Between annexation and coronavirus spike, who's in charge?

EDITOR'S NOTES: Is this how a responsible government enacts policy with long-term – even historic – consequences?

Defense Minister Benny Gantz talks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi walks by at a cabinet meeting on June 7 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz talks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi walks by at a cabinet meeting on June 7
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
When Israel’s two Benjamins – Netanyahu and Gantz – announced their intention to form a national-unity government, two primary reasons were given: a unity government was needed to save Israel from a health disaster, and Israel needed to begin implementing the Trump peace plan, with its most important clause on annexation.
But seven weeks after the swearing-in of the government, both fronts have yet to be resolved. Indeed, when it comes to COVID-19, the progress has been a disaster.
Israel, which fared well during the initial breakout, went from a “green” country to a “red” one, whose citizens Europe does not want to see. Numbers are now setting records on a daily basis – Wednesday saw Israel record its highest infection rate in a single day, with almost 1,000 new cases.
And then there is annexation. Personally, I believe Israel should have determined a long time ago what it wants to do with the West Bank. If it decides that annexing and applying Israeli law is the right move, then sovereignty should be advanced regardless of US recognition. That is what Menachem Begin did with the Golan Heights in 1981, and what Levi Eshkol did with east Jerusalem in 1967.
On the other hand, if Israel had wanted to sincerely advance a peace deal with the Palestinians then there are numerous steps it could have taken over the years to help promote the chances of its success.
Sadly, the consecutive Netanyahu governments since 2009 all decided not to decide.
Now, finally, it seems like the government has made a decision – to annex – but it cannot decide exactly what to annex, nor how it wants to fulfill it, and so no one really knows what is happening. Instead of a responsible, thoughtful process of deliberation and planning, the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), for example, are left to play war games simulating loads of scenarios because no one bothers to update them. The security cabinet has not convened once, and even senior Likud members whose portfolios would be directly impacted by annexation are being kept in the dark.
Is this how a responsible government enacts policy with long-term – even historic – consequences?
While the Trump administration has invested time, money and manpower in trying to advance its plan, there is still a total lack of clarity in Israel. Netanyahu wants to move ahead but Gantz is pulling on the brakes, refusing in all of his meetings with the Americans and with Netanyahu to articulate how far he is prepared to go.
Instead of saying what he’s willing to annex, Gantz speaks about the need for coordination with the international community, for annexation that is not too big but also not too small, and for something that doesn’t undermine the Palestinians but also doesn’t reward them. What do these catchphrases even mean? God only knows, and even that’s not sure, one official told me.
Gantz seems to be using annexation to flex a muscle after being dragged through the mud for the last two months by Netanyahu. He is basically telling Netanyahu that if he wants Blue and White to support annexation, he will have to give something in return. What could that be? One possibility is a two-year budget, which, if passed, would remove an excuse for Netanyahu to topple the government before the new budget’s mandatory vote in a few months.
In other words, this is not about the best policy for Israel but rather about the best political scenario for Gantz. It is hard to blame the leader of Blue and White considering his party’s current political status, having fallen to single digits in the polls, but it is easy to understand why this type of governance does not work.
While the Americans would prefer for Israel to annex as a united government, that does not seem to be a condition anymore. Special envoy Avi Berkowitz returned to Washington on Wednesday and will update Jared Kushner and the president about the progress made on his trip. While the president will need to sign off on what happens next, the White House is waiting to first hear from Netanyahu on what he wants to annex, and when. The ball remains in Israel’s court.
HOW DOES coronavirus fit into all of this?
While Gantz might be using the virus and the country’s dire economic situation as an excuse for why annexation needs to wait, he is not totally wrong. Israel is on the precipice of a disaster – and it doesn’t seem to really care.
On Thursday morning, the Health Ministry recorded the highest number of infections in a single day – 966 – since the virus came to Israel’s shores some five months ago. The virus is spiking, the number of serious cases and intubated patients is rising, and it is only a matter of time before the hospitals start becoming overwhelmed.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s most articulate COVID-19 explainer told me this week that Israel is no longer on the precipice of a disaster. It has fallen over. The question now is how much will it hurt when we hit the ground. [See Page 19 for an oped by Bennett on the virus]
How did we get here? What went wrong? What happened to the good news Netanyahu shared with the public on May 4, when he televised what looked like a coronavirus graduation party with some of his fellow ministers? How did Israel go from being touted as one of the countries that fared the best against the virus, to a country whose citizens are not allowed into the European Union?
Part of the answer might be found in the Prime Minister’s Office. When the virus first broke out in Israel, Netanyahu cautioned that it was the worst pandemic since the Middle Ages. He appeared regularly on television to teach Israelis how to sneeze, press an elevator button, social distance, not shake hands, and how to wear a mask. At the time when only a few hundred people were infected each day, Netanyahu was warning that tens of thousands could die. Now, with around 1,000 infections a day, he is barely seen or heard.
Why the change?
It is unclear, although it seems that the coronavirus has served its purpose for the prime minister: luring Gantz to join his coalition despite Gantz’s promise that he would not serve alongside a prime minister on trial. Now with Netanyahu’s political survival temporarily intact, COVID-19 lost its appeal.
The talk among politicians this week was that Netanyahu would like to go to a new election, but is boxed in between the coronavirus and the unprecedented unemployment. If he were to go to an election now, it would be the first in a long time that would actually be about something real: the economy, and the nearly one million citizens unemployed. Netanyahu would be viewed as responsible.
That is why he seemed these past few weeks to be ignoring the severity of the outbreak. He needs the economy to pick up again, and for that to happen he needs to keep restrictions at bay. He needs to find the balance between allowing the economy to recover and for the virus to be under some sort of control, so that when he does decide to call a new election – to keep Gantz out of the PMO – he will not be blamed for all the bad news in the country.
The problem is that political strategy like this doesn’t interest regular people, the Israelis whose lives and livelihood are on the line. My friend Matt Krieger, who built up a successful business with some 15 employees, shared some of his frustration this week on Twitter:
“We made significant sacrifices, keeping our families at home, closing our offices, schools, businesses,” Krieger wrote about the initial closure. “We have seen the effects of the current reopening approach and we are now suffering its consequences. Our sacrifices are now essentially going to waste.”
That sentiment is felt by the million Israelis who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, and don’t know when or if they might find a new one. Some have adapted – like Yuval, a talented tour guide I know who is now studying to become a teacher – but many others have not. Forget about getting through the month. They don’t know how they are going to get through the day.
ALL THIS should never have happened but it did, because the original closure was so extreme that the government felt it had to make the reopening just as extreme. Israel became a sports car, going from 0 to 60 in no time, but instead of driving on with the roof down in the summer wind, we crashed the divider and are tumbling over the mountainside.
It is true that the economy had to reopen; but why did all the kids need to go back to school? Couldn’t we have left at home everyone over fifth grade, and only send to school the children too young to stay home by themselves?
One doctor reminded me this week of the decision in May to let schoolchildren stop wearing masks due to the unusual heat wave then striking the country. Should it have come as a surprise when schools started seeing spikes in infections? One school – Gymnasia Rehavia – had more than 100 cases.
But the questions run deeper. In the US, for example, most schools closed in March, announcing early on that they would not be reopening until September and possibly even later. What did we in Israel know that the American people did not know?
What was it here in Israel that we felt made us smarter than everyone else, that we could reopen all our offices and return to work as if nothing had happened? When massive corporations around the world announced that they were not returning to their offices, not now, not in September and maybe not at all, did we know something no one else knew?
I think we all know the answer. We didn’t know anything special, but we did become a bit arrogant. We genuinely believed that the government knew what it was doing, that when Netanyahu said at the end of May that Israelis should “return to normalcy, get a cup of coffee, a glass of beer as well, so first of all have fun,” everything was going to be okay.
With the number of daily cases already hitting 1,000, it does not look like it is going to be okay. On the contrary. We need to wake up. Decisions have to be made now. Every minute that passes without taking action will cost us in lives. It is that simple.
In the meantime, not everything is bleak. This week Israel reached 20,000 tests in a single day for the first time since the outbreak of the virus. The significant increase – though not as high, for example, as New York State, with a population of almost 20 million, which is conducting 60,000 tests a day – is due to one person: Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who singlehandedly took the anachronistic Health Ministry and simply overturned resistance by officials there to massive testing.
A lot can be said about why Edelstein is now the health minister – that he fell out with Netanyahu, that Gantz vetoed allowing him to remain Knesset speaker after his run-in with the High Court, and more. But the fact is, he took the job when no one else wanted it. Blue and White claimed it was entering the government because of the coronavirus, but it never demanded the Health Ministry. No one in Likud was asking for it either.
Edelstein could have easily stayed away. He could have taken a different ministry, or simply sat out of the cabinet and relaxed in the Knesset.
Of course, he wants to succeed and use his success to continue catapulting his political career. But there are two important lessons to learn from Edelstein’s last two months in office. First, you can actually change policy. And second, that there are some politicians willing to run into the fire.