Israel needs an emergency unity government to deal with the coronavirus

COVID-19 has already dealt devastating blows to Israel’s travel, tourism and entertainment sectors. However, the impact on Israel’s economy will be far wider.

President Rivlin meets with Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz about forming an emergency unity government due to coronavirus (photo credit: KOBY GIDEON/GPO)
President Rivlin meets with Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz about forming an emergency unity government due to coronavirus
(photo credit: KOBY GIDEON/GPO)
The health, economic and psychological impacts of the coronavirus will get worse before they get better. Dealing with these tremendous challenges will require far-reaching economic and governmental measures, which in turn require a stable government. While neither side of the political divide will be happy with the compromises necessary for an emergency unity government, such a government is what Israel desperately needs, at least for the near future.
COVID-19 has already dealt devastating blows to Israel’s travel, tourism and entertainment sectors. However, the impact on Israel’s economy will be far wider.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of COVID-19 is that its spread has been most severe in highly developed countries. With the exception of China (the world’s second-largest economy) and Iran, the top 15 countries with the most COVID-19 cases are all members of the OECD. This means that the coronavirus will likely lead to at least temporary recessions in the countries that are Israel’s most important trading and hi-tech partners.
Israel’s economy will be put under further strain in the event of wide-spread school closures and an increasing number of people under home quarantine. Over an extended period of time, such closures and quarantines will lead to social and law-and-order problems as well.
From a public health perspective, an increase of the burden on an already overloaded healthcare system could harm the quality of medical care received by patients suffering from other conditions. It may also lead to a spike in already high levels of secondary infections in hospitals. In some medical specialties, Israel has little strategic depth. If even a small number of specialist physicians are forced to self-quarantine, this could lead to significant delays in life-saving procedures.
The psychological strain of the coronavirus should not be underestimated either. Until very recently, social isolation and distancing were considered negative consequences of the digital age which needed to be mitigated. Now they are encouraged.
Levels of tension and uncertainty will grow, just as traditional outlets such as communal gatherings, entertainment events and vacations become less available. This deepening isolation will have a particularly strong impact on vulnerable populations such as the elderly.
There will be new technological and legal challenges as well. What happens when the first coronavirus case is discovered in the Knesset? Will Knesset committees and plenary votes be able to take place virtually? (Adding emojis to Knesset debates could be entertaining.)
All of these challenges could be compounded by new security threats. A weakened Palestinian Authority could lead to an increase in terrorism, necessitating widened operations. The Iranian regime may seek to distract attention from its failures and take advantage of the situation by instructing its proxies to launch attacks. Concentrating large numbers of IDF soldiers to deal with these threats could increase transmission.
It is not at all clear how long this crisis will last. Among the scientific community, there is a debate whether the spread of COVID-19 will taper off as the weather warms. But even the optimists expect it to resurge in the fall, well before a safe vaccine is widely available.
Meeting these challenges will require a far-ranging governmental response, including emergency economic measures, budget restructuring, and perhaps even greater centralized control of essential goods and services. On the other hand, some of the measures suggested to slow the spread of COVID-19, such as tracking the movement of citizens, raise serious concerns about privacy and individual rights. Such measures may be necessary for a limited time, but they require a delicate balancing act that should be based on national consensus.
Weathering this crisis will also require a high degree of national resilience and social cohesion. While this is an area in which Israeli society generally excels, it will be extra difficult this time. During the Lebanon and Gaza wars, residents of less-affected cities opened their homes to those from the hardest-hit locations. During snowstorms, people went door-to-door to make sure the elderly had all they needed. However, as people become wary of social contact, preserving national resilience and sustaining social initiatives will require an even greater effort.
AT THIS time of national crisis, a broad national-unity government is needed, at least in the short term. Call it an emergency government if you like.
Such a government would leave each side of the political divide highly unsatisfied. The Right would likely have to put on hold key objectives, such as judicial reforms and the application of sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. The Left would have to overcome its antipathy towards Netanyahu and agree to freeze the religion and state status quo.
In such an emergency government, Netanyahu should serve first as prime minister under any rotation agreement. With all due respect to Benny Gantz’s military record, he has never faced the challenge of steering a national economy or managing a government bureaucracy. The IDF is a complex organization with a large budget, but that is not the same as dealing with market forces or a public health emergency. Gantz also lacks preexisting relationships with foreign leaders and has little diplomatic experience. This is no time for a learning curve.
As difficult as the compromises required of both sides would be, they are absolutely necessary. Continued political infighting, governmental paralysis, and ad hoc budgetary decisions will prevent an adequate economic and public policy response, and will undermine national resilience.
There is simply no way to justify the costs of a fourth election campaign at this time. It is not even clear that such elections would be logistically feasible.
Israel’s political leaders like to declare that what drives them is a sense of responsibility toward the people and the State of Israel. Now they have a chance to prove it.
Israel’s citizens need to raise their voices and make clear that this is not only what they want, but that politicians who refuse will pay a political price.
And there’s no need to worry. We can always go back to infighting and election campaigns when the crisis passes.
The writer is a strategy and communications consultant, a fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum and a former chief of staff of the strategic affairs minister. Follow him @fredman_a.