Can Naftali Bennett lead Israel out of the coronavirus crisis?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: With his ‘Civilian Coronavirus Cabinet,’ Naftali Bennett’s star has risen, but why isn’t the government listening to him?

NAFTALI BENNETT stands outside Lod City Hall in July 2020. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
NAFTALI BENNETT stands outside Lod City Hall in July 2020.
‘Well done, good job,” yells out one well-wisher, as Naftali Bennett embarks on a stroll around Lod this week.
Cries of “you should be in the government” and “Bibi has made a big mistake not bringing you in” are yelled out by not a few passers-by, while others stride up to take selfies with the former defense minister.
Bounding into a local Tunisian sandwich shop, Bennett listens to the financial troubles of the proprietor, caused by what he says has been a 50% decline in trade compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic struck Israel back in February.
And a taxi driver sitting at the front of the shop eating his sandwich tells Bennett about a 90% falloff in passengers since the public health crisis exploded, noting that travel to and from Ben-Gurion Airport, which used to be his bread and butter, has all but dried up completely.
He, too, bemoans the fact that the Yamina leader is not in the coalition, with Bennett asserting that it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who did not want him in the government, and not the reverse.
BENNETT’S VISIT to Lod this week is just one in a series of forays into the Israeli heartland of late, which has also included Sderot, Ashkelon, Beersheva, Kfar Saba, and Tiberias, and which are designed to gauge how regions are coping with the coronavirus crisis, offer advice and a helping hand where possible, and connect with the people who are suffering economically and socially from the viral scourge.
While still in office as defense minister, Bennett took an active role in seeking to address the crisis, opening COVID-19 quarantine hotels to stop the spread of the disease, urging mass testing to enable the economy to reopen, and other measures besides.
But when coalition negotiations with the Likud failed, Bennett found himself on the outside of a government for the first time since he entered politics (excluding his ejection from the Knesset after the April 2019 election).
Despite the obvious disappointment and rancor caused by the exclusion of Bennett’s Yamina Party from the government back in May, opposition politics is clearly having a refreshing effect on the politician, whose career over the last 18 months has ranged from being  politically dead to occupying one of the highest public offices in the land.
And during the COVID-19 crisis, Bennett has been energetically decrying the government’s apparent directionless fumbling, urging the adoption of a comprehensive and consolidated plan to contain the disease and then manage it, while the world seeks long-term medical solutions.
To this end, he established the “Civilian Coronavirus Cabinet,” comprising himself and several highly respected former officials – such as Giora Eiland, a former IDF Operations Directorate head; Prof. Ronit Calderon, a prominent public health and epidemiological expert; and Dr. Michael Sarel, a former chief economist at the Finance Ministry – to identify the most serious problems facing the country due to the pandemic and advocating solutions.
Bennett and his “cabinet” have of late called to train thousands of airport and El Al employees as epidemiological trackers to trace who may have come into contact with confirmed COVID-19 carriers; urged the appointment of a coronavirus “czar”; and called for transferring authority for fighting the disease to the Defense Ministry.
And his activity has been well noted by a public that has grown heavily disenchanted with the management of the health crisis by Netanyahu and his government.
The massive spike in COVID-19 cases over the last three weeks has frightened many people, diminished economic activity, led to business closures, increased unemployment, and heightened the financial misery and peril of many.
The mass protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on Tuesday night, which spiraled into violence and riots, struck home just how furious many parts of the public have become with the government’s blundering, with protesters coming from across the political spectrum.
Netanyahu’s public approval ratings have plummeted as a result. A Channel 13 poll this week showed that 61% of respondents said they were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic, with his Likud Party bleeding support.
At the same time, several polls have shown Bennett gaining traction and popularity as someone whom the public would trust to handle the worsening crisis.
The same poll put Yamina up to 13 seats from its current six, while 45% of respondents said Bennett should be appointed to coordinate the government’s efforts tackling COVID-19.
Naftali Bennett (Marc Israel Sellem / Jerusalem Post)Naftali Bennett (Marc Israel Sellem / Jerusalem Post)
SPEAKING TO The Jerusalem Post in his Knesset office this week following his tour of Lod, Bennett said he is optimistic that the virus could be brought under control again, but said that the government’s measures were insufficient, uncoordinated, and too haphazard to be effective.
Critically, he pointed to two key failures that he said have led to the massive second wave of infections and the current crisis.
The failure to appoint an official with overall responsibility for the battle against the disease and with the authority to make the requisite decisions severely hampered the ability to formulate and execute a clear plan of action to contain the disease, after it was successfully brought under control by the middle of May.
Second was the failure to implement a system for tracking, tracing, and isolating new infections after the first wave was brought under control, said Bennett.
“The bottom line is that if we’re determined, and if we manage it seriously and thoroughly, we can rout the coronavirus in four weeks and rehabilitate the economy,” averred Bennett. “But the government is stuttering, not progressing; it is not focused, and it still has not established the required system for testing, tracing and isolation. Without that, we won’t get out of this crisis.”
Crucially, he said, those confirmed to be carrying the disease are not being evacuated in sufficient numbers to quarantine hotels, leading to mass infections among family members and within apartment buildings. Indeed, two-thirds of all COVID-19 infections currently occur in private homes.
In Lod, he pointed out, there were on Tuesday 343 confirmed COVID-19 cases, of whom only 29 had been confined to a quarantine hotel.
Bennett said that he is opposed to the strict closure measures now being adopted by the government, due to the economic damage they will cause, and insisted that the focus must be on quarantining as many COVID-19 carriers as possible, to stop the chain of infection and allow the economy to keep ticking over.
“The biggest emphasis must not be what to open and what to close, but how to open correctly, how to run a country in the corona era. We don’t know how long this will go on, but we can’t hunker down. The economic damage of massive closures is way more than the damage of the virus itself.”
Public trust in the government has been badly eroded, he said, due to the failure to adopt a plan and explain that plan to the country, so that its citizens will know what their sacrifices are for, how they will eventually help, and to provide them with a horizon for escaping the ravages of the pandemic.
“If I were prime minister, I would go on television, explain what the plan is, explain the goals and how we [will] achieve them, and how each stage of the plan will bring us closer to getting coronavirus under control,” said Bennett.
“You need to get the public’s buy-in and regain their trust, because this government has lost the people’s confidence, and they think Bibi and Gantz are clueless.”
In a terse but stinging aside, he added that “later we can investigate how this happened,” a hint at a public commission of inquiry into the drastic failures of the economic reopening after the first wave, although he quickly said, despite evidence to the contrary, that “I’m not going to talk about commissions and investigations during a war we haven’t won yet.”
Naftali Bennett examines data on local coronavirus infections in Lod. (Marc Israel Sellem / Jerusalem Post)Naftali Bennett examines data on local coronavirus infections in Lod. (Marc Israel Sellem / Jerusalem Post)
WITH ALL HIS ENERGY, his clear enthusiasm to tackle the crisis, and his efforts doing so while a government minister, it is perhaps surprising that Bennett and his party were excluded from the government, especially in light of the fact that the Yamina leader said clearly during coalition negotiations that he wanted to be appointed health minister to tackle the mission.
In the end, Netanyahu appointed Likud MK Yuli Edelstein as compensation for being ejected from the Knesset speaker’s chair, while Blue and White, which said it was joining the government to tackle the public health crisis, appeared singularly uninterested in that job.
Asked if he believes Netanyahu’s motivations to have been entirely professional, Bennett was at first coy, saying the answer lies with the prime minister, but when pressed was unforgiving in his assessment as to why he was passed over for health minister.
“It might be Netanyahu is afraid I’ll succeed. He saw how effective we were in the Defense Ministry, and perhaps he thought that was not a good thing, and perhaps preferred someone more feeble, and that was a mistake,” said Bennett.
Although Netanyahu’s legal situation vis-à-vis the criminal charges against him were becoming ever more problematic during the course of the recent 18-month election cycle, Bennett and his right-wing allies remained steadfastly supportive of the prime minister.
Netanyahu unceremoniously fired Bennett and Ayelet Shaked from their respective ministerial posts after the April election before a new government was sworn in; installed an acolyte and loyalist as justice minister; embarked on a fierce campaign against justice and law enforcement officials; said he was considering passing legislation to retroactively grant himself immunity from prosecution; and cozied up to the far-right, ultra-nationalists of Otzma Yehudit.
Bennett declined to say whether he regrets having backed Netanyahu in all three elections.
And asked whether it may have been possible to determine that Netanyahu’s decision-making process was possibly not entirely professionally in recent months, Bennett said that he and his party had simply taken the decision to remain loyal to the right-wing alliance between the Likud and the religious-Zionist parties.
That alliance is now over, he said.
“Netanyahu decided to throw us out and dismantle that alliance, which is gone. We are no longer in his pocket, we will no longer automatically recommend him to be prime minister; those days are over. We don’t belong to Netanyahu; we serve the public,” said Bennett determinedly.
SO WHERE does that leave the Yamina leader politically?
In December 2018, frustrated by the internal squabbles of the Bayit Yehudi Party, the influence of its rabbis, and indeed the influence of Netanyahu over its rabbis, Bennett abandoned his political home and set up the New Right Party, designed to be a liberal, right-wing outfit that would break the boundaries of sectoral politics and ultimately challenge the Likud for power.
It did not work out that way, and after crashing out of the Knesset in the April election, Bennett scraped back into politics in September as the fourth-placed candidate of Yamina, a union of the New Right Party with the religious-Zionist parties he had desperately sought to escape, and having lost his position as political leader of any faction.
Bennett certainly still believes in the model of a liberal, right-wing party to challenge the Likud, saying “I’m not a servant of one sector, I’m a servant of all the people,” and that “I don’t believe in sectoral politics.”
He nevertheless remains in a sectoral party, and the route out of it is unclear. Although formerly a Likud member and Netanyahu chief of staff, it appears now to be almost impossible for Bennett to return to that party. There is too much bad blood, and too many aspiring leaders jockeying to inherit the leadership from Netanyahu, for that to be an option.
True, the coronavirus crisis has shown the best of Bennett, his ability to think and act swiftly, and his desire to enter the fray and take on the challenges facing the country.
Consequently, the public has again warmed to him, and sees him as a capable manager – something that could ultimately boost the electoral prospects of Yamina, despite its hard-right, conservative image, in new elections, give it a solid two-figure haul and allow it to return to government.
In the meantime, however, Bennett will continue doing what he has been doing on a daily basis: Going to places like Lod, meeting with business owners and young families and trying to help them get through this pandemic. The government might do well to start listening.
As he told the taxi driver that he met in Lod this week: “We can do this. We can get the country back up and running. We can get the airport open again. We just have to be smart.”