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

Tel Aviv — Benjamin Netanyahu’s reluctance to crack down on surging coronavirus numbers sent Israel’s outbreak spinning out of control. Now he is doing a U-turn, clamping down hard as the prospect of early-2021 elections lurks.

Netanyahu dithered for months as the once-contained caseload mounted. Businesses were having a hard time recovering from a spring lockdown, unemployment was stuck at about 20%, and he did not want to isolate ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods with high morbidity rates because he needs the community’s political support.

Today, five weeks into a second lockdown, new cases have dropped more than 90% but the economy remains largely shuttered. While Israelis resent the sweeping restrictions and widely disapprove of Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis, he has held fast to a programme of shock treatment followed by a slow return to normal. Renewed control over the outbreak might help to repair his standing if the government collapses within weeks over the budget, paving the way for balloting in March.

Netanyahu could try to time elections after the coronavirus is under control to present a picture of victory, said professor Gideon Rahat of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But the political situation is volatile, and the prime minister “is moving all the time between whether to go to elections or not”, Rahat said.

Israel has a better response machinery in place now, including a new army-run contact-tracing programme and improved testing capabilities. About 2,800 civilians and soldiers have been trained to identify and test most of a virus patient’s contacts within 30 hours of a confirmed infection, said the programme’s commander, Col Reli Margalit.

And the government has learnt lessons. Children are being sent back to school in pods and at staggered times, for instance, after a mass return after the first lockdown set off the virus surge.

Cabinet decisions this time are based on “epidemiological considerations, not negotiated ones”, said Ran Balicer, an executive at Israel’s largest health-care organisation and chair of the health ministry’s coronavirus response team. “We won’t be tempted to race forward because we’ve seen how that can backfire.”

Public buy-in

As Netanyahu works to rein in the virus, deadlines are approaching. If parliament does not pass a budget by late December, elections are automatically called. Analysts doubt there is time to get that done.

Though polls show him losing ground to a nationalist rival, Netanyahu has incentives to go to a fourth vote in two years. With his trial beginning in earnest in January, it might give him another chance to legislate his protection from prosecution. It would also head off a transfer of power to defence minister Benny Gantz in November 2021, as per their coalition agreement.

Still, lockdown fatigue is rampant.

The biggest risks are an abandonment of cautious decision-making and non-compliance by the communities with the highest morbidity rates — Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, said Gabi Barbash, a former health ministry director-general.

There has already been a spike in Arab areas, after a sharp decline. Some ultra-Orthodox schools reopened in defiance of the law, gambling Netanyahu will not crack down on a valued ally.

Ronit Calderon-Margalit, a professor of epidemiology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a member of the coronavirus task force, fears political pressure to ease the reins will ultimately prevail. She predicts another surge and a third lockdown.

“Past evidence showed there is much politics in deciding what gets reopened and what does not,” she said.

Bloomberg

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