By: Hadas Gold
Jerusalem (CNN)A mask may have been covering his face, but Benjamin Netanyahu’s pleasure was undeniable as Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz complimented the Israeli Prime Minister’s handling of the pandemic and world-leading coronavirus vaccination campaign at an event in Jerusalem earlier this month.
Kurz, who was visiting Israel with his Danish counterpart to discuss a trilateral vaccine pact, credited Netanyahu for shocking him into action at the very beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. After talks and a tour of a gym open to those who have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19, Austria, Denmark and Israel announced an alliance to ensure long-term vaccine supplies.
“I will never forget the beginning of the year 2020, when we had a phone call and Bibi Netanyahu told me this virus will be a huge threat to the whole world, to Europe even if we don’t know it at the moment,” Kurz said. “You were maybe the reason we acted quite early in Austria when the first wave hit us hard in the European Union.”
Netanyahu recognized early on in the pandemic that vaccines could save not only Israel, but his political future.
For years, Netanyahu promoted himself as the man who turned Israel into a global tech powerhouse. Now, as he faces a fourth election in two years and an ongoing corruption trial, the Prime Minister is touting his track-record of turning Israel from “Start-up Nation” into “Vaccination Nation.”
Netanyahu has made Israel’s handling of the pandemic, and especially its robust vaccine drive, personal: appearing almost nightly in televised addresses to the country in the early weeks of the pandemic, obsessively negotiating vaccine deals with pharmaceutical companies, receiving the first doses at Tel Aviv’s airport and getting vaccinated on primetime TV.
Earlier this month, Netanyahu hailed the country’s “green” Covid-19 vaccination passports over coffee at a newly reopened Jerusalem café, saying Israel was “coming to life.” And bringing Israeli society “back to life” — his latest campaign slogan — may be Netanyahu’s best chance at keeping his lengthy political career alive. Winning his sixth term as prime minister with a parliamentary majority could protect him from an ongoing corruption trial and keep him out of jail.
As Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday, life is starting to feel normal again, with schools in session and restaurants back open.
The question now is whether voters will credit Netanyahu with that return to normality enough to shake out the political gridlock that’s gripped the country for the past two years.
“In politics you judge the leader on the outcome, how did the leader handle the crisis and the outcome,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a former media adviser for Netanyahu. In the case of the vaccine program, he added, “the Israelis are quite happy.”
A strong start knocked down by surges
The coronavirus pandemic has played out alongside a political crisis in Israel. The first spike in infections hit last March, just a few weeks after the country’s third election in a year and as Netanyahu was cobbling together a coalition with his rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz.
As the Austrian chancellor noted, Netanyahu took swift action to combat the outbreak, publicly warning about the dangers of the virus and effectively shutting Israel down before it the country even recorded its first death.
Mobile booths deployed to the streets allowed for easily accessible Covid-19 tests. Some people with mild cases of the virus were sent to state-run isolation facilities, often converted hotels, to recover. Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays where families gather in large groups for a big seder dinner, was essentially canceled after Israelis were banned from gathering in groups or traveling.
In May, after almost a year and a half of political deadlock, Netanyahu finally had his coalition government in place, with an unprecedented number of cabinet ministers and deputies. And with infections rates plummeting, the government began to allow public life to return. Israel seemed to have ended the first round on top. While countries like Italy had recorded tens of thousands of deaths by May, Israel’s death toll at the time was under 300.
But as people surged back to restaurants and events like weddings, so too did the virus.
In July, with cases rising again, critics panned what was seen as a haphazard and inconsistent approach to restrictions and Netanyahu’s approval ratings plunged. Frustration over Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic spilled over into protests outside the Prime Minister’s Jerusalem residence, leading police to use water cannons.
In September, Israel had the world’s worst rate of new infections per capita, and the country was embroiled in a political row over who was to blame.
Professor Eran Segal from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, praised the government’s initial response, but told CNN that the mistakes started after the first lockdown. A reluctance at different points to enforce targeted restrictions at a local level, especially in Ultra-Orthodox and Arab neighborhoods may have helped the virus spread further, Segal said.
“Probably for a variety of reasons, I imagine a lot of political reasons, we weren’t successful at containing the spreads where they occurred,” Segal said.
While his Likud party holds the most seats in the Israeli Parliament, or Knesset — Netanyahu has not been able to form a governing coalition without the support of several smaller religious parties. And in some ultra-Orthodox communities, coronavirus restrictions on gatherings have been met with skepticism, refusal, and, in some cases, violent clashes.
Segal also criticized the government’s litmus test over the summer for lockdowns — 800 simultaneously critically ill patients would trigger a shutdown. Had Israel enacted lockdowns earlier, there would have been less fatalities and a shorter overall lockdown period, he said.
But Netanyahu has never taken responsibility for any pitfalls in his pandemic response. When asked in September who should shoulder the blame for Israel’s failure to contain the virus, he responded, “There are no failures, only achievements.”
The comment marked a strikingly different tone from that of President Reuven Rivlin just a few days later, when Israel’s head of state offered a forthright apology to the nation.
“I know that we have not done enough as a leadership to be worthy of your attention. You trusted us and we let you down,” said Rivlin. “You, the citizens of Israel, deserve a safety net that the country gives you. Decision-makers, government ministries, policy implementers must work for you and only for you — to save lives, to reduce infection, to rescue the economy. I understand the feeling that none of these were done satisfactorily.”
As the end of 2020 approached, with Israel facing a third wave of infections, the Israeli Knesset gave up on attempts to pass a budget, leading to the dissolution of the Parliament and triggering this year’s elections. Netanyahu’s critics, who included his coalition partner Gantz, suspected the Prime Minister had never intended the current government to last long, and by now the Israeli leader could see his political salvation coming just around the corner.
Bringing Israel ‘back to life’
Early on, Netanyahu pushed for Israel to be among the first countries to get Covid-19 vaccines, boasting that he was in regular contact with the major pharmaceutical companies and their CEOs.
Though he signed an early deal with Moderna, it was the special deal with Pfizer — and its Jewish CEO Albert Bourla — that clinched Israel’s place as a global leader. Israel paid a high price and got the vaccines quickly, and, in exchange, is giving Pfizer access to data from Israel’s centralized health care system to study the vaccine’s effectiveness. Israel hasn’t detailed the exact price per person it paid for the Pfizer vaccine, but a parliamentary committee revealed this week that the country has already shelled out 2.6 billion shekels ($787 million) for “various vaccine transactions” and expects to spend a similar amount for more in the future.
Despite Netanyahu’s personal involvement, his election opponents like Labor leader Merav Michaeli, say that Israel’s vaccine success isn’t thanks only to Netanyahu’s buying abilities, but also down to Israel’s public healthcare system, which Michaeli says was built by previous left-wing governments.
But Netanyahu is doing everything he can to own the vaccine program and its success, making it a central part of his new positive and uplifting “back to life” campaign — a marked departure from past elections, Bushinsky said.
“In past years Netanyahu campaign was always leaning or using the fear campaign, that if Netanyahu isn’t around, the Iranians will develop the bomb, or Hamas will get stronger, or Hezbollah will attack,” Bushinsky said. “This is I think the first election Netanyahu participating in that he’s not using the fear campaign but the hope campaign.”
Time and luck have also been on Netanyahu’s side. With the vaccination program starting in late December, Netanyahu had at least three months between the first injection and election day — enough time for the majority of the population to be inoculated and start getting a taste of normalcy under the country’s “green pass” program. https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/israel-vaccine-green-pass-wellness/index.html
“Some say Netanyahu, god touched him, that he’s affluent with luck,” Bushinsky said. “Imagine if the elections were a couple months ago when most people were not vaccinated.”
Tzachi Hanegbi, a cabinet minister who has served alongside Netanyahu for decades, said he thinks Israelis will reward Netanyahu for how he handled the virus.
“I do believe that after the corona year people really were exposed to the capabilities of the prime minister bringing Israel out of the Covid-19 with new expectations, vaccination that everybody is entitled to and millions of Israelis are already free from corona. I believe that this will reflect on the result,” Hanegbi said.
Netanyahu, Hanegbi said, has an “inner feeling that you are there because God sent you to save the people of Israel and to lead them in trouble times.”
“I think this gives him the power and the support of the people. It’s called charisma.”