‘They are S-C-A-R-E-D’. So said Binyamin Netanyahu in a famous 1999 election campaign speech, referring to the media. Now he is the one who is scared. The political mastermind who has been Prime Minister for the past eleven years stands to lose his crown.
Israel's political crisis of 2019-2020 saw three general elections without producing a clear winner. Eventually, asserting a need for national unity to combat the pandemic, Bibi masterfully managed to form a coalition under his leadership while dividing the main opposition party, Blue and White. Under the rotation agreement, Bibi is to step down after two years and be replaced by Blue and White leader, Benny Gantz. Most of the public cynically viewed this as a ploy, believing that Netanyahu will never honour the agreement.
If Bibi hoped that the pandemic would distract the public from the political turmoil and his legal problems, he was mistaken: his failure to control the spread of the virus, the inadequate planning, and a general sense of chaos and a lack of leadership, caused a major dip in his support.
A recent poll from Israel’s Channel 12 shows that Netanyahu’s Likud party would win 26 seats in the Knesset (down from their current 36) while Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party is a close second with 23 seats (up from 6). The Blue and White party have crashed from 32 to 9 seats. The charismatic Bennett has been luring Likud voters disappointed by Netanyahu’s self-serving policies and Blue and White voters who find Bennett sensible at a time of national crisis. This may not reflect any true election results – Yamina has far-right members that many in the centre-right will find it difficult to stomach – but the polls are alarming for Bibi, who has lost the public’s trust.
The stakes are high; Netanyahu is facing criminal charges for bribery, fraud and breach of confidence that carry a possible jail sentence. Losing his seat could mean losing his freedom since, as Prime Minister, he has more power to influence proceedings against him. He is now seen by the public, the media and the opposition as a desperate man, panicked and fighting for his freedom – instead of fighting a pandemic.
Israel was one of the first countries to go into lockdown in early March. The policy was successful in curbing transmission, but in May, with little forward planning, lockdown ended. The number of infections rose quickly, leaving Israel with one of the highest recorded infection and death rates in the world, and prompting a second lockdown.
The sharpest rise in infections was within certain orthodox communities who refuse to abide by social distancing and lockdown measures. However, due to pressure from orthodox MPs pushing for their communities not to be singled out, Netanyahu – worried about dissent among MPs who might collapse his government – decided to put the entire population under lockdown, placing the economy and public under further strain. Without effective economic measures and a non-existing annual budget, the rate of unemployment increased to about 10 per cent – double that of the UK. Many more are left struggling.
After the first lockdown, a growing number of Israelis demonstrated against Netanyahu outside his official residence. They viewed him as corrupt – as someone whose economic and healthcare policies are based on narrow interests of self-preservation. Despite the lack of evidence that outdoor demonstrations cause a rise in infections, the government passed amendments to emergency laws, placing restrictions on the size of permitted gatherings and travel. This was viewed as a desperate attempt to minimise the demonstrations against him, while undermining basic democratic rights. Coronavirus Commissioner Ronni Gamzu, said that he ‘felt sickened’ by the decision to place the public under tight restrictions just to prevent demonstrations.
The tactic backfired. Outraged Israelis are keener than ever to demonstrate. Small local demonstrations have sprung up across the country, on bridges over motorways and at intersections. Protesters aren’t only left wing; many are right and centre, all calling on Bibi to resign. It didn’t help that ministers, MPs, senior advisers, and the Prime Minister’s wife have been found to break lockdown rules, causing widespread criticism. Anger grew further when the police were found to have secretly allowed large gatherings among orthodox communities, but were tough on everyone else.
It now seems that the government may face a revolt from citizens and business owners ready to break lockdown rules.
Bibi faces another difficulty. He may soon lose his biggest international ally – Donald Trump. A Democrat in the White House and a Senate with a Democrat majority will be a far less favourable environment for Bibi’s policies. Biden will be Israel’s ally, not Bibi’s.
The giant gulf between Bibi and the public seems irreparable, even among traditional Likudniks. The majority of Israelis agree on one thing: Bibi has to go. However, differences on other major issues will divide votes among many political parties, risking giving Likud the option of forming a coalition, shaky as it may be. That is, unless Bibi trades his seat for immunity, securing not only his freedom, but the public’s freedom from his grip.