Corona and politics shouldn’t mix – but they do

It is time for this to change. We need a government that cares and works to improve our reality, not politicians focused on creating an alternate one.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at one of his nightly statements about the coronavirus COVID-19 in March (photo credit: FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at one of his nightly statements about the coronavirus COVID-19 in March
(photo credit: FLASH90)
As Passover came to an end on Wednesday night, the prime minister of Israel had an important mission: to tweet fake news.

Using his Hebrew account @IsraeliPM_Heb – one of three that he manages – Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted to his 53,000 followers a link to an article on the Forbes website, adding: “Forbes also publishes: Israel is the safest place in the world in the fight against the coronavirus.”

At the same time, on his more popular account @netanyahu, the prime minister tweeted to his 1.8 million followers a picture of the online article – not a link - with the accompanying text: “The international magazine Forbes ranks Israel as the safest country in the world in the fight against the coronavirus.”

The one account not used was his official English page, @IsraeliPM. There, the 881,000 followers were left in the dark without news of Israel’s amazing success.

Why is any of this important? Because it is not true. Forbes did not rank Israel as the safest country, and did not publish a ranking of countries. 

Who did?

A woman by the name of Margaretta Colangelo who wrote a blog post that appeared in Forbes’ blog section. Colangelo is the co-founder of Deep Knowledge Group, a small unknown venture capital firm based in Hong Kong that Itzik Ben-Israel, a retired IDF general and chairman of the Israel Space Agency, called the mother of fake news. 

As anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom or read a newspaper knows, when a contributor writes something for a publication, that opinion does not become the opinion of the newspaper or website. Colangelo’s blog post wasn’t Forbes’ opinion, and the magazine published a tweet late Wednesday night clarifying that exact point.

“It is important for us to stress that this is not a ranking conducted by Forbes Israel or Forbes USA but is a guest column written by a member of the team that carried out the research, and that is how it should be viewed,” the magazine’s Israel office tweeted from its official account.

This wasn’t the first time that Netanyahu shared research by Deep Knowledge Group. In the beginning of April, Netanyahu shared a chart claiming that Israel conducts more coronavirus tests per capita than any other country.

The problem is that the chart referred to a short snapshot in time, and that in reality, as everyone in Israel knows, the country has consistently failed to scale up its testing due to poor management, lack of materials, and a failure to recognize early on in the crisis that tests are an essential tool needed to get the country back to work (we will get back to that below).

The fact that this was not a Forbes story did not stop Netanyahu or Ya’acov Litzman – his quarantined health minister – from claiming that Forbes had ranked Israel as the safest country. Litzman cited the study in a press release under the title “Forbes Magazine ranks Israel No. 1,” even though that was false, the story itself was not true and was the quintessential example of fake news.

Why is any of this important? Because at a time when the country is paralyzed and shut down, with more than a million people out of work and 142 who have died as of Thursday evening, this is what our leaders are busy doing: spreading fake news, manipulating reality, and trying to score cheap political points off of something that is not real. Basically, they are trying to create an alternate reality.

The only conclusion is that Netanyahu thinks we are all stupid, and that no one would notice that his tweets and claims about Forbes were false. For that reason, he probably didn’t tweet it to his English-speaking followers; they would have immediately caught on to the sham.

The fact that the magazine later called him out publicly also made no difference. Other politicians might have thought to issue a clarification or correction. But not Netanyahu. And why should he? Close to two million people follow him on the two accounts he used to disseminate the fake news. Forbes Israel’s account has only 411 followers.

For the same reason, Netanyahu did not apologize for hosting his son Avner at the Passover Seder last week, in direct violation of the very guidelines he imposed on the public. President Reuven Rivlin also hosted family, and while that was equally wrong, at least he had the decency to apologize. Netanyahu doesn’t even bother saying sorry. Why should he?

The reason he should is because Israel deserves a government that puts the people first, and Israelis deserve a prime minister less focused on creating an alternative reality and more interested in how he can improve the one we already live in. To say nothing of adhering to strict national guidelines issued to all.

THIS ALL matters because while the Israeli death rate is 1% - which is relatively low compared with other countries – there are still major problems with the way this crisis has been handled. Take testing as an example.

From the beginning, the Health Ministry was opposed to mass testing. Every night, after Netanyahu taught Israelis how to blow their noses, hold a tissue, and bring their hands together in a namaste gesture instead of shaking hands, the director-general of the Health Ministry Moshe Bar Simantov, or head of the ministry’s public health department Prof. Segal Sadetzki, would take to the podium and explain why tests were not effective.

Their remarks were stunning since they came at a time that other countries were proving the effectiveness in testing, especially when it came to reopening their economies. This was the case with South Korea, Singapore and now with Germany. Testing, testing and more testing. That is the way to effectively know who is sick, who isn’t, and who can go back to work, school or simply outside.

The testing in Israel has been a total flop. In mid-March, Netanyahu announced that Israel would reach 10,000 tests a day within a couple of weeks. Instead, it took about a month, and only after the number plunged to 6,000 just a few days ago. At every step along the way, there was another excuse.

First, Israel didn’t have enough swab sticks for tests. Then, it didn’t have enough reagents, the chemicals needed for lab testing. Labs weren’t allowed to work at night, over weekends or on holidays, and universities and private labs that offered to help were turned away. The Weizmann Institute was a perfect example. It tried for weeks to receive Health Ministry approval to conduct tests, but was repeatedly turned away until finally it was granted permission. Why did it have to wait? What took so long?

Here, there are two schools of thought. One is that the Health Ministry knew that it lacked the materials and couldn’t scale up testing, so it pushed lockdown and quarantine as an alternative. The other, more concerning, possibility is that the Health Ministry simply does not believe in testing. Either way, there is a problem, especially when considering that almost all experts agree that massive testing is needed to get any economy back up and running.

Another mystery is why Netanyahu has continually refused to use the Defense Ministry and the IDF more effectively. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has been pushing to take responsibility for the testing, as has Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who sent a letter last week urging the prime minister to let the army assume responsibility. His deputy, Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir, said in an interview last week that if the IDF was in charge of testing, it would have been able to scale up to 30,000 daily tests as early as next week.

Instead of taking up the military on its offer – it is, after all, the largest organization in the country, with unparalleled logistic and manpower capabilities – Netanyahu keeps sidelining it. Weeks ago the IDF proposed letting it take charge of quarantining every person landing back in Israel from abroad. Netanyahu refused, until this past week when the number of infected people entering Israel spun out of control.

In other words, only after everything went wrong was the army called in. That is what happened in Bnai Brak and other haredi towns where mayors could not manage the crisis on their own, and that is what happened with quarantining people entering the country from overseas. The same happened with geriatric centers and old-age homes – only after everything else failed did the army get called up.

Even so, the Health Ministry claims that the coronavirus is a civilian crisis, and not every crisis needs to be managed by the military. That might be true, but putting the army in charge of testing doesn’t change that. With all due respect to Bar Simantov and Sadetzki, who are doing the best job they can under the circumstances, they don’t know how to manage nationwide emergencies. What they can do is provide professional guidance, but the actual implementation should have been handed over to the military weeks ago.

Since we are already talking about alternate realities though, let’s imagine for a moment that Netanyahu was still defense minister and hadn’t appointed Bennett to the post in November to keep him inside his political bloc. Would Netanyahu still not be using the Defense Ministry? Would he still be sidelining the IDF?

Sadly, it seems that some days he is simply more focused on fighting with Bennett than fighting the virus. He doesn’t want to share the stage with his political nemesis. But how, you ask yourself, could that be possible? During a pandemic, the prime minister would not utilize the Defense Ministry and all of its tools because of politics? Impossible.

Unfortunately, it isn’t. These same political considerations were behind the announcement two weeks ago to give every Israeli NIS 500 per child, a move done without coordinating with the Finance Ministry. 

As the father of four children, I was happy to receive NIS 2,000, but did I really need it? Thankfully, I still have a job. On the other hand, there are over a million people who don’t, and they need it more. So why wasn’t it done according to a scale – if you earn under X you get the check, and if you earn over X you don’t?

The reason is because it’s a cheap (actually, expensive) political stunt meant to boost popularity, not income equality.

The same can be said about the ongoing coalition negotiations between Blue and White and Likud. Hopefully, a deal will be reached and a fourth election will be avoided, but the failure until now to finalize an agreement because of issues like the makeup of the Judicial Appointments Committee shows what is really being negotiated: not the establishment of a stable government that will steer Israel through this crisis, but a government that will keep Netanyahu away from court.

It is time for this to change. We need a government that cares and works to improve our reality, not politicians focused on creating an alternate one.