Needed: Government decisions, not recommendations - analysis

Israelis are not going to follow the prime minister’s advice simply because he recommended or asked them nicely to do so.

  Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen removing his face mask at a special press conference on COVID-19 in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2021. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen removing his face mask at a special press conference on COVID-19 in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2021.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

During the 1991 Gulf War, Nachman Shai, then the IDF’s spokesman, calmed a nation jittery over the firing of Scud missiles onto its population centers and earned the moniker Ha’margi’a Ha’leumi, or the person who calms the nation, the National Calmer.

In this tradition, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday night addressed a nation jittery over talk of a return to closures and restrictions on gatherings as a result of the quickly spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus, and he earned the title Ha’mamlitz Ha’leumi, or the person who recommends to the nation, the National Recommender.

At least that is how he was referred to in Yediot Aharonot by Guy Leiba, a sports reporter who wrote the paper’s television column on Monday.

But while in Shai’s case this moniker was meant positively, Leiba’s turn of the phrase – as he made abundantly clear in his opening paragraph – was meant pejoratively.

“The data presented by Bennett at his press conference were scary,” Leiba wrote of that press conference. “The forecasts were harsh, the tone serious, concerned, fatherly. And how did this pompous introduction end? With weak recommendations like work from home and wear a mask.”

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen accompanying his nine-year-old son get vaccinated against COVID-19 as Israel rolls out vaccinations for children aged 5-11, on November 23, 2021. (credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen accompanying his nine-year-old son get vaccinated against COVID-19 as Israel rolls out vaccinations for children aged 5-11, on November 23, 2021. (credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)

Leiba wrote that a good summary of the government’s strategy in dealing with the coronavirus is as follows: “We are unable to agree on anything, so the citizens should worry about themselves. Those who can, should please work from home, and don’t forget to wear a mask. Your prime minister is succeeding right now in only making recommendations. The National Recommender.”

Leiba was spot-on. There was a glaring dissonance between the drama of the moment – calling a press conference at the last minute for the prime 8:00 p.m. time slot when many are tuned into the national news programs that will cover the event live – and the content of what he had to say.

At that hour, from that stage, the prime minister shouldn’t ask those who can work from home to do so, or advise parents to inoculate their children; rather, he should convey to the nation some dramatic decisions taken by the coronavirus cabinet. Had former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as Leiba rightly noted, convened a prime-time press conference to merely recommend that folks who can work at home should do so, he would have been skewered.

There is nothing wrong with advising the country’s citizens on how to act, and there is nothing untoward about making recommendations, but that’s not Bennett’s role.

Bennett’s role in this crisis is to lead the nation through it, not parcel out advice. If he, as head of the government, believes that the time has come to keep people from going to the workplace to stem the infection rate, then come to the public with a government decision mandating just that. And then make sure those decisions are implemented.

Israelis are not going to follow the prime minister’s advice simply because he recommended or asked them nicely to do so. That’s not how this nation operates.

Even Bennett’s own family does not operate this way, nor follow his advice gently given, as evidenced by the trip abroad his wife and children took earlier this month just days after he told the nation, “If you ask me, I don’t recommend flying abroad right now with such a level of uncertainty.”

The sad truth revealed by Bennett’s press conference is that he can only recommend, because the eight-party, narrow coalition government he leads is finding it difficult to make corona-related decisions. And often, once it makes decisions, the infighting inside the government leads to a quick reversal.

Bennett boasted that Israel was the first country to recognize the severity of the Omicron variant and was the first to close its borders. On November 26, Bennett held another press conference, referred to the new coronavirus strain as B.1.1.529 and slammed shut the country’s doors to foreigners.

Since then, the government allowed the phone-tracking of those confirmed Omicron cases, and then reversed that decision; decided to mandate that only those with a Green Pass can enter nonessential stores in malls, and then reversed that decision; and discovered that Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton was embroiled in a disagreement with her director-general over the inoculation of children at schools – she was against, her director-general was in favor (she later sacked him, leading also to the resignation of the chief officer inside the ministry responsible for its COVID policy).

That kind of zigzagging does not instill confidence. That kind of zigzagging bespeaks a cabinet that cannot make decisions, leaving nothing for Bennett to do but make recommendations.

But if the Omicron variant is as dangerous as Bennett maintains, if Israel is facing a tsunami of a fifth wave, as he said at Sunday’s press conference, then the country needs more than just recommendations from its leader. It needs him to get key decisions through the cabinet, and then get the government to both stick by those decisions and ensure they are carried out.