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Analysis: Netanyahu's zigzags leave Israel number one in Covid-19 infection rate

Prime minister has refused to heed the advice of medical experts, listening only to his gut feelings, which now seem to betray him
Most of Netanyahu's professional decisions to battle the coronavirus are usually based on political considerations (AFP)
By Yossi Melman in Tel Aviv, Israel

Israel, which repeatedly prides itself as a "start-up nation", pioneer of innovation, and the home of the latest cyber, medical and nano-technologies, broke a new record in September.

But this time it was a very unflattering one. 

Israel has climbed to the top to be ranked as number one on the coronavirus ladder, as the country with the biggest number of proven Covid-19 cases per one million people. 

With a population of just over nine million people, almost 140,000 have now been affected.

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As figures climb every day, health officials warn that hospitals will soon be unable to cope with the situation, especially as winter is fast approaching. 

But all the warnings and alarms have fallen on the deaf ears of an incompetent government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Widening divisions

The people who are most susceptible to the virus are Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish ultra-Orthodox communities, which are the poorest communities in the country. 

They have inadequate housing, and weak education and health services. 

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While the majority of the ultra-Orthodox population refuse to be integrated and prefer to live a secluded life according to their traditions, Palestinian citizens of Israel are discriminated against by consecutive governments in terms of allocation of resources.

The deteriorating coronavirus crisis, with its medical and economic ramifications, is a direct result of the disintegration and fragmentation of Israeli society into social, political, cultural and ethnic divisions. 

It was President Reuven Rivlin who, in 2015, delivered a speech aimed as a wake-up and healing call to the nation, stating that Israel was already divided into four tribes: secular, national-religious (meaning Jewish settlers), Orthodox and Arabs.

Since then, not only have the cracks in society not narrowed, they have only widened. 

Government decrees illegal

All these developments, enveloped by the Covid-19 pandemic, have brought Israel to the edge of civil disobedience. 

Many parts of the population simply ignore the government instructions.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews continue to gather in synagogues and many Palestinian citizens of Israel have disregarded the advice to avoid big crowds and celebrate weddings. 

Meanwhile, secular Israelis, especially young ones, congregate amid an unprecedentedly hot and humid summer on beaches and vacation resorts around the country. 

Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, went even further, stating that government decrees regarding the management of the crisis are illegal and thus should be ignored.

Political considerations

It is a historic irony that Netanyahu is now challenged by a public rage and defiance that he has created with his own words and actions.

As an MIT graduate, for years Netanyahu enjoyed the inflated image of a talented and savvy manager. 

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However, the coronavirus crisis proved that he actually lacks managerial skills and that his style of micromanagement borders on mismanagement. 

His zigzags manifest almost day and night. Last Thursday, he declared that a total shutdown and curfew would be imposed within days on 40 towns and neighbourhoods, mostly populated with ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian communities, which were declared as "red" zones. 

Twenty-four hours later, under pressure from his political allies from the ultra-Orthodox parties, he reversed the decision. 

Netanyahu has refused to convene the government for more than a month. He has reduced consultations and refuses to heed the advice of medical experts, listening only to his gut feelings, which now seem to betray him. 

Most of his professional decisions to battle the virus are usually based on political considerations to appease his base, especially the ultra-Orthodox communities.

Divide and rule

For years, Netanyahu has used the tactics of divide and rule. 

He incited communities against each other; he defamed Palestinian citizens of Israel by calling them “terrorists”, smeared liberal and left-wing Israelis as “traitors” and bashed his political rivals as “dangerous” and “incompetent”.

His actions accelerated even more rapidly after he was indicted on several accounts of corruption and fraud and now faces trial in three separate cases. 

Along the way, Netanyahu has lost his brakes and acts without any inhibitions to further undermine Israel's fragile democracy. 

He spared no effort to get rid of all of state gatekeepers - including the police commissioner, state comptroller, heads of the intelligence agencies, the attorney general and judges, especially from the Supreme Court - and replace them with nominees of his own liking.

The prime minister has done all of these shameful acts with only one purpose in mind – to remain in power and consolidate his conservative, right-wing base, which more and more behaves like a cult and less and less as a political and electoral force.

Brothers in desperation

Netanyahu had in fact struck it lucky at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, when in the first months Israel was among the leading nations to combat the virus and reduce its spread. 

But lacking the art of modesty and restraint, he declared victory, and called on the public to celebrate. Indeed, this is exactly what the people did, and the results are now visible in the rising figures.

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In his efforts to prove to the public that he is a towering leader dwarfing his opponents, he mobilised his brother in desperation, US President Donald Trump. 

The two secretly reached a deal with United Arab Emirates’ de facto ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, to normalise relations with Israel, in return for selling US-made F-35 warplanes to the UAE, and taking off the table Netanyahu’s threats to annex the occupied West Bank.

Netanyahu is now trying to manipulate and take advantage of the deal which is set to be celebrated next week on the White House lawns. 

But the Israeli public seems to be less impressed. They are much more concerned about the economic and health crises than grandiose diplomatic gestures, aimed at improving Trump’s standing ahead of the 3 November US election.

Psychological profiles written by foreign intelligence researchers and Israeli academic experts, such as professor Shaul Kimhi of the Tel-Hai College in Upper Galilee, describe Netanyahu as “narcissist, self-centred, highly suspicious and hesitant”, controlled by his problematic wife Sarah and son Yair.

All these traits, some of which Netanyahu had managed to conceal from the public eye, have now surfaced in the public domain and become accepted as reality by many households in Israel.

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