World

Netanyahu and the Politics of Leadership during a Crisis

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at his Jerusalem office regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via Reuters)
Most Israelis support Netanyahu's leadership during the coronavirus crisis, but critics sound the alarm about a power grab.

Like the outbreak of wars and natural disasters, the coronavirus has proven to be a harsh test for leaders. Holding office has always been a double-edged sword in times of crisis. Fairly or not, the person in charge must take responsibility for the bad things that happen on his watch and accept the political consequences.

But what happened in Israel during the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic illustrates that challenges like these are also opportunities for incumbents. In the United States, it has primarily been Trump supporters who, at least up until last week, were expressing skepticism about the comparative seriousness of the pandemic. In Israel it has been just the opposite, with Netanyahu’s left-wing critics fuming about the way they think the prime minister has exploited the crisis for his own political advantage and voicing doubts about whether the actions he’s taken to halt the spread of the virus are justified.

Indeed, some of the measures that Netanyahu has implemented are debatable. What is not in question is that his pronouncements and decisive actions rallied the nation to view the crisis with requisite seriousness even as he seized the political initiative against his political opponents.

The context for Israel’s attempt to deal with the pandemic is complicated. Israel’s political parties have been in an intractable parliamentary deadlock since the start of 2019. Netanyahu lost his majority in the Knesset when a political ally sought to topple him. What followed were three elections within the space of a year that failed to produce a majority for either Netanyahu and his Likud Party or Benny Gantz, the leader of the opposition Blue and White Party and a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.

What has made this process so difficult is that, though the Likud and Blue and White largely agree on security and diplomatic issues, the opposition is animated by a desire to terminate the political career of a prime minister who is under indictment on three corruption charges.

Under Israeli law, the failure of either Netanyahu or Gantz to cobble together a majority has left the incumbent prime minister in place as the leader of a caretaker government. And, though lacking a permanent-government mandate, leadership is just what Netanyahu has shown.

Weeks before his ally in the White House began to realize that his public statements on the virus were handing the Democrats a wedge issue, Netanyahu was in full commander-in-chief mode, with frequent public appearances sounding the alarm about the public-health threat and ordering Israelis returning from abroad into quarantine.

After eleven consecutive years in office, Netanyahu is seen by critics as a walking advertisement for term limits. But he is also showing the value of his experience in dealing with persistent military challenges from terrorist groups and regional foes. As the danger from the contagion became even more apparent, the prime minister not only spoke of it as an imminent peril but also put the full force of the state behind efforts to treat it as such. Rather than waiting to be compelled by events to order closings of public venues, Netanyahu acted quickly and in such a manner as to make it clear that Israelis needed to halt business as usual until the danger passes.

Because the crisis emerged before the newly elected Knesset had organized committees to oversee government actions, Netanyahu was free to act with impunity. But while the Israeli public seems to be largely supportive of Netanyahu’s decisions, his political opponents have fumed on the sidelines. In a twist on the American situation, it is the Israeli Left that has been sounding notes of skepticism: They have objected to Netanyahu’s virus “alarmism” and questioned whether his orders to close the courts and for the police to enforce quarantines are compatible with democracy. As Chemi Shalev, a columnist for the leading left-wing newspaper Ha’aretz, put it, Netanyahu had “capitalized on his country’s fear.”

Netanyahu’s coronavirus measures have become mixed up with the possible end of his tenure, via either parliamentary maneuvers or legal means. The closing of the courts — a measure that was taken in most other nations as the virus spread — for ten weeks was denounced by the opposition as a ploy to put off the start of his corruption trial, which would have begun later this month. In ten weeks’ time, presumably the danger to public health would have passed, so the closure further allows Netanyahu to focus on the imminent threat. When his critics protest the move, it is they, not he, who seem out of touch with the crisis.

Netanyahu’s ordering of a national lockdown as an emergency measure goes as far as, if not farther than, any other nation facing the current crisis. But for a small nation that is, for the most part, densely populated, it is defensible. On the other hand, his decision to allow the country’s security services to electronically monitor the movements of those who have been ordered into quarantine does raise real concerns about the abridgment of civil liberties.

Conspicuously, however, Gantz has not joined the choruses of laments about Netanyahu’s acting like a dictator. Before the crisis hit, Gantz appeared to be moving closer to agreeing to a unity coalition in which Netanyahu initially remained prime minister. Indeed, the former general largely agreed that the emergency measures were necessary, although he would have preferred that his rival’s trial — which will likely last many months and whose substantive proceedings would not have begun until the fall anyway — begin as scheduled.

Netanyahu’s tenure in office may ultimately be terminated if the courts uphold the charges against him. Few in Israel, except for dogged opponents on the Left, dispute his mastery of diplomatic and economic issues. While leaders elsewhere may flounder and seem unprepared or unable to rise to the challenge posed by a unique public-health crisis, Netanyahu has attempted to bolster the notion that Israel still needs him—while using the opportunity to cement his control.

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