As Netanyahu exploits coronavirus, Gantz should keep his distance

Reality Check: The prime minister is exploiting the coronavirus pandemic for his own personal needs.

WILL THEY meet in the next government? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz at the memorial for Shimon Peres last month (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
WILL THEY meet in the next government? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz at the memorial for Shimon Peres last month
A consensus seems to exist that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is handling the coronavirus well. The truth, however, is the exact opposite. The prime minister is exploiting the crisis for his own personal needs, endangering the country’s future democratic health as he seeks to avoid his moment of reckoning in court.
Faced with unprecedented charges for a prime minister of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Netanyahu is willfully damaging the fabric of Israel’s democracy under the cloak of the coronavirus. The country will overcome this pandemic; the question is whether our political system will survive the prime minister’s machinations.
The Knesset is due to resume its discussions Monday, after Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein last week scandalously suspended parliament on the flimsiest of coronavirus excuses. The Likud’s Edelstein was not prompted by concern for Knesset members’ health – he was more worried as to his own position, as it became clear that the democratically elected majority of the Knesset intended on using its lawful majority to replace him. 
And behind the concerned Edelstein stood the desperate Netanyahu, whose main aim today is not to constrain the coronavirus but to paralyze the Knesset. With the Blue and White Party filing bills, for which on paper they have a majority, that would oust a prime minister indicted on criminal charges, Netanyahu knows the endgame is nearing. In this situation, Netanyahu will do all in his power to stop his removal from the Prime Minister’s Office, regardless of the results of this month’s elections in which most of the country voted against him.
Let’s take a look at the prime minister’s actions – and those of his lackeys – since the coronavirus struck. The most heinous abuse of power came with Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s announcement of a “24-hour state of emergency as part of the national effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”
Issued at the curious time of one o’clock in the morning, 36 hours before Netanyahu was due to make his first court appearance, this drastic move had no effect on the number of new coronavirus cases. It did, however, succeed in achieving its main objective: the postponement of Netanyahu’s court case until the end of May. By then, who knows what other tricks can be used to scuttle the trial.
No other democracy has ordered the shutdown of its parliament as Edelstein did, no doubt at the prime minister’s beckoning, during this grave global health crisis. As well as stymieing legitimate lawmaking by the anti-Netanyahu majority in the Knesset, this shutdown has also meant that since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been no parliamentary supervision of the government’s actions to suppress it.
An almost nightly appearance by Netanyahu on the television news, in which he makes a grandiose statement and refuses to take questions, is no substitute for a parliamentary committee monitoring the government’s actions and subjecting witnesses to questioning.
Thankfully, the High Court of Justice is still sitting, pandemic or not, to strike down the government’s even more disturbing moves. Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong may have successfully contained coronavirus with the aggressive use of digital tracking measures, including the collection of mobile phone location data and facial recognition technology, but these actions have serious privacy implications.
The High Court was right to issue an interim order temporarily preventing the Shin Bet and the police from digitally tracking coronavirus carriers. Without an open discussion as to the merits and dangers of giving the authorities such control over monitoring ordinary citizens’ movements – and no parliamentary committee to supervise the security forces’ way of working – no democracy should introduce such surveillance, even if under the best of intentions. Who knows, once introduced, how a government might be tempted to use such information regarding its opponents, gathered under the guise of protecting law and order?
Given Netanyahu’s cynical track record of coronavirus exploitation, on top of all his many other failings, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz should realize that now is not the time to enter a national-unity government led by the prime minister. Gantz has the backing of 61 Knesset members to form a government, and he should concentrate his energies on forming a new administration, based on this support.
No other country around the world is forming an “emergency government,” as Netanyahu has called for (with him leading it, of course), to combat coronavirus. What is needed is an administration headed by someone who puts the country’s interests first, and not those of his own. This is why the majority of the country voted in favor of seeing Gantz replace Netanyahu. If Gantz goes back on his word on not serving under an indicted prime minister, he will be finished as a credible politician.
And for those of you who still think no one can match Netanyahu’s oratorical skills in moments of crisis, take a look on YouTube for Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s Saint Patrick’s Day address last week. Without boasting of his friendships with other world leaders or making unsubstantiated claims as to how well his country was doing in comparison with others, the Irish leader gave a warm, inclusive, informative speech that surpasses anything Netanyahu has delivered.
Varadker ended his speech with a brilliant sound bite: “In short, we are asking people to come together as a nation by staying apart from each other.”
Gantz should stay apart from Netanyahu. By doing so and putting an end to Netanyahu’s divisive years in power, he will give the Israeli nation – Jews and Arabs together – a chance of healing from an attack on democracy ultimately more dangerous than coronavirus.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.