As the Delta variant of COVID-19 began to spread rapidly in Israel back in July, the freshly minted opposition, still hurting from its ejection from power, mercilessly taunted the new government over its handling of the new variant and its supposed ineptitude.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu wondered mockingly how Naftali Bennett had “succeeded in destroying so much in such a short time” after Delta ran riot in the country shortly after he had just become the new prime minister.
And United Torah Judaism leader MK Moshe Gafni asserted, with no little conceit, that the spread of the new coronavirus variant was due to the fact that Bennett and his new government suffered from a lack of “divine favor” due to its religion and state policies.
Bennett’s government eventually got a handle on the Delta wave, but at its height it posed real political problems for the new prime minister as comparisons with what was seen as Netanyahu’s successful management of the pandemic damaged Bennett badly and harmed his legitimacy.
Now that the worrying new Omicron variant – which may potentially bypass some of the protection provided by COVID vaccines – appears to be spreading, Bennett again faces difficult options and a severe political headache.
Of course, back in July when Netanyahu and Gafni were excoriating him for his handling of the Delta wave, they were fully aware themselves that the Delta variant had entered Israel months earlier, back in April, when Netanyahu was still prime minister and Gafni was a key member of his government.
But they utilized this tactic, because the failure of a government to adequately manage the pandemic and its ever-changing, ever-mutating forms can be a potent and formidable political weapon that can be used as a club to bludgeon away at the ruling government.
INDEED, Bennett himself made frequent use of this weapon while sitting in the opposition during the Netanyahu–Gantz government, soaring in the polls for his ongoing criticism of that coalition, the publication of a book he authored on how to manage the pandemic and his formation of a “civilian” coronavirus cabinet.
After initially floundering, Bennett and his government eventually found their feet; approved a booster shot for vulnerable Israelis and then for most of the rest of the population; and were able to successfully navigate out of the fourth wave without imposing lockdowns and harming the economy, while also avoiding a major health crisis.
But now similar dilemmas face the prime minister and his government.
Should they batten down the hatches, close the airport, put the country into a lockdown and adopt other similar methods to try keeping Omicron out of Israel for as long as it takes to avoid a massive spike in infections – and to find a way to cope with this new variant?
Attempting such a strategy would likely buy time and help suppress the spread of Omicron, which would avoid overwhelming the country’s hospitals as well as ensuring that the health services could manage the outbreak, thereby avoiding mass fatalities.
At the same time, however, it would hammer the economy, devastate businesses and dramatically increase the budget deficit once again if the government had to pay for large numbers of furloughed workers.
Bennett might win approval and political points for keeping the country healthy, but would get denounced for wrecking people’s livelihoods and plunging large parts of the population into poverty.
If, on the other hand, the government takes the alternative route, keeping the country largely open despite the public health risks, the economy would suffer less but it would then run the risk of a dramatic increase in the mortality rate from the disease, which could be used no less as a political club to weaken his fragile coalition.
Back in October, Netanyahu accused Bennett of direct responsibility for the deaths of the 1,392 COVID victims who died since the latter took office.
The former prime minister is unlikely to spare Bennett his wrath if the Omicron variant results in images of dead and dying Israelis overloading hospital wards and mortuaries around the country.
Of course a moderate strategy between the two extremes of opening and closing may also be taken, but that too, opens up the government to political criticism that it is indecisive and weak, while at the same time exposing the country to the scourge of both a health crisis and economic damage.
If the new COVID variant turns out to be as concerning as scientists and health experts are warning, then Bennett and his government can expect to face not only a dangerous health crisis but a severe political storm – that could once again undermine his public standing and political stability.