With an unprecedented new surge in coronavirus cases battering Israel’s economy, one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest confidants was dispatched to a TV studio recently to calm the nerves of a jittery nation. Instead, he dismissed expressions of some of the public's economic pain as “BS.”
The flippant comment by Cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi is symptomatic of what critics see as a bloated, out-of-touch government. It also has become a rallying cry for anti-Netanyahu protests spreading, like the virus, across the country.
One out-of-work Israeli erupted in anger during a live television interview, berating Netanyahu and warning the country is “going to burn” if aid is not given soon.
It is a dramatic turn of events for Netanyahu, who claimed credit and was widely praised for Israel's successful management of the early stages of the crisis. Now his approval ratings are plummeting, and public health experts warn that Israel is close to being unable to cope.
At the start of the pandemic, Netanyahu moved quickly to close the country's borders and impose strict measures to contain the virus. By May, Israel was among the first in the world to reopen its economy. Netanyahu boasted on TV that other countries were looking to Israel as a model. But the exit strategy appears to have been bungled. Now facing a drastic surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases, the country has begun reimposing restrictions, such as limits on public gatherings. Critics warn the government waited too long to respond.
After three costly and inconclusive elections in just under a year, he had managed to convince his chief challenger, retired military chief Benny Gantz, to join him in an “emergency” government with a mandate to tackle the coronavirus. Despite steep criticism, they established the largest government in Israeli history, arguing that its 34 ministers, some with dubious job titles and responsibilities, were essential to provide stability in uncertain times.
Israel, like other countries, is struggling to balance containing infections and protecting the economy. Unemployment shot up to more than 25% during the first surge and many jobs have yet to come back. Small businesses, the self-employed and particularly the dining, entertainment and tourism industries are warning that another large-scale shutdown will be a death blow.
In the face of an angry electorate, Netanyahu's support has tumbled. A Midgam Research & Consulting poll on Channel 12 TV found just 46% of respondents approved of Netanyahu's job performance, down from 74% in May.
Scrambling to respond, Netanyahu said Thursday that the government would pay monthly stipends over the coming year to help the unemployed, self-employed and business owners hurt by the coronavirus crisis. “The government will do everything that is required to ease the economic distress,” he said.
The sight of desperate Israelis lining up at soup kitchens and near-daily protests by out-of-work people has been damaging to Netanyahu’s populist brand.
Though most of the anger has been focused on livelihoods, those involved in fighting the pandemic have been more concerned about public health.
A top Health Ministry official credited with helping contain the initial outburst stepped down this week over differences on how the new government was handling the current spike. In her resignation letter, Sigal Sadetsky, the outgoing head of the public health services department, bemoaned how the “handling of the pandemic had lost direction.” Unlike the initial response, she said recent actions have been clumsy, dismissive of health considerations and leading Israel to a “bad place.”