Israel is besieged not only by a deadly virus, but by identity politics, sectarian strife, and dishonest leadership. As the economic consequences of lockdown multiply, social and political tensions will only rise.
TEL AVIV – When the Jewish new year began late last month, Israel was enduring its second nationwide lockdown, after daily per capita COVID-19 infection and death rates reached some of the world’s highest levels. How did a country with practically closed external borders, sophisticated technological and institutional capacities, a high-quality and efficient health-care system, and a culture of solidarity in wartime fail so spectacularly at addressing the pandemic?
Although long years of neoliberal economics have certainly taken their toll on the country’s welfare system, the answer lies elsewhere. Partly, it is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s deceitful, divisive approach to managing the crisis – and to governing more generally – that has been laid bare. But, more fundamentally, Israel’s pandemic failure reflects the deeply fragmented society and dysfunctional political system of which Netanyahu has taken advantage throughout his career.
The virus has exposed Israel as a polarized federation, whose various tribes put their sectarian interests ahead of the common good. The ultra-Orthodox community, for example, has sought to exercise its autonomy above all – and it has paid the price, with the country’s highest COVID-19 infection rates. Though this community comprises only about 12 percent of Israel’s population, it accounts for about half of all infected people over 65 and under 18. Until recently, Israel’s Arab community—21 percent of the population—did not lag far behind.
But Israel’s minorities do not have a monopoly on the defiance of norms. Breaking conventions, an innate lack of discipline, and disregard for authority—the very traits to which some experts attribute the country’s extraordinary creativity as a “startup nation”—are national hallmarks. Netanyahu and his ministers who were caught violating the precautionary rules they had imposed on the country reflect a broader phenomenon: The government hasn’t exactly been a role model for the unruly public.
Netanyahu has built his career on stoking sectarian divisions. In contrast to French President Emmanuel Macron, who has now launched a campaign against “Islamist separatism” in France, Netanyahu has thrived on a rapidly escalating Kulturkampf. In particular, he has formed a corrupt coalition with the ultra-Orthodox community, whose political support he has bought with the labor and sacrifice of other segments of society.
For starters, he actively encourages the unproductive, burdensome lifestyle of the ultra-Orthodox, who have staggeringly high fertility rates (averaging 7.1 children per woman, compared to 3.1 overall). Moreover, barely half of ultra-Orthodox men participate in the labor market. And the community includes about 135,000 yeshiva students, who refuse military service and study only scripture—an education that leaves them unfit for modern life.
Who pays for this lifestyle? Israel’s dynamic secular middle class, which produces much of the country’s wealth, carries the burden of military service, and accounts for a large share of the government’s tax revenues.
Now, the pandemic is compounding these costs. Rather than heeding expert advice and imposing targeted lockdowns on hard-hit communities—such as the ultra-Orthodox—Netanyahu chose nationwide measures, punishing the groups that make Israel’s economy run to avoid targeting a key constituency. The entire country is effectively a hostage to political expediency.
But Netanyahu’s motivation for imposing another lockdown extends well beyond mollifying the ultra-Orthodox community. His corruption trial, which has already been delayed by his lawyers’ obstructive tactics, will resume in January. Netanyahu would eschew no dirty trick to disrupt the proceedings, which threaten to keep his bribery and corruption scandals, and questions about his fitness to lead, in the national consciousness.
Netanyahu’s anti-corruption trial is definitely also a key motive for his repeated thwarting of an agreement on a new budget. As long as there is no agreement, there will be regular opportunities to dissolve parliament and hold new elections, an outcome that might finally enable Netanyahu to form a coalition willing to bar the indictment of a serving prime minister.
To be sure, in late August, Netanyahu agreed to a 100-day extension with his coalition partner, the Blue and White party’s Benny Gantz, narrowly avoiding Israel’s fourth election in two years. But that probably reflects the fact that opinion polls indicate a sharp decline in support for Netanyahu’s Likud party. Netanyahu probably hopes that this will change by the time the next budget deadline arrives.
In the meantime, he is hoping to change the conversation, not by providing real leadership, but by stifling dissent. He has been using the COVID-19 crisis as a pretext for conducting China-style digital surveillance and sharply limiting the freedom to protest.
Mass demonstrations over Netanyahu’s alleged corruption and the government’s handling of the pandemic have been raging for months. To get protesters off the streets—and out of the news—Netanyahu backed a rule banning protesters from holding demonstrations more than one kilometer (0.61 miles) from their place of residence, under the guise of stopping the spread of COVID-19. The measure was also aimed at appeasing his Orthodox allies, as it created a false symmetry between the ban on protests in open spaces (where the risk of infection is minimal) and the restriction of prayers in synagogues (a hotspot of infections).
But the move backfired. Unable to participate in the single localized protest in front of the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence, demonstrators began protesting close to home—all across the country.
This nationwide display of popular rage is also a model of creative, orderly civic resistance. The array of groups leading the charge—with names such as “Black Flag” and “Crime Minister”—largely comprise young, educated, and conscientious Israelis and many self-employed workers facing severe economic hardship. They are unlikely to give up easily, despite Netanyahu’s best efforts.
But while Netanyahu’s narcissistic leadership demands resistance, the upheaval in Israel carries significant risks. Israel is besieged not only by a deadly virus, but by identity politics, sectarian strife, and dishonest leadership. As the economic consequences of lockdown multiply, social and political tensions will only rise. As President Reuven Rivlin noted ominously last week, “The air is full of gunpowder.”