'Netanyahu cannot be trusted as Israel's coronavirus spokesman'

Democracy Institute chief says PM is using prime-time TV to raise awareness of the situation but also might be preparing for a fourth election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a speech at his Jerusalem office, regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/GALI TIBBON/POOL)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a speech at his Jerusalem office, regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020
Israel is confronting the coronavirus crisis at a point of political - and to some extent constitutional - crisis. Almost daily new draconian restrictions are being placed on our lives in an effort we are told to keep us healthy.
But can we trust the messenger?
According to Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, Benjamin Netanyahu is the face of this transition government and, as such, he has made it his responsibility to get the country through this crisis. 
He said there is no reason to assume that the prime minister is acting recklessly or deviating from the professional advice that is being given to him. He appears to be working closely with the country’s professional civil service staff in both the Treasury and Health Ministry on behalf of the Israeli public. 
“We could have imagined a health professional being appointed to speak to the Israeli public [about the crisis], but Netanyahu took it upon himself,” said Plesner, “and to some extent, as the caretaker prime minister, this is legitimate.”
However, the Netanyahu who stands up almost nightly for briefings aired across the country on all channels at prime time is not just the caretaker prime minister. He is a politician with an upcoming criminal court case against him. And he is not the leader who received the mandate to form a government.
“He is a man fighting for his political life and for his actual liberty in court proceedings Netanyahu faces that could land him in jail,” said Plesner. “We constantly have to doubt whether the decisions and the way he decides to communicate with us are motivated by his role as caretaker prime minister or as a defendant in a criminal court case.
“There was probably a more central role to play by a professor or other professional in order to mitigate that sentiment that the crisis is being exploited in order to achieve political ends,” Plesner concluded. 
There is an inherent conflict of interest for someone who is a defendant in a court case to lead the country, and even more so when that country is faced with an unprecedented trial of its own, Plesner explained. 
This tempers public trust at a time when public trust in matters being taken by the government is one of the most important aspects. When the government takes such draconian measures - which health professionals believe could mean the difference between life and death - the public needs to trust enough to follow them. 
Netanyahu said it himself Tuesday night: “All of these steps will not help if there is no discipline and responsibility on your part. I can sadly say that there are many of you who still don’t understand the level of danger we are facing. This is not children’s play. This is a matter of life or death.”
Take Netanyahu’s use of language: “We are fighting a war against an invisible enemy,” he told the public. 
He uses these speeches to inform the public that "We have a more moderate increase in infection than in other countries” and that “we are doing everything to remain in control."
He claims other countries are praising Israel’s tactics and leadership and modelling their own efforts after the Jewish State. But a report by one the leading coronavirus statistics websites, which pulls data from the World Health Organization, World ‘O Meters, shows how the coronavirus is affecting 170 countries and territories around the world and demonstrates that Israel is not better off than all or even most other countries with infections. 
If one looks at the total number of cases per 1 million people, Israel is actually one of the worst. There are only 38 countries who have more cases per 1 million people per Israel, which means there are 131 countries that are doing better. 
Of course, the numbers are somewhat fictitious, because they are based on how many tests have been taken, as well. Syria reports no cases for example, but the country has likely not tested very many people for coronavirus.
So why does he couch his messages with this narrative?
“As a politician, Netanyahu is trying to maneuverer within the political crisis,” Plesner said. “He is using a prime-time opportunity every evening to raise awareness for the severity of the situation. But he might also be preparing himself for the fourth election, something we know behind the scenes some of his associates are pushing for.
“He is using this prime-time media presence as a measure to strengthen him toward such an election - a conflict of interest.”
To help build more trust, it is essential that the Knesset start to function, Plesner said, on the same day that the Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein halted proceedings of the Knesset plenum after only three minutes.
“We have been working hard all day through different communication channels — including me meeting personally with MK Edelstein, who is refusing to let us congregate in the halls of democracy and work for the citizens and — above all else — tackle the challenge of coronavirus,” Blue and White head Benny Gantz said. 
Blue and White MK Boaz Toporovsky pointed out that the courts have also been shut down by the virus.
"In Israel at this moment, there is only one functioning branch of government," he said. "This is a real danger to Israeli democracy."
Gantz said his party would fight the Knesset closure in the High Court. 
Plesner said that the government is taking some severe measures and in such a situation it is extremely important to have a functioning Knesset and Knesset committees to ensure proper oversight.
“Especially now,” said Plesner, “we need our government - any democracy needs a government.”
He said that Likud is trying to spin that it is because of the coronavirus that committees cannot be set up but that this argument is fictitious. These committees can be established and the members can change when a government is formed, he said. 
“I understand there is a need for rapid decisions, but the separation of powers was created to check the dramatic decision being taken by the executive branch,” he continued. “These decisions should be checked by a Knesset with a new perspective, a Knesset that was elected by and has the confidence of the people - not a Knesset that was voted in back in 2015.”