A look at the simultaneous fronts Netanyahu is fighting both to remain prime minister and strengthen Israel against unforeseen challenges and known enemies.
By Alex Traiman, JNS
Since fortifying Israel’s frayed political system with a victory over his political rivals and the formation of a unity coalition in April, governance for Israel’s embattled prime minister has been anything but simple.
Netanyahu is currently fighting on multiple battlefronts, both for his political survival and Israel’s greater well-being:
Immediately upon the outbreak of the global pandemic, Netanyahu took a military approach to coronavirus response. Borders were shuttered, hospitals were girded, and essential medical equipment was produced and acquired. The nation was successfully locked down, flattening a steep curve to fewer than a dozen new cases of the virus per day.
At that point, the country was reopened with the mistaken hope that we would not enter back into COVID-19’s dreaded curve. Wishful thinking proved just that, and Israel now realizes that the fight against coronavirus is a long-term war.
Transitioning from the first-wave battle tactics to a long-term strategy has been bumpy. The initial mechanisms for deciding on restrictions proved woefully ineffective, with new restrictions approved, then overturned, sometimes on a day-to-day basis.
The restrictions and reversals negatively impacted large segments of the economy that are already struggling and drew ire from the public, which correctly questioned the government’s command of the situation.
The spike in infections led many doctors, including a newly coronated coronavirus commissioner Gabi Barbash, a former Director General of the Health Ministry to push for new national lockdown measures, which the government and the nation were both certain to reject. Almost immediately, Netanyahu replaced Barbash with Ronni Gamzu, CEO of Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv.
Recognizing the need to better control and explain processes, Netanyahu changed procedures for implementing restrictions, putting an instant end to the daily restrictions crises of the past several weeks.
In a recent major press conference Netanyahu, Defense Minister and Vice Premier Benny Gantz, and Gamzu elicited a clear strategy to the nation, promising only to employ lockdowns as a last possible resort. Gamzu also promised that any future restrictions would only come into place if they could be fully and logically explained to the public.
The current strategy Gamzu is leading is to continue to gird the medical system, to prepare for additional outbreaks in the winter and to launch a comprehensive contact tracing initiative. The process, to be led by the Israel Defense Forces, will utilize advanced surveillance technology to track virus carriers and enforce pinpoint lockdowns on individuals who have come in direct contact with those infected.
At the same time, Netanyahu has announced a number of economy-driven measures, including increased unemployment benefits, payments to small-business owners and one-time payment distribution this week to all citizens. While the payments are considerably less than those that have been distributed in the United States, additional payments have not been ruled out.
Iran and Hezbollah
Over the last several weeks, numerous explosions have rocked nuclear and energy infrastructure deep inside Iran. Many have assessed the explosions were caused by Israel, the United States or Iranian dissidents—or some combination of the above.
Of the three, Israel may be the easiest and most popular retaliatory target. It is, therefore, no surprise that Iran’s proxy Hezbollah reportedly staged a cross-border attack this week.
Immediately following the incident, Netanyahu appeared in a public press conference with Gantz, pledging that any escalation would be met with resounding force.
Hezbollah has an arsenal of an estimated 150,000 rockets to target Israel. Yet Israel has been diligently preparing for conflict with Hezbollah since an inconclusive battle in 2006.
As Israel has proven time and again in Syria during Netanyahu’s tenure, the Jewish state is prepared to act when necessary with force to prevent Iran and its proxies from strengthening footholds near Israel’s borders. Israel has similarly proven, with the Stuxnet virus and the raiding of a nuclear facility, that Israel can strike Iran directly as well.
Dissent within the coalition
Netanyahu essentially divided his opposition following three consecutive elections, with primary challenger Gantz opting to form a unity alignment with the prime minister rather than force yet a fourth election.
Yet since tense coalition negotiations, the unity has proven itself to exist primarily on paper.
Netanyahu and Gantz agreed on a rotation arrangement for the premiership with Netanyahu serving first, through November 2021. In addition, Gantz’s Blue and White Party received the same number of executive branch ministries, as Netanyahu’s Likud Party—despite the fact that Likud is more than double the size. Neither party is supposed to advance any legislation without the approval of the other.
With the exception of a controversial initiative to apply sovereignty in Israeli-controlled territories in Judea and Samaria, the agreement stipulates that the government must focus most of its efforts on passing a two-year budget and tackling the coronavirus.
While busy at work fighting COVID, the government has thus far been unable to implement sovereignty or pass a budget. Israel risks losing a generational opportunity to apply sovereignty—with the tacit support of the United States—if it does not move the initiative forward in the coming weeks.
While Netanyahu campaigned on the move and insisted on its inclusion in coalition negotiations, Gantz has thus far rejected sovereignty, despite telling President Donald Trump at the White House in January that he supported the plan.
Similarly, Netanyahu is pressing to alter the agreement and work on the passage of a one-year budget to deal with immediate coronavirus costs, and allowing more time to negotiate a better-educated 2021 budget.
Failure to pass a budget is an automatic trigger for elections. While the country is not prepared yet again to run to the polls, separating the budgets provides a second possible election trigger next year. It is widely believed that Netanyahu will seek opportunities to alter the makeup of the coalition without Gantz or force a new election prior to November 2021, when Gantz is scheduled to become prime minister. Meanwhile, Gantz has not appeared to either Israel’s right or left as a prime minister-in-waiting.
Violent protests have emerged from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is clear from photos of the events that these are far-left protests, intended primarily at removing Netanyahu from office. Since Israel’s media shares the protesters’ desire for a new prime minister, they have been gracious to turn the protests into one of the nation’s lead stories.
The protest initiative is being provoked and organized by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose recently revealed connections to Jeffrey Epstein soured a comeback bid during the first round of Israel’s three-part election cycle, and aspiring prime minister Yair Lapid.
Lapid has continuously warned that the protests would turn violent. And when some protesters themselves were attacked after they shouted at bystanders calling them “Nazis,” Lapid was quick to turn the blame on Netanyahu, while admitting to supporting the protestors. He insisted that he will not stop supporting such protests until Netanyahu is out of office.
However, Israelis can see pictures and videos of crowds, and it is clear to the voting public that those in the streets do not share the same traditional values as most Israelis. Protesters include members of Israel’s Arab Communist Party, pride flags and left-wing youth groups.
And while the protesters claim to be the vanguard of democracy, it’s clear that they thoroughly reject the results of Israel’s elections and the formation of a unity government. Nationally, the groups composing the current protest movement account for an extremely small sector of the electorate. Israel’s right-wing holds a 65-35 percent margin over Israel’s left-wing. And the protestors represent the fringes of Israel’s left, which scored poorly in each of the consecutive elections.
And so while the protests will continue to dominate headlines and may indeed erupt in greater violence, which appears to be a means toward an uncertain end, they are unlikely to change Israel’s political map in any meaningful way.
Trials are soon beginning in three separate corruption cases against Netanyahu. One of the cases involves approximately $200,000 worth of expensive gifts including champagne and cigars that Netanyahu received from longtime friends over many years.
Two of the cases involve alleged quid pro quos between Netanyahu and the owners of media outlets that have historically promoted anti-Netanyahu coverage. In one of the cases, the prosecution openly acknowledges that the quid pro quo never actually took place. In the second case, the prosecution acknowledges that the actions Netanyahu performed as his part of the alleged quid pro were all legal in nature.
If convicted in either of the cases, it would be the first time in the history of any democracy, that an elected official was convicted of accepting positive media coverage as a bribe. In all of the cases, evidence and witnesses were gathered in an elaborate prosecutorial fishing scheme, which ultimately led to the construction of the indictments.
The indictments are specifically designed to get Netanyahu out of office by hook or by crook. Even with the indictments filed, voters came out in record large numbers to vote in favor of retaining Netanyahu. And Netanyahu remains certain that he will be fully acquitted in each of the cases, due to the flimsy nature of the charges and the processes by which the prosecution acquired its evidence.
And with all of the simultaneous attacks on Israel and its longest-ever serving prime minister, the Jewish state remains largely stable, particularly compared to the United States.
And yet Netanyahu’s most impressive days will need to lie ahead if he is to tackle the challenges he and Israel currently faces and to further propel the startup nation towards the top of a wobbly global economy.