Israeli politics is sick with COVID-era short-term thinking - opinion

The treatment of COVID-19 forced us into making immediate calls, creating unprecedented changes that broke conventions and created new precedents. These are the consequences.

 DIRECTLY AFTER the pandemic, Israelis returned to the street even more strongly, all the way down to the blocked Ayalon highway, says the writer. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
DIRECTLY AFTER the pandemic, Israelis returned to the street even more strongly, all the way down to the blocked Ayalon highway, says the writer.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

There are many ways to define periods in the life of a country. But what has been happening in Israel in recent years can be described in three words: national long COVID

And no, I’m not talking about symptoms like shortness of breath and fatigue, cognitive damage, or damage to the senses of smell and taste, though if Israel were a human being, it would be possible to diagnose these symptoms easily. I’m talking about mental symptoms – symptoms to which we tend not to pay too much attention. The State of Israel is becoming symptomatic before our eyes.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a single clear and immediate danger: short-term thinking.

How did Israel become sick with short-term thinking?

Until 2019, the wheel of our life as a society had turned on its axis. Sometimes the right wing ruled, sometimes the left wing. The rules of the game were clear, for better or worse. The sacred words “status quo” lasted decades without question.

Until 2019, every decision we made consisted of long-term thinking, the ability to restrain and contain and seeing the overall picture.

 Moshe Klughaft. (credit: LIRAN MOR)
Moshe Klughaft. (credit: LIRAN MOR)

But then, in light of the urgency of dealing with a public health crisis, economic upheaval and drastic changes in lifestyle, the treatment of COVID-19 forced us into making immediate calls, creating unprecedented changes that broke conventions and created new precedents. Sacred cows were slaughtered, the borders were breached. Only when it was over, we forgot to close the gate behind us.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it an unusual state of mind: Survival and immediate recovery became a priority. People began to think in terms of weeks or months, rather than years or decades. They were quarantined in their houses, while they saw other sectors of the public, such as the ultra-Orthodox and some members of the political elite, continuing their business and social lives as normal. And the seed was sown.

In many ways, this change was necessary and even beneficial. It enabled quick response times, immediate policy changes and mobilization of resources where needed. However, we’ve started to pay the price for short-term in “current-plus” two years. 

And what did short-term thinking bring along with it?

  • First, polarization: Short-term thinking exacerbated political discord and hatred, as people became more focused on immediate issues and less willing to consider the long-term consequences or other’s different viewpoints. We converted into survivors.
  • Second, populism and demagoguery: Politicians took advantage of this change for short-term thinking. Populist leaders have used the possibility of quick fixes and immediate results to rally support, even though these solutions often fail to address the underlying problems or the long-term consequences.
  • Third, policy-making: Focus shifted to short-term results in policies that prioritize immediate results over long term solutions. This approach can lead to Band-Aid solutions that only treat the symptoms but not the roots of the disease.
  • Fourth, erosion of trust: As political debates have become more heated and less nuanced, trust in political institutions and leaders has diminished. This distrust, in a never-ending spiral, has further deepened short-term thinking, as people feel the need to fend for themselves or their immediate community, rather than invest in broader social solutions.
  • And above all, escalation of conflicts: With less desire for consideration and more willingness to fight, disagreements can quickly escalate into bloody street fights. Like a couple that lives together, biting their tongues, but then decides to divorce and pulls out all the little secret frustrations they have accumulated over the years of their marriage, the State of Israel is also experiencing a type of divorce process, which is reflected in an increase in political violence and social unrest.

ON 2/20/20, the leader of the Meretz Party, Nitzan Horowitz, was interviewed in the Israel Hayom newspaper. The interview’s title was, please note: “Partnership with Ultra-Orthodox is Not Ruled Out, the Conscription Law Can be Waived.”

Naftali Bennett, the prime minister who was elected with the votes of Labor and Meretz, said in 2019, “I know I will lose votes when I say this, but this is the truth: The ultra-Orthodox should be freed from mandatory conscription for the IDF for a period of eight to 10 years.”

Merav Michaeli even said in the past that she was “opposed to recruiting ultra-Orthodox to the IDF.” Her reason, by the way, was that it would contribute to the exclusion of women.

So, what’s changed? Everything has changed.

Moreover, before the COVID-19 era, the dominant view was that the era of marching to the squares was over. People no longer left their homes to protest. They preferred to demonstrate on Facebook and click “like,” or sign petitions and feel that they had contributed their part to the nation. Directly after the pandemic – the disease of closures and isolation – we see the return of the street even more strongly, all the way down to a blocked Ayalon highway.

The diagnosis is clear, now for the prognosis.

We must find a political solution to the mental state. The immune system of the State of Israel cannot afford one more day of a narrow government, neither Left nor Right. We saw this in the last two governments, which brought with them blood and fire – even literally – on the streets.

And what is even more remarkable is that the last two governments, that of Bennett-Lapid and that of Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox, did not actually make any extraordinary moves. Try to make a comparison between a really controversial past move, one that changes reality and not only makes waves on the headlines. The story here is different: The very existence of narrow governments constituted the problem itself.

The situation in which there was no oppositional left wing to the previous government, which consisted of Yamina to Ra’am (and Ahmad Tibi is not opposition), is exactly the same as the current government, which is consisted of Likud to Otzma Yehudit. In addition to that – the last two governments were ones in which any of the parties that comprised them could dissolve them, which meant that each Knesset member has the power of the prime minister, and the prime minister has the power of a Knesset member.

A country that is sick with long COVID is not built for it. The nerves are too exposed. The body is too weak.

The post-pandemic state of Israel is a country that breaks conventions and political culture: five election campaigns, refusals to serve in the army, demonstrations abroad against the country’s top officials, and an Internal Security minister who, in reference to the reform, assured a hurting public that “these are only the salads that open the appetite”.

It can’t go on like this.

If Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz still have a shred of national responsibility left, they will stand up and openly announce that they are ready to enter a national emergency government, a broad central government. If Netanyahu retains any sense of responsibility for the state of the country as a result of the reforms – which may be justified, but was born and marketed with unrestrained gluttony – he will stand up and say that he would be happy to include them in such a government.

You’ll say, “Why would Netanyahu want to? His rule is guaranteed.” So let’s just mention that the Bennett government reached around 52 mandates in the polls a year into its tenure. Everyone knows how it ends.

You’ll say, “Why would Gantz want to? If he does this he will go down in the polls.” Then listen to the public.

It is speaking, only no one listens. According to polls, 62% of voters who support Gantz, who is leading the polls, favor a unity government led by Netanyahu (not even in rotation), as do 55% of Likud voters and even 34% of Yesh Atid voters.

You don’t need to despair. The disease is becoming contagious at an exponential rate, but it’s not too late to fix it.

Vaccinate now.

The writer is a strategic consultant, a former adviser to prime ministers Netanyahu and Bennett, a lecturer, and a co-founder of ACT News.