years. By then, even Netanyahu will not be seeking reelection.

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