Coronavirus: Democratic political engagement under mass quarantine

In Israel, there currently is ample reason for political engagement, dissent and mass protest.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) sit in an empty hall in front of President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the swearing in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020 (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) sit in an empty hall in front of President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the swearing in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
National and global emergencies test the need for democracies to balance government capacity with the rights of its citizenry to privacy, and freedom of movement and association. Mass public activism is a mainstay of democratic political engagement. The novel coronavirus pandemic – especially because its duration is unknown – is a major test for democratic governments and their citizenry.
It has led to (necessary) unprecedented governmental actions and restrictions, with Israel enacting some of the world’s most sweeping measures. So far, there has been widespread compliance and many positive indications of the strength of civil society. However – despite dominating public discourse currently – the contingencies of a pandemic must not allow mass public political engagement on the full spectrum of voter-relevant issues to fall by the wayside.
As Israel’s parliament seeks to form a government following its third election in one year, Israeli citizens still care about the government that gets formed. In other words, the highly contentious politics that dominated public discourse and engagement in February 2020 is still important now and will be important once the pandemic abates. With Israel imposing severe restrictions on movement and public gatherings it is important to ask how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the political engagement so necessary in a functioning democracy, and what are some quarantine friendly forms of effective mass political engagement?
While Israel has ample experience with national crises – from wars to terrorism to mass immigration –
this level of lockdown is truly unprecedented, especially during an election and government formation period. The imposition of curfews, bans on large gatherings and restrictions on movement, while imminently necessary to curtail coronavirus, are the same tools used by dictators to stifle political dissent. With this in mind, it is essential that democratic political participation proceed as unimpeded as possible under these restrictions.
In Israel, there currently is ample reason for political engagement, dissent and mass protest. For example, on the one hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s much anticipated corruption trial has been postponed for ten weeks in the midst of government formation negotiations. Netanyahu has offered to create an emergency government, with supporters seeing this as a genuine moment of leadership and opponents seeing it as a cynical political maneuver.
ON THE OTHER hand, scores of Israeli voters look poised to be duped by a political bait and switch. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman are both unambiguously violating their campaign promises not to form a government backed by the Joint List and especially Balad, the most extreme of the Arab parties. Balad’s members have supported terrorists, have been convicted of providing material support to Israel’s enemies and have fled the country over accusations of espionage and treason.
Many Gantz or Liberman supporters – who factored in the party leaders’ promises not to form a government dependent on the backing of the Joint-List when giving their vote – must feel deceived. Indeed, a recent poll found that only 17% of Israelis support a unity government with the Joint-List. Clearly, those opposed include a large portion of Blue and White voters and presumably the majority of voters for the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu party.
Such a government is unlikely to be realized due to the internal protests of a few parliamentarians whose support is needed to get to the 61-seat threshold to form a government. However, if Gantz and Liberman had their way – by reversing their position on a major campaign promise – they would impose upon Israel a government opposed by the majority of its citizenry, a patently undemocratic outcome.
Under normal circumstances these high-stakes political developments would bring masses of Israelis across the political spectrum into the streets. Under current restrictions this is impossible.
Citizens signaling a preference to elected leaders is the backbone of democratic representation and accountability. While many jobs can be done from home with little to no drop in productivity, can effective political engagement be done “remotely?”
There are some ways that voters under movement and gathering restrictions can influence policy. In Germany, a massive virtual protest in the form of a social media campaign, succeeded in getting the German government to block incoming flights from the heavily infected Iran. In Israel an online petition is circulating that expresses opposition to a government coalition that included Balad. Voters need to keep signaling their preferences so that their representative political leaders know what to support and what to oppose.
Although it is impossible to replicate the electric enthusiasm of mass rallies in public squares, engaged citizens under quarantine or home-isolation can and should utilize organized telephone, email and social media campaigns and online petitions. Whatever their political preferences, Israelis and citizens around the world, must not let coronavirus halt political engagement.
Political issues that felt so important before the coronavirus pandemic have since seemingly been put on standby in both the public and individual consciousness. Understandably, many citizens may tune out some of the usual politics as long as the government is taking measures to protect them from the coronavirus. However, these political issues are still just as important as they were pre-pandemic and will come roaring back to the fore as the pandemic abates. If the public becomes politically complacent for however long the country is on lockdown, it may emerge to regret its lack of engagement if a government is formed and policies are enacted with significant and long-term impacts that it opposes.
Compliance with government orders to control the spread of a pandemic is paramount, but compliance is not synonymous with political apathy or docility. In this modern age of widespread online interconnectivity, like some jobs and events, democratic mass political engagement must not be abandoned, it must stay strong online as long as restrictions remain in place. 
The writer is the national security analyst at a Washington-based think tank and a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia where he studies International Relations with a focus on the Middle East. He is an IDF veteran and served in the Golani Brigade from 2007-2009.