Israel’s Return to Lockdown Offers a Cautionary Tale

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Not so long ago, Israel was considered a coronavirus success story. In May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated himself on achieving victory and, with a wide smile, invited Israelis to “go out and have a good time.”

That invitation was readily accepted. People who had been locked down for many weeks celebrated with mass parties and grand wedding receptions. Bars, pubs and restaurants reopened to full houses. Few bothered with masks or social distancing. The good times Bibi called for were rolling.

In the wrong direction, as it turns out. Since then, Israel has become a cautionary tale and potential catastrophe. Cases are soaring. “We are one step away from another complete lockdown of the country,” Netanyahu bleakly warned assembled government ministers on Monday.

While other governments have hidden behind the “scientific advice” the prime minister has been the sole decider of policy since the beginning of the coronavirus era. That is still the case. Instead of taking responsibility for the debacle, Netanyahu has blamed the public: Israelis went overboard, he says, refusing to wear masks, wash their hands or practice social distancing.

The public begs to differ. Back in May, almost three quarters of Israelis approved of Bibi’s handling of coronavirus. Today, less than half do. Fully 62% say that he is doing a bad job of dealing with the economic disaster that is unfolding.

Unemployment has soared to 20% from 4% in less than five months. The government has failed to provide sufficient relief to the unemployed; in fact, hasn’t even tried. Less than half the $29 billion dollars for virus-related emergency financial aid has yet to be dispersed.

The Bank of Israel is predicting a 6% contraction in gross domestic product for 2020, a figure announced before the prime minister threatened a new national shutdown. Because of political wrangling with his coalition partners, Netanyahu has failed to deliver a national budget or a  coherent economic recovery plan.

Demonstrations are springing up and police are concerned that they will become violent. Some hospitals say they will soon reach capacity. Bibi, in the meantime, is demanding a personal income tax rebate of almost a million shekels ($290,000) for expenses he claims to have incurred over the past decade. He is also seeking permission from authorities to accept $3 million dollars from an American supporter who has volunteered to pay the prime minister’s legal bills in his trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Following a public outcry, Bibi conceded that his timing was poor. But he still wants the money.

Beyond the public’s medical and economic concerns lies a dispiriting question: Where is the start-up nation Bibi has been invoking (and taking credit for) during his years in office? Where are the vaunted secret agencies capable of cyber miracles and the brilliant intelligence operatives we all count on for solutions to impossible problems?

Early in the pandemic, the Mossad was sent out to bring home critical testing equipment -- and returned with the wrong kind of swabs. Just last week, the Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, was charged with using its advanced cyber tracking methods to find people exposed to the virus, and sent the country into a panic with thousands of false positives. Not long ago, Bibi visited a classified laboratory said to be on the verge of a great coronavirus discovery. So far, all it has provided was a prime ministerial photo-op.

Israel, like the rest of the world, will come out of this crisis eventually. But it will be a chastened and wiser nation. People are recalling the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when all Israel’s superior technology completely missed a surprise attack by two Arab armies. Almost 3,000 Israelis died in three weeks. So far, the coronavirus body count is lower. But the psychological blow is comparable, and so is the lesson that hubris kills.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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