Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is an avid reader of history and the son of one of Israel’s great historians. So he likely understands that, if the past is any guide, his long political career has perhaps never been more imperiled.

In the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Israel suffered devastating losses, thousands of Israelis took to the streets to express outrage at their leaders’ deadly incompetence. Prime Minister Golda Meir’s government appointed the Agranat Commission. Its initial report, released in April 1974, called for the dismissal of several of Israel’s top generals but did not hold Meir accountable.

But the protests did not subside, and by the end of the month she had resigned, ending her political career.

In September 1982, during Israel’s first Lebanon war, Israeli soldiers allowed some 200 armed Christian Phalangists to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, where over two days the Phalangists massacred at least 700 largely unarmed Muslim men, women and children. Israelis once again protested by the thousands. Prime Minister Menachem Begin appointed the Kahan Commission to investigate. In February 1983, though the commission recommended that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon resign, it largely absolved Begin.

But that, too, proved irrelevant. By August, Begin had resigned, and went into seclusion for the last decade of his life.

Which brings us to Netanyahu. In March, the prime minister warned the country that it needed to behave as if Israel was at war with the coronavirus. In May, he boasted that his effort against Covid-19 was “a great success story.”

But Israel’s exit from its first lockdown in May was a disaster; four months later, it may well have the highest per capita infection rate in the world. There have been 1,700 deaths, and every day takes us closer to the 2,600 killed in the Yom Kippur War. New cases, hospitalizations and the number of intubated patients rose precipitously in August and September, raising legitimate fears of the collapse of Israel’s national health care system.

To combat the frightening rise in infection, the government has instituted the world’s first repeat Covid-19 national lockdown, which has enraged the public. The fury stems from a sense that it was Netanyahu’s personal political considerations and legal worries that led to the government’s incoherent lockdown policies. He was indicted on corruption charges in January, but contends that he cannot be jailed as long as he is prime minister.

To keep his government afloat at all costs, his critics say, the prime minister capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox by allowing them to keep synagogues open during the High Holidays, while the police cast a blind eye to widespread violations of health guidelines in the Orthodox community. There have been reports of ultra-Orthodox families, who often live in poverty, having purposely become infected with the virus in order to qualify for the government’s “Covid hotels,” where they are provided with free food and lodging.

The absurdity of the government’s policies extends far beyond the Orthodox, however. The government has shuttered many small businesses with fewer than 10 employees, leading to massive economic loss and skyrocketing unemployment, despite insistence from public health officials that there is no benefit to those closures. Screening at Ben Gurion Airport has been incompetent and inconsistent, and infected travelers have continued to enter Israel without being forced to quarantine.

Israelis are not permitted to fly out of the country, for which the Ministry of Health offered a ridiculous explanation: It is was a matter of “equality.” A ministry spokesperson explained that, with people being asked not to travel more than a kilometer from their homes, it’s unfair that “someone who has money can buy a plane ticket and travel somewhere else.” Why not outlaw the sale of meat, some Israelis wondered, given that not all families can afford that, either?

Many Israelis have had enough. For months, thousands of people have been in the streets, protesting Netanyahu’s incompetence. Perhaps most alarming for the prime minister, analogies to the Yom Kippur War are being made. Some leading Israelis are calling for a commission of inquiry, like Kahan or Agranat.

Netanyahu clearly is worried. In extended Knesset deliberations on how much public activity to restrict, Netanyahu has been the one demanding — even over the objections of some of his coalition partners — severe restrictions on public protests, justifying the step with the claim that they are health hazards. But few people are buying that argument, and see a dangerous encroachment on their democratic rights. When the government prohibited demonstrations larger than 20 people, 1,000 smaller protests sprang up across the country.

There are also increasing reports of police brutality in suppressing the protests. The government claims that the police are simply enforcing critical public health regulations, but few are buying it. Most, including Tel Aviv’s popular mayor, Ron Huldai, see a desperate Netanyahu using the police to quash resistance not to the lockdown, but to him.

With Netanyahu facing the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence, it is hard to imagine that he will resign, no matter how large the protests grow. Times have changed since Golda Meir and Menachem Begin — the expectation that political leaders care about the public will has long since evaporated.

But some protesters still hope that they might be able to get the Blue and White Party, which ran neck and neck with Netanyahu’s Likud in the last three elections, to exit the wobbling coalition government. One Blue and White minister has already resigned, and there are murmurings of increased frustrations in the party over staying in the government. Benny Gantz, the party’s leader, is scheduled to take the prime ministership late next year as part of the coalition deal, but it seems increasingly unlikely that the government will last that long.

Should Blue and White leave the coalition, Israel could be forced into new elections, the fourth in less than two years. This time, the public would be faced not only with the question of whether to re-elect a prime minister widely assumed to be guilty of the corruption charges, but also a prime minister whose efforts to curb Covid-19 have been so disastrous.   

In the past three elections, corruption charges were not sufficient to topple Netanyahu, but Covid-19 might be. He angered supporters on the right by giving up annexation of West Bank land in exchange for a peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar (a genuine accomplishment that has entirely vanished from the news because of the virus fiasco). The left is enraged by the limits on demonstrations and police brutality.

Who might replace Netanyahu? Huldai has intimated that he might run, and some believe that Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina alliance, could profit from Netanyahu’s strained relationship from the right. While anyone beating Netanyahu has long seemed like a long shot, Huldai or Bennett might have better chances now than they ever have before.

Anyone who assumes Netanyahu is not thinking about Golda Meir and Menachem Begin doesn’t know this prime minister. Netanyahu, an insightful student of history, knows that this country can bind together unlike any other in war. But if a war seems to be going badly — and no one denies that this one is — Israelis often show their leaders no mercy.

Bloomberg

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