Naftali Bennett’s bad COVID-19 bet? - analysis

Bennett may be taking a political risk by putting a pandemic that the public is sick of living with at the forefront of his campaign.

Naftali Bennett (photo credit: OURI KAHN)
Naftali Bennett
(photo credit: OURI KAHN)
Naftali Bennett released yet another plan for fighting COVID-19 on Friday in a move that surprised no one and is unlikely to rescue his flailing electoral support that has him in fourth place in the polls.
Initially Bennett was the “wonderkid” of COVID-19, banking on winning the support of the wider public by showing that he is the only leader who can fight the pandemic in a professional manner.
He has been so focused on this strategy that he even let his political ally from the last two elections, MK Bezalel Smotrich, walk away and start his own party. Bennett also has set aside annexation and fighting the legal establishment in favor of battling the virus.
But Bennett, by releasing his latest initiative, “A coronavirus-free Israel,” may be taking a political risk by putting a pandemic that the public is sick of living with at the forefront of his campaign.
Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash has said in multiple interviews that he believes there has been an erosion of people’s observance of Health Ministry directives simply because Israelis are tired of following so many rules. There is a general exhaustion with lockdowns and masks and social distancing in the country.
Hence, Bennett’s detailed plan that includes mass testing, border control and even monitoring people’s sewage, a several-page document that is hard to swallow in a single shot, is likely one for which few Israelis will have the patience.
Rather, they are more likely to cling to the magic coronavirus bullet presented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also running on a platform that centers on the virus. But in Netanyahu’s case, he is opting for being the COVID-19 “Vaccine King,” embracing airplanes full of vaccines as they land at Ben-Gurion Airport rather than a plan for how to keep Israel’s airport safe.
The prime minister traded the country’s infection data with Pfizer for millions of vials of coronavirus vaccine doses, which the health funds are rapidly shooting into everyone who will “give a shoulder.” The result should be some four to five-and-a-half million Israelis vaccinated against coronavirus by the March 23 elections.
Netanyahu’s hope is that Israelis will thank him for the booster shot by voting Likud.
Whereas only two months ago, Israelis had lost trust in a prime minister that had zigged and zagged on his coronavirus policies, leaving them dazed and confused. Today, Israelis laud the man who struck the deal with Pfizer.
While Bennett cannot discredit the value of vaccination, he, like health officials, has warned that even with mass vaccination the virus will not disappear. Rather, Israel will require a gradual exit strategy.
Children under 16 will not be vaccinated for another several months and, in the meantime, of those who do contract the virus, a small percentage will develop serious cases or end up hospitalized weeks later with Pediatric Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (PIMS).
As much as 20% of seniors – hundreds of thousands of Israelis – will not get vaccinated for a variety of reasons and continue to be at risk of developing a serious case of COVID-19.
There will be new variants that need identifying and managing, and there will be challenges around international travel.
But these are long-term problems and Israelis have a tendency toward short-term gains, as well as short-term memories.
Moreover, few of Bennett’s suggestions have been implemented thus far and, of those that have, they have shown only marginal success.
For example, it was Bennett who launched the state-run coronavirus hotels during his term as defense minister. During the first wave, they served the purpose of housing haredim (ultra-Orthodox) with COVID-19 who lived in crowded quarters and needed to be isolated.
Since then, they have largely been used to take in travelers returning from abroad. Those who were forced to stay in them complained of the level of service, the quality of the food and their standards of cleanliness.
It was Bennett who first pushed to get 100,000 Israelis tested for coronavirus each day. The country worked its way up to such a level and beyond. However, it did not prove to bring down the number of infections. Rather, as Israel tested more people and identified more cases, epidemiological trackers could not keep up.
The test-trace-isolate system in which the country invested millions has failed to cut off infection chains and reduce sickness.
To be fair, Bennett is also betting his win on solving the economic pandemic. Even if the vaccines do work and Israel opens up by Election Day, the economy will not so quickly recover. Bennett recruited the self-employed protesters to his party, giving their leader, Abir Kara, the 7th place on Yamina’s list.
But his coronavirus plans do not include a detailed economic plan, rather just the concept of a “green area” receiving priority treatment and allowing culture, sports and other activities to resume in places with little to no infection.
Bennett’s numbers dropped in the polls after Netanyahu rival Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope, formerly Likud) joined the race and he has yet to recover.
His new plan is unlikely to reverse that trend.
The 20 or so Center-Left voters that Bennett sought to convince to choose Yamina despite its far-Right policies seem to have moved to Sa’ar or back to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, at least according to the polls.
That is likely because it is understood that whatever government is voted in on March 23, it will have to deal with coronavirus.
These voters are more interested in uprooting Netanyahu than anything else. And they do not believe that Bennett and his coronavirus plans can get that job done.