Political pitfalls and possible gains of the coronavirus crisis - analysis

But while it constitutes an undoubted public health crisis, it is possible that the epidemic will have political uses amidst Israel’s ongoing political deadlock.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Desolated airports, supermarket shelves stripped of hygiene products and unfilled sports stadiums are just some of the symptoms the world has witnessed as the coronavirus outbreak has unfolded in the last few weeks and months.
But while it constitutes an undoubted public health crisis, it is possible that the epidemic will have uses amid Israel’s ongoing political deadlock.
Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival, Blue and White leader MK Benny Gantz, are locked in a fierce struggle for political legitimacy.
Since the third inconclusive election over the last 12 months, Netanyahu has been projecting the message that he should head the next government since his party obtained more seats than any other, even though his right-wing bloc failed to secure a majority of 61 MKs to form a government, and he is about to go on trial on March 17 for corruption.
On the opposite side of the aisle, Gantz has asserted his right to form the next government since the forces arrayed against the Right constitute a majority, some 62 seats of the Knesset, even though Blue and White received three seats less than Netanyahu’s Likud, and 15 MKs of the anti-right-wing bloc are from the anti-Zionist or non-Zionist Arab parties.
While Netanyahu has set out to demonstrate his strong leadership and competence in the face of the virus, setting out his stall as an experienced crisis manager, Gantz also might be able to make political use of the health crisis.
The prime minister and his government have taken tough measures to combat the spread of the disease in Israel, imposing sweeping curbs on international travel into Israel by foreign citizens from numerous countries with severe coronavirus outbreaks and sealing the border with Egypt.
Netanyahu has visited MDA’s National Operations Center in Kiryat Ono, where a joint call center for MDA and the Health Ministry has been established, and has made bold public announcements about how he and the government are dealing with the problem.
He has also underlined the seriousness of the virus, using particularly severe language on Saturday night, describing the outbreak as a “pandemic” and stating that he was speaking with “world leaders” about coordinating efforts.
The prime minister was essentially conveying the message that he is an experienced hand on the tiller of the national ship, guiding it skillfully and expertly to safe harbors as only he can, a message that has very political connotations when the country remains without a permanent government.
If Netanyahu is eventually forced to abandon his religious and ultra-Orthodox allies, he will continue to use the experience card in his argument that he should continue to lead the country.
“The more he looks like he’s taking care of business, the more urgent the problem, the more acute and dangerous it is, the more we won’t want to change the leadership and keep the status quo,” said pollster and political analyst Mitchell Barak.
Netanyahu has performed competently when confronting viral epidemics, he said, noting that the prime minister prepared early for the Swine Flu outbreak of 2009-2010 when he ordered enough vaccines for the entire country and was even able to return unused ones.
“He looks like a leader,” Barak said. “He’s dealt with serious crises, and people have a harder time imagining him not in office. People just can’t imagine anyone else being in office.”
The seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak could also help Netanyahu make the argument that legislation advanced by Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu and the Joint List to ban any MK from forming a government while on trial, as they have threatened, would be illegitimate in the face of such a serious health crisis.
Netanyahu could call out these parties for playing petty politics at a time of national crisis, all while he is making herculean efforts to tackle the said crisis.
Such an argument could hold great sway among the general public if the prime minister can successfully paint Gantz and his allies as self-serving at such a grave time for the country.
But equally, the coronavirus outbreak could help Gantz make the argument for a minority government backed by the Arab parties.
After all, the disease does not discriminate between Zionists and anti-Zionists, Jews and Arabs, secular, religious or ultra-Orthodox.
And he could further back up his argument by contending that this is the only way to avoid a fourth election, something that would only further complicate the country’s efforts to cope with the disease.
He could argue that bringing in the Arab parties to support a minority government would be a great unifying step justified by the national crisis. The outbreak could even be used to try and cajole the ultra-Orthodox parties to join a Blue and White-led coalition, arguing again that all hands are needed on deck.
If Gantz took the plunge, formed a government backed by the Arab parties, became prime minister and ousted Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street, he could make a serious pitch for greater national backing for his unity government.
Of course, any severe spike in infections in Israel could raise criticism of the government, especially if it could be traced to a mistake in the government’s handling of the situation, and sharpen Blue and White’s claims against Netanyahu.
As the two crises, political and public health, have intensified over recent days, it is almost inevitable that they will intersect and converge.
How the respective arguments play out in the court of public opinion remains to be seen.