The Israeli government held its coronavirus graduation party on Monday night. For the first time since the breakout of COVID-19, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared the stage with a number of his ministers – politicians who until now had not been seen on TV.
There was Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, Labor and Social Welfare Minister Ofir Akunis, Education Minister Rafi Peretz and Economy Minister Eli Cohen. Each spoke about their ministry, the return to the so-called “new normal,” and the challenges that still loom on the horizon.
Netanyahu spoke first. “Our fight against the coronavirus never stops,” he said. “We have invested a great deal to stop the spread of the virus, and we have met amazing success.”
Pundits, the prime minister said, try to come up with different reasons why Israel has had such success. “They say it is the climate, but it’s hot in Brazil and there is a high number of casualties there. They say we are an island, but England is also an island. Israel’s achievements are a model for other nations, and they look at us with great admiration.”
The country mourns the loss of every life snuffed out by the pandemic, he went on, but when contrasted with the rest of the world, this country was doing great.
As an example he mentioned Belgium, a country that has a “population like ours,” but has lost more than 8,000 people to COVID-19.
It was a message heard numerous times over the last two months. Ten days ago, at the end of April, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov called on Israelis not to be reckless. “I hear the voices of those who think we exaggerated but look around,” he said. “Belgium, a country similar to the size of Israel, has 7,000 dead.”
On the surface, the comparison might make sense. Belgium’s population is just over 11 million people, Israel’s just over nine million. Both countries are Western democracies with advanced economies and health systems. Nevertheless, Israel has 239 deaths, nowhere near the 8,415 now dead in Belgium.
It is understandable why Netanyahu and Bar Siman Tov would make the comparison: Israel has a lot to be proud of and thankful for, and Netanyahu deserves loads of credit for seeing early on this coronavirus reality.
When the coronavirus was still isolated in Asia, Netanyahu referred to it as a global pandemic even while the World Health Organization was still afraid to utter those words. He identified the vulnerability of air travel into Israel and smartly shut down Israel’s skies, preparing the nation to understand the need to stay home, to minimize contact with others, and to not venture outside unless absolutely necessary.
Along the way, he also played politics. He fought with his defense minister and held back from activating the IDF, even though almost everyone recognized from the get-go that the army needed to play a more prominent role; he sidelined ministers and emergency agencies so he could centralize authority in his office; and he never missed a chance to use the virus to pressure Blue and White leader Benny Gantz into violating his campaign promise not to join his government, which is now on its way to being sworn in next week.
The comparison to Belgium is faulty for a number of reasons. First, while the population size might be similar, that’s kind of where the similarities end. Belgium is bordered by the Netherlands to the north, Germany to the east, France to the west and Luxemburg to the south. “Bordered” is also a wrong term. Those countries might have lines that separate them on a map, but these are not real border crossings. This is the European Union: under the 1985 Schengen Agreement, citizens of these countries can cross from one nation into the next without border checks.
That is far from the situation in Israel, a country that does not have real land crossings. Even in normal times there is only a trickle of people crossing from Jordan or Egypt; with Syria and Lebanon there is of course no movement to talk about; and from Gaza only a minimum amount. That’s Israel’s land borders.
The second difference is the mentality of Israelis, and the unique culture that exists in this country: Israelis are a people used to states of emergency unlike any other Western democracy.
Tell Israelis to enter bomb shelters, they know how. Tell them to stop their car on the side of the road when an air raid siren goes off and to duck into a ditch, they can do it. Tell them to keep their eyes open on buses, to report suspicious bags on street corners, or to just be hyper vigilant, Israelis come through.
Israel is a country used to disrupting routine because of an emergency, a scenario ingrained in their DNA. Other countries are not. When you tell Israelis to stay off the streets or get out of the way – a call out of a chefutz chashud for example, a suspicious object – they know immediately, instinctively, to walk away. That is not the case for Americans or Belgians who to this day – three months into the coronavirus pandemic – still have open borders.
While these countries are still fighting to stem the spread of corona, Israel is emerging from lockdown. On Thursday, gyms, malls and open marketplaces like Mahaneh Yehuda reopened after being closed more than two months.
Netanyahu and his ministers are politicians and naturally will look to take credit for the success Israel has seen from its handling of the pandemic. Without a doubt Netanyahu deserves lots of that credit, but so do each and every Israeli who adhered to the rules, listened to what the government asked of them and continues, still today, to take the necessary precautions.
Now is not the time to be careless. Israel’s continued success in the health battle depends on each and every one of us – what we do now and how we behave. For 72 years Israel has proved to the world that it is a unique country and that it can withstand threats like few others. That resilience helped us get to where we are now in the fight against the coronavirus. We need to be careful not to lose it.
Just before midnight on Wednesday, the High Court of Justice handed down its expected ruling giving Netanyahu the green light to form Israel’s next governing coalition.
Legally, the court decision makes sense. As President Esther Hayut wrote in her ruling, external intervention in the outcome of a democratic and free vote is a gross interference in the will of the people. The people chose Netanyahu, and the justices respect the people.
The legal argument by the petitioners against allowing Netanyahu to form the government was that if a politician indicted for an alleged crime cannot serve as a minister – as is the rule of law – then how does it make sense that a politician indicted for an alleged crime can serve as the prime minister, the so-called “minister of ministers”?
The court answered this question in line with the letter of the law, and it does make sense. But what is right legally does not necessarily mean that it is also right morally.
Regardless of how we feel about it, the trial of Benjamin Netanyahu will soon begin, and Israelis will have to ask themselves on a moral and ethical level if this is what they wanted: having a prime minister sitting in court on the defendant’s bench for severe corruption charges.
The scenario is clear cut: he will go to court, he will argue with the prosecution and with the judges, and mud will be slung across the walls of that Jerusalem District Court from both sides.
I write this as someone who believed that a unity government was needed to bring an end to the political stalemate, and to bring stability to a country stuck in the mud for far too long.
At the same time, we have to think about the nation’s soul and the lesson that is being learned from this experience. Time will tell, but what is right for the court is not always right for the soul.