Naftali Bennett and the coronavirus – analysis

All the criticism is fine and good and valid. What makes it a bit odd is that it is coming from Defense Minister Naftali Bennett.

NAFTALI BENNETT at the Defense Ministry this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
NAFTALI BENNETT at the Defense Ministry this week.
The title of the 31-page document released on Sunday is ambitious and sounds impressive: “A national coronavirus program for Israel.”
The subtitle even more so: “Overcoming coronavirus. Saving the livelihood of Israeli citizens.”
And, indeed, it is an interesting read that includes more than a few criticisms of the government, and recommendations for how to do things differently.
Among the criticisms: “Israel must move from ‘a closed down Israel’ to a focused and consistent action to identify and isolate the carriers, individual treatment in the centers of the epidemic, keeping a close eye on the vulnerable elderly population and increasing the capacity to absorb thousands of seriously ill patients.”
While the government did take some proper steps in real time, according to the document, there are a number of actions that need to be taken immediately – which the government did not take – that will prevent a “fatal blow” to the financial situation of millions of Israelis in the private sector.
Among the document’s harshest criticism: the government's failure to authorize and conduct massive tests to locate and then isolate coronavirus carriers.
All of that criticism is fine and good and valid. What makes it a bit odd is that it is coming from Defense Minister Naftali Bennett.
Bennett, at least up until a new government is sworn in, is – by virtue of his position – the second most important figure in the government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is not just some secondary observer from the outside. He has authority. If he has criticism of the way the government is handling the crisis, the place for him to air that criticism is around the cabinet table.
Bennett does not need to issue a document to the public spelling out what he thinks are faulty decisions taken by the government, he can fight against those decisions in the government meetings he attends. He is part of the government. He has collective responsibility for its decisions. If he doesn't like those decisions, he should fight and try to change them. And if he can't win those arguments and thinks that the issues are of paramount importance for the good of the country, he could resign rather than have a hand in the government implementing them.
That is how things work in an orderly government.
But this, of course, is not an orderly government, and its transitional nature means that those around the table realize they will not be in their positions for much longer. As a result, they are positioning themselves for the day after – the day after a new government is sworn in, and the day after the coronavirus.
Bennett's release of his document on Sunday looks very much as if he is positioning himself for the day after the coronavirus crisis passes, and a commission of inquiry is established – or a special comptroller study is commissioned – to look at the government's handling of the pandemic.
With Sunday’s document – along with the protocols that will emerge from the cabinet discussions – Bennett can say, “Look, I told you so. I called for more testing, I called for not closing down the whole economy.”
And this has been a pattern of Bennett's behavior over the years. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014 he emerged as a leading critic of the government – even as he sat in the security cabinet discussions.
His criticism then of the military establishment for not honing in on the terror tunnels and acting more aggressively is not dissimilar now to his criticism of the health establishment: that they are locked into a calcified “conception” of things and are unable to think swiftly and creatively as things change.
Bennett’s criticism of the government during Operation Protective Edge spared him censure from the comptroller report that was issued three years later. Might the paper he released Sunday about the virus spare him criticism after the reports about the government's handling of this crisis are written down the line?
One of the key problems with Bennett now issuing a document taking the government to task for some of the virus-related decisions is that it confuses the public at a time when the public is worried and concerned and wants to see clear leadership at the top. The government needs one unified message coming from one central authority – it does not need each minister releasing their own wildcat critiques of the government’s policies. That doesn't clarify the picture for the public, it muddies it even more.
Bennett's frequent press conferences during this crisis, as well as the lead he took earlier this month in warning the country that children and grandchildren should not visit parents and grandparents, raised some eyebrows.
Though the advice was solid, why was it coming from the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv? Shouldn't the Kirya be focused more on potential rockets from Gaza and missiles from Syria, rather than on visits by toddlers to grandma's house? Shouldn't that messaging be dealt with by another minister: say the minister of labor, social affairs and social services Ofir Akunis, or the social equality minister (Gila Gamliel)?
But with the country's focus having swiftly and completely moved from threats from Gaza and Syria/Iran to a microscopic virus, Bennett needed to retain relevance. He heads the country's largest and most efficient apparatus, and by mobilizing it as well in the fight against the virus – and not leaving it all to the Health Ministry that does not have the Defense Ministry’s experience in dealing with a crisis of this magnitude – he could prove his necessity and relevance.
In the end, however, it appears to all be for naught. A new government is on the verge of creation, and Bennett might not only be shuffled out of the Defense Ministry, but – depending on fast moving political developments – may be forced out of the government altogether. And if that is the case, his last document will be a rather odd one that criticizes the government he served in as a senior minister for the way it is handling a crisis that is upending everyone's lives.