MK Shasha-Biton proves that populism pays via coronavirus - analysis

Seemingly out of nowhere, Shasha-Biton is shaping up as the electoral asset of the next elections.

Knesset Coronavirus Committee Chairwoman Yifat Shasha-Biton (photo credit: ADINA WALLMAN/KNESSET SPOKESPERSON)
Knesset Coronavirus Committee Chairwoman Yifat Shasha-Biton
(photo credit: ADINA WALLMAN/KNESSET SPOKESPERSON)
So long, Gadi Eisenkot; hello, Yifat Shasha-Biton.
Seemingly from nowhere, Shasha-Biton – who when she was appointed head of the Knesset coronavirus committee in May was a little-known MK who came to the Likud through its merger with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party – is shaping up as the electoral asset of the next election.
This became clear in a Channel 12 poll on Tuesday showing that her inclusion on
Gideon Sa’ar’s newly-formed New Hope Party – she announced on Tuesday that she was leaving Likud and joining Sa’ar – would add five seats to the party, bringing it from 16 to 21 seats in the next Knesset.
According to the poll, the addition of Eisenkot, the much courted former chief-of-staff, would only add one seat.
And what this shows is that it is corona – rather than rockets from Gaza, Iranian entrenchment in Syria, or even Iranian nuclear weapons – that is resonating most strongly with the public, as Shasha-Biton has created a niche for herself as the people’s coronavirus champion.
Don’t believe it? Consider the following: a restaurant in Holon decided this summer to name a fish dish after the MK: “Shasha-Biton fish.” Why, the cook was asked? Because, he replied, “she went with her belief and values and stood alongside the restaurateurs when they wanted to send us home.”
And what exactly was Shasha-Biton’s belief? Standing up – as the head of the Knesset’s corona committee – to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the corona cabinet; pushing back against decisions in the summer to close much of the country because of the virus.
Shasha-Biton became the country’s anti-rubber stamp. The government wanted to close gyms, she said no; beaches, no; restaurants, not so fast. While the government’s basic instinct was to fight the virus by shutting things down, her reflex was to keep things open, because to close them – she argued in the committee and in television studios – caused untold financial and emotional strain.
Never mind that a strong argument can be made that opening everything too quickly after the first lockdown, before Passover, necessitated the need for a second lockdown on Rosh Hashanah, Shasha-Biton’s positions were popular with a public that also wanted stores and restaurants and beaches open – and this earned her praise for demonstrating a willingness to stand up to Netanyahu and the government.
In September she went head-to-head with health experts over data. She sparred in her committee with Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto about the true number of COVID-19 casualties, arguing that the numbers were inflated. And a few days later she challenged in a television studio former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barbash about his gloomy COVID projections. Never mind that Barbash’s predictions turned out to be absolutely correct, she stood out as that lone voice questioning the data that was leading to the government taking draconian steps.
If former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov, in the first few months of the coronavirus, was the prophet of gloom, Shasha-Biton was the spokeswoman for those arguing that the government was exaggerating its response. And with a million people out of work, lives upended, kids studying from home, that is a message that resonated with the public.
The steps she promoted may have led Israel into a second lockdown faster and her questioning of the data may have led some to underestimate the severity of the crisis, but it made her popular – more popular, as Tuesday’s poll shows, than even Eisenkot. There is no fish dish at the Holon restaurant named after Eisenkot.
When the books about how Israel dealt with coronavirus will be written, chapters will certainly be devoted to the degree to which many public health decisions were politicized because the virus hit at a time when there was a weak and divided government, and the country’s politicians were always keeping an eye on what would play well with key constituencies – especially as the specter of new elections perpetually lurked around the corner.
Shasha-Biton’s star rose exponentially because her sentiments about the need to keep things open played well with a public that was sick of restrictions and wanted to get back to their old lives. Were the decisions she made helpful in assisting Israel fight the virus? That is a different question altogether.
Shasha-Biton’s push-back against the government in July led at first to a move inside the Likud to remove her as chair of the Knesset’s coronavirus committee, but when Blue and White stood in the way, functions given to her committee were passed on instead to one believed to be more pliable: the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee headed by United Torah Judaism’s Yakov Asher.
In one particularly stormy Knesset coronavirus meeting, Likud coalition whip Miki Zohar told Shasha-Biton: “You are finished in the Likud Party. You’ll be ousted as committee chairwoman. Have a nice life.”
She is definitely now finished inside the Likud, but that is because of her own decision to leave. If the polls are to be believed, it also looks as if she is headed for a very nice life indeed inside Sa’ar’s party. And in that, there is both a lesson and a question.
The lesson: populism pays. The question: Is that good for the country?