The coronavirus pandemic’s Mideast aftershocks - analysis

Don’t be fooled, when the coronavirus exits our lives, issues like like Iran, the Palestinians and the Trump peace plan will return.

A medical staff wears protective gear at a new section specialised in receiving any person who may have been infected with coronavirus at The Quinquinie Hospital in Douala, Cameroon February 17, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/JOSIANE KOUAGHEU)
A medical staff wears protective gear at a new section specialised in receiving any person who may have been infected with coronavirus at The Quinquinie Hospital in Douala, Cameroon February 17, 2020
With the coronavirus slowly taking over our lives – altering how we live and dominating what we talk and think about – issues that a few weeks ago were high on the public agenda, have suddenly slipped way down.
Issues like Iran, the Palestinians and the Trump peace plan have either been knocked off the nightly news, or relegated to the very end of the program. Instead, the news is all coronavirus, all the time.
But don’t be fooled, when the virus exits our lives, those other issues will return, and will return themselves somewhat altered by the virus.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made numerous speeches and public comments in the two weeks since the March 2 election, and – for the first time in a very long while – Iran has not figured prominently in any of them. For the longest stretch in recent memory, the public has heard nothing from Netanyahu about Iran's nuclear aspirations, or its nefarious designs in the region. Nor, for that matter, has there been any reports for two weeks of an IDF attack in Syria against Iranian assets.
Why not? Because Iran and Israel are both preoccupied with other matters.
With more than 850 confirmed dead from the virus, and the real number believed to be much higher, Iran currently has more pressing matters on its plate than trying to increase its footprint in Syria.
The Iranian leadership has weathered much in the past – violent protests, crippling economic and diplomatic sanctions – but nothing quite like this. First, the virus has affected the country’s leadership class, with dozens of parliamentarians and top officials infected, and a handful, including a couple advisers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, having died.
Second, the slow manner in which the country responded to the virus has – like the downing earlier this year of a Ukrainian airliner – shown the regime to be inept and ill-equipped to deal with crises. If the economic crisis gripping the country already triggered disillusionment with the regime, its incompetence in dealing with a health crisis of this magnitude will only make matters worse.
While the Iranian reaction could be military adventurism abroad, continuing to try to sow instability throughout the Mideast as a way of distracting its people from their own domestic problems, this could prove risky, since the last thing Iran will need when recovering from the virus is a full blown military confrontation. 
For Israel this means that Iran may very well step back efforts to embed itself in Syria, and help Hezbollah do the same. Even if the virus does not lead to the toppling of the Islamic regime – something numerous crises have failed to do in the past – it will undoubtedly weaken it in the short term.
It seems like years, but less than a month ago rockets were again falling from Gaza into Israel, and there was talk in Jerusalem of the necessity of a large-scale military campaign to restore quiet. Now the virus has seemed to bring about a lull in the rocket fire.
This is not because Hamas or Islamic Jihad have changed their colors, or even that that coronavirus has infected Gaza. It hasn't. Yet.
But the concern that the virus might spread is apparently one reason Hamas is not interested in pulling the rope with Israel too tightly right now.  Because if the coronavirus does hit someone in Gaza, perhaps in one of the densely populated refugee camps, it could spread swiftly, and Hamas – which has over the years used hospitals for military, rather than medical, purposes – will not have the ability to deal with the plague. It will need assistance from both Israel and Egypt.
And it will be tough for them to ask for this aid in the morning, and fire rockets in the afternoon.
A similar situation exists with the Palestinian Authority as well. While just a few weeks ago PA President Mahmoud Abbas was talking about breaking off all communication and cooperation with Israel because of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, now the two sides are cooperating and communicating on a regular basis.
For instance, Israel has transferred 2,500 coronavirus diagnostic kits to the PA and another 200 to Gaza, results from the tests are being sent to Israeli labs for testing, Palestinian doctors have received training in Israeli hospitals, and both sides are trading information on the spread of the virus.
This disease is obviously not going to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, but it does show both sides the necessity – because of their intertwined geography – of cooperation. And in the short term, it may also help tamp down violence that was expected this year on March 31, when Hamas had originally planned to restart weekly riots on the Gaza border as part of its “Great March of Return.”
Remember the heated debate in the run-up to the election whether Israel should annex the Jordan Valley and the settlements under Trump? It all now seems so quaint.
Forget the “Deal of the Century.” Forget it now, because of the virus; and possibly forget it forever if Trump, as a result of the virus, loses his reelection bid in November.
The coronavirus – and the economic collapse in its wake – is currently consuming all the energy and attention of the White House.
There is no way now that Israel, preoccupied with fighting the virus and trying to figure out how to govern itself, would take as drastic a measure as annexation at this time. And even if it wanted to, the White House is currently focused on other things. The best indicator of this is that Jared Kushner, who led Trump's team that  authored the plan, is now – along with his close aid Avi Berkowitz – advising the president not on the Mideast, but on something more pressing: the pandemic.
Had Israeli leaders harbored any hope that they would have more time to implement the plan because Trump was likely to win November’s election, the virus should disabuse them of that notion.
Trump is in trouble. As a result of the plague, the US economy – his strongest calling card – is tanking, and he is being slammed for mishandling the crisis. And, to make matters worse, the virus is taking away one of the strongest tools he has as a campaigner: the mass rally in front of tens of thousands of supporters.
The coronavirus could very well bring about an end to the Trump administration. And if it does, this will be its most significant aftershock for Israel.