New elections would kill gradual lockdown exit - analysis

But we’ve been there before. On May 4, some six weeks after the first lockdown, Netanyahu outlined a gradual easing of lockdown restrictions.

People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on October 7, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (photo credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on October 7, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19
(photo credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Nearly a month after entering its  second lockdown on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Israel now is at a critical juncture.
The absolute numbers of people testing positive for coronavirus on a daily basis is dropping, the percentage of positive tests among those being tested is declining, and the number of people in serious condition in the hospital is also going down.
That’s an indication that with all the griping and complaining, with all the high profile incidents of people not abiding by the regulations – whether they be protesters demonstrating against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or hassidim gathering with their rebbe – the majority of people are following most of the rules, human contact has been dramatically reduced, and the incidences of infection have declined.
That’s the good news.
But we’ve been there before. On May 4, some six weeks after the first lockdown, Netanyahu outlined a gradual easing of lockdown restrictions: People could wander more than 100 meters from their homes; groups of people could meet outdoors if their number did not exceed 20; and weddings of up to 50 people were allowed. The original plan was to open everything slowly.
But then populism set in.
People, hurting financially and tired of being cooped up for so long with their children, clamored for a return to normal life. They wanted schools to open, trains to run as usual, restaurants to serve food and gyms to welcome people for workouts.
The media were full of stories questioning why restrictions were still in place, why children were not back in school, why bars were still closed, why cinemas remained closed – in brief, why life had not returned to normal.
And then, on May 26, Netanyahu addressed the country with “happy” news: “We want to make your lives easier, to make it possible for you to get out, to return as much as possible to normal, to drink a cup of coffee, even a glass of beer – to have fun.”
So the people of Israel did just that. Within weeks, the infection rate skyrocketed, as did the number of deaths, and Israel became the world’s poster child for COVID-19 over-confidence by opening up too soon.
As a result, on September 18, we locked down again for what will be at least a month. And as the government is set on Tuesday to debate a gradual, nine-point plan to exit this lockdown, it is incumbent upon it to learn from the mistakes of last time: don’t give in to populist demands, and don’t try to make every sector happy. Rather, stick by the gradual nature of the exit plan that the professionals have developed.
The nine-point plan has Israel slowly opening up. First, pre-schools and allowing demonstrations. Then, first-to-fourth grades, synagogues, then malls and gyms, and culminating with the opening of clubs and bars in four months’ time. That means that, if all goes as planned, the country will not feel “normal” until sometime in February.
From the vantage point now in mid-October, the end of February seems a long way off. And, indeed, another four months of this mask-wearing, social-distancing, eerily odd reality is a long time. But had we adopted a similar plan back in May – and adhered to it – we would have been in a completely different place right now.
While it seems so obvious that we should learn from the mistakes of last time, the problem is that there are powerful countervailing forces preventing us from doing so: namely, politics.
Unfortunately, the plan for exiting the current lockdown is being discussed at a time when the government remains largely dysfunctional and there is a constant threat of another round of elections.
What Israel needs right now is a strong government that can stay the course; a strong government that can withstand pressure being applied from various sectors – be it the ultra-Orthodox, the small businesses, the protesters – to stick by the plan that the experts have drawn up, despite the heartbreaking stories that will be aired daily.
What is needed is a strong government able to empathize with the people and able to convince them that a little more patience and perseverance is needed in order to prevent a third lockdown a couple of months down the road.
Unfortunately, Israel currently does not have such a government. This government, though large, is not strong, as the two main coalition partners – Likud and Blue and White – act and talk as if they are in a miserable marriage neither of them wants.
One might conclude, therefore, that for Israel to have a strong government – which the country needs in order to deal more effectively with the pandemic – what is needed is yet another round of elections.
Frustration with the ineffectiveness of this administration has led some to conclude that any government would be better suited to deal with the current crisis than this one, and that a new election would have to result in the establishment of a stronger, more effective government.
But would it?
There is absolutely no guarantee that the results of yet another election, a fourth in less than two years, would be any more conclusive than the last three, or would make it any easier to band together a strong, coherent, workable coalition.
But an even stronger argument against holding new elections now would be that doing so would kill any chance of implementing the gradual, unhurried lockdown exit that the country desperately needs.
If the first lockdown failed at a time when the emergency coronavirus government was sworn in (May 17) because each new minister wanted to please a particular constituency, then how much more pressure will there be on ministers to please those same constituencies – and approve prematurely easing restrictions – if elections are around the corner.
The lockdown exit plan that the government is deliberating is to be done in clear stages. Serious talk of new elections, before the final stage is completed in February, will be a recipe for yet another premature opening of the country, and a repeat of the mistakes made in the spring when the public clamored for a return to normal, and the politicians were all too anxious – recklessly anxious – to please them.
The   nine-stage exit plan should include a tenth – no elections until well after the other stages have been completed and COVID-19 is well in retreat.