Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (July 20, 2020) - Annexation? Elections? It’s corona and the economy, stupid.


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Netanyahu’s approval rating is plummeting. There is little talk of West Bank annexation or of a fourth round of elections. What happened?

A. Netanyahu and his unwieldy coalition have been hit by a “triple corona”.

First, the second wave of the pandemic is raging far beyond anything we saw in the first wave, which Netanyahu brought under control admirably. Secondly, there is an “economic corona” of a million jobless and growing concern over hunger and poverty. Lastly, and most unusually in the Netanyahu era, there is a “leadership corona.” Netanyahu is losing credibility on all three counts.

The result is panic at the highest leadership level. The unwieldy Netanyahu-Gantz emergency coalition, formed precisely to deal with the pandemic, has proven unmanageable and unleadable. Netanyahu has stopped blaming Blue-White’s Benny Gantz and the political opposition and turned against Finance Ministry officials and his own Likud followers in the Knesset because they dispute his judgment. Swamped by proposals to appoint a “corona czar” to manage the crisis, the prime minister has balked, apparently for fear of admitting loss of control.

On the Israeli street, including outside the PM’s Jerusalem residence, growing masses of people are demonstrating: against prime ministerial corruption and mismanagement and in favor of more corona financial aid. The demonstrators are leftists, Likudniks, small business entrepreneurs, and a sprinkling of violent people who call themselves anarchists. Tough police tactics against the demonstrators have not deterred them in the least. Israelis with a long memory recall the 1974 post-Yom Kippur War mass demonstrations that brought about the resignations of PM Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

Meanwhile social workers are striking, nurses are threatening to strike and teachers are afraid to teach come September. These are three vital sectors in the corona economy, all with relatively heavy virus exposure.
What does Netanyahu do as he panics in the face of the demonstrators, the strikers and the pandemic statistics? He and his corona cabinet change their minds daily regarding where to open and where to close the economy--without reference to virus statistics. He faults a Knesset committee Likud chairperson for leaving pools and beaches open when the statistics point to their relative safety. He appears on prime-time TV and announces that the government will shower money on everybody. Free cash to stimulate the lagging economy. Six billion shekels: 750 to every citizen. Even to Israel’s 150,000 dollar-millionaires. The public response is yet more disdain. Gone is the talk of annexation. Gone are innuendos about new elections to capitalize on Netanyahu’s high approval ratings from the first corona wave. The crucial turning point here was May 17, two months ago, when Netanyahu cited the low pandemic figures achieved through weeks of lockdown, declared victory over the first wave, reopened schools and wedding halls, and told the public triumphantly to “have fun”.

Within a few weeks the corona figures began to go back up. At first they were described as a brief “spike”. Now they are acknowledged as a second wave, worse than the first, brought on by the ill-planned and premature opening of the economy.

Q. Are the covid-19 figures in Israel really that frightening?

A. The controversy over how to read the figures and how to respond is as prominent in Israel as elsewhere. During the first wave, March-April-May, the government and most epidemiologists interviewed by the media took a heavy-handed approach based on fears that the pandemic would get out of control. Israel entered the crisis short on vital equipment like respirators and masks and this contributed to the panic.

Back then there were only a few experts who advocated a lighter approach, Swedish-style. Leave the economy and schools open and aim for herd immunity while isolating only the elderly and vulnerable. They were shouted down. Now, however, the economy has reopened and the public is in corona-fatigue bordering on corona-revolt. Israelis are licking their financial wounds and viscerally opposing another total lockdown. Now those dissenting experts are being heard.

Here is Professor Idit Matot of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv on Netanyahu’s panicked approach to dealing with the virus. “We are living in parallel universes. . . . what we experience in the field and what the government communicates to the public are two different things.” According to Ichilov’s model, the daily figures on newly proven virus-carriers (under 2000), the total statistic for the extremely ill in hospital (450) and the total of deceased since January (409) are relatively low and easily controlled without closing down pools, restaurants, summer camps, etc.

Inevitably, Matot was countered by yet another distinguished professor, this time from Beersheva, who was given screen time on Sunday to warn Netanyahu that if he did not lock down the entire economy immediately, within three weeks Israel would experience total catastrophe and its health infrastructure would collapse.

Netanyahu’s apparent pick for corona czar, Gabi Barabash, a former director general of the Health Ministry, appears to fall somewhere between these two approaches: “The time element is critical. We have no more than 90 days until winter”. Barabash wants more IDF involvement and massive corona checks and contact tracing.

But will Netanyahu give Barabash--or anyone else, for that matter--the authority to really run an efficient campaign against the current wave while avoiding another lockdown and preparing for a third wave in winter? With the authority comes the glory and the credit that Netanyahu now desperately needs.

That’s why Defense Minister and Alternate PM Gantz, who controls the IDF and wants it more heavily involved, wants the job for himself or for a retired general so he can finally leave his mark on Israeli public life. Member of Knesset Naftali Bennet of Yamina also wants the job. He is now in the political opposition with a mere five mandates. But he is soaring in the polls because he seems capable of presenting a coherent alternative to Netanyahu’s mismanagement. Yet a beleaguered Netanyahu can hardly be expected to give the corona-czar job to his political opponents.

Q. So January 2021 is not necessarily a critical date for Netanyahu.

A. Actually, the next critical date is August 28, a little more than a month away. If the Knesset has not approved a budget by then, new elections are automatically triggered. Netanyahu is bound by his coalition agreement with Gantz to pass a single budget for the next year and a quarter. But the prime minister insists on violating the agreement and approving a budget for three months only. His public rationale is that, due to corona, it is impossible to know how to manage the economy 15 months in advance. Gantz insists it is possible. So do many economists.

Gantz apparently fears that Netanyahu is leveraging the budget controversy to precipitate new elections sometime in the months ahead in order to preempt his loss of power in September 2021 under their rotation agreement. Yet with Netanyahu’s public approval ratings plummeting due to mismanagement of the virus and the economy, he presumably fears new elections more than anyone except Gantz himself, whose Blue-White party barely registers in the polls.

Still, in a pinch, Netanyahu can presumably command the allegiance of much of the right-religious mainstream. And no charismatic rival vote-getter has as yet appeared on the scene.

Stay tuned. A month is a long time in Israeli politics.

Q. Your bottom line?

A. First, while annexation appears to have dropped off the agenda, Iran has not. Note the allegations of Israeli involvement in a series of mysterious explosions and fires in Iran over the past month or so. At least one explosion has strategic ramifications in terms of setting back Iran’s military nuclear program. Meanwhile the “campaign between wars” against Iran’s presence in Syria continues. Iran is responding by tightening military coordination with Syria. All this means that alongside corona escalation, there is plenty of danger of an Iran escalation as well.

Second, on Sunday I carried out my own occasional opinion poll about all this: I went to the neighborhood barbershop and mom and pop store. I asked no questions; just listened. All three--the barber, mom and pop--are veteran Netanyahu voters for whom the prime minister usually can do no wrong. The barber has himself recovered from corona. He was infected while flouting the rules and insisting on praying in a crowded ultra-orthodox synagogue. He has never heard of the 1918-19 Spanish Flu epidemic. In other words, his and Israel’s brush with corona ostensibly taught him very little. But he knows how to cut hair. As he cut mine he murmured into my ear, barely audibly, “everything is sad” and added, “I just want to put food on the table.” That was a thoughtful comment.

Mom and pop, in contrast, began spontaneously yelling at me that far leftists and anarchists were fomenting a revolution. Mom and pop are avid followers of tweets and conspiracy theories from the likes of Netanyahu’s infamous son Yair.

If even one out of three Netanyahu supporters is having second thoughts due to corona failings, that is an encouraging statistic.

For previous editions of Hard Questions, Tough Answers, go to the Index Page.