REALITY CHECK: So much for putting politics aside during coronavirus

Netanyahu once again places his personal interests above the country’s.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Over a month ago, while explaining to Israelis how to use tissues, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exploited his prime-time coronavirus briefing to call for an emergency unity government to handle this unprecedented crisis. Back then, he even sounded sincere in his stated desire to put politics aside and focus only on the health and lives of Israel’s citizens.
But that was when Blue and White leader Benny Gantz had the upper hand and the president’s mandate to try to form the country’s next government. Once that mandate expired, with Netanyahu having succeeded in his primary objective of tearing the country’s main opposition party into two by bringing Gantz into his orbit, the prime minister’s sense of urgency dissipated as quickly as it first emerged.
And at the same time, Netanyahu’s own personal feelings of panic and insecurity were eased by Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s cynical 1 a.m. declaration of a 24-hour state of emergency in Israel’s court system “as part of the national effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.” Surely no coincidence, this rushed and unnecessary decision came a couple of days before the scheduled start of the prime minister’s trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The jury may be out as to how many lives that one-day “state of emergency” saved (a reasonable estimate would be none), but it did have the desired effect of postponing the beginning of Netanyahu’s trial to the end of May. This spared Netanyahu the indignity of holding coalition talks against a background of media reports of his trial, which would have provided the country with a timely reminder of exactly why the majority of Israel’s citizens voted against the prime minister in last month’s elections.
With the threat of Gantz neutralized and the nightmare of his Jerusalem District Court appearance more than a month away, Netanyahu lost interest in quickly forming an emergency unity government. In talks with Blue and White, which centered solely on securing Netanyahu’s position once he was no longer prime minister as opposed to ways to ease Israel’s recovery from the pandemic, the prime minister reverted to his time-honored negotiating tactic of stalling. Every time Gantz’s team thought they had reached an agreement with the Likud’s negotiators and a draft was waiting for the leaders’ signatures, the Likud team returned with a new set of conditions imposed by Netanyahu, and the negotiations had to begin again from scratch.
Even some of Netanyahu’s staunchest advocates in the media tired of this behavior. Shimon Riklin tweeted: “When an ideological rival makes a gesture, you make a reciprocal gesture, like a man,” while Yossi Elitov, the editor of the haredi weekly magazine Mishpacha, wrote: “If it transpires that Netanyahu is stringing Gantz along... we have to stand up and tell Bibi: Stop, enough is enough. There are redlines you don’t cross.”
Such criticism, though, is unlikely to perturb Netanyahu. His shamelessness is well known, both on the political and personal level. While lecturing the Israeli public on the need to hold Seder night only with those family members living in the same household, our prime minister not only saw fit to have his son Avner, who does not live with his parents, join him, he even had the gall to post a video of the happy event.
Just as worryingly, this video was not actually taken on Seder night itself. It was, as is so often in Netanyahu’s career, a staged event, conducted to keep his social media image of a devoted family man ticking over as assiduously as that of any socially insecure teenager’s Instagram account.
It beggars belief that in the midst of the coronavirus crisis – as serious as the Black Death, cholera and Spanish flu pandemics, in Netanyahu’s own words – the prime minister had the time and the energy to sit at a fake Seder table (when he was supposedly meant to be self-isolating after having been in contact with a person infected by the virus) and pretend to be telling the story of the exodus from Egypt.
This is how Netanyahu focuses solely on the health and lives of Israel’s citizens?
BELATEDLY, GANTZ has come to his senses and realized the only way to deal with the prime minister is not through good faith but by threatening him with an ultimatum.
At the time of writing, it’s too early to know whether the Blue and White leader’s Monday deadline has worked for either reaching an agreement with the Likud or beginning to introduce legislation that would prevent a candidate under criminal indictment (i.e., Netanyahu) from forming a government.
If it hasn’t, and the Israeli political system is once again plunged into chaos and the likelihood of a fourth round of elections in the summer, the country needs to remember how Netanyahu bears the responsibility of putting his own personal needs above those of the country, even in times of an unprecedented pandemic.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.