The perils of COVID incumbency create a summer of woe

Both Trump and Netanyahu had the bad luck to be in power during a pandemic. But even the latter’s crisis-management skills weren’t enough to solve the problem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, June 30, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, June 30, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Only a few months ago, the coronavirus pandemic seemed to illustrate the vast differences in management skills between President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The former was slow to react to the problem and, for the most part, reluctant to take drastic measures to cope with the spread of a deadly disease that proved to be the greatest challenge of his presidency. By contrast, the latter was in his element as the man to trust in an emergency. Netanyahu is an experienced crisis manager schooled by many years in charge of a government that is always one step away from a war footing. While Trump was at his worst, the prime minister seemed to be at his best in guiding the Jewish state through the pandemic.

In April, his leadership skills helped him survive Israel’s third election in a year and induced his leading opponent, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz to throw in the towel and join him in a coalition government whose creation seemed to justify his followers’ ritual sycophantic chatter about Netanyahu as a political wizard.

Only four months later, that moment of triumph seems like a very long time ago.

Netanyahu’s widely supported decision in May to allow the country to ease off the drastic lockdown policy that had allowed Israel to escape the worst effects of the pandemic is now seen as a terrible blunder. Infection rates soared; as a result, the prime minister’s image was transformed from that of a COVID hero to just another bumbling politician who was over his head in dealing with a problem he didn’t quite understand.

Is that fair? Not entirely.

The eagerness with which most of the Israeli media seized on the bad pandemic news as proof of the prime minister’s incompetence was dictated more by partisanship than anything else. And the protesters who turned out to demonstrate outside his official residence to demand his resignation were likely the same people who had worked for his defeat in the three elections rather than being disillusioned former supporters.

Of course, that’s what happens when you’re the man in charge. He got the credit for everything that went right. But that means he also has to shoulder the blame for all the things that went wrong on his watch, even if they weren’t all his fault, and it’s likely that no one else would have handled things any better.

That’s the problem with being in power during a catastrophe. While incumbency is usually a huge political advantage, it is very much a disadvantage when the country is going to hell in a handbasket, as is currently the case with both the United States and Israel.

Trump undermined confidence in his leadership by downplaying the pandemic and second-guessing those who urged the implementation of more drastic measures. If he loses his bid for re-election, it will primarily be due to the fact that the virus lockdowns tanked the booming U.S. economy and set the stage for the summer’s chaos on the streets of American cities even if it’s not clear any Democratic president would have done any better.

That said, Israel’s death toll—now at nearly 550—and the number of infected at about 75,000 remain comparatively small compared to most other countries, making it one of the safer places in the world in terms of contracting and recovering from COVID-19.

In Netanyahu’s case, the turnaround is particularly frustrating because it illustrates the cost of the prime minister’s obsessive focus on thwarting potential rivals, even if they might have helped him.

The recent rise in the polls of the Yamina Party, which stands to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud, is instructive. Its leader, Naftali Bennett, did a good job in dealing with the pandemic during his short-lived tenure as defense minister prior to the coalition deal with Gantz. But Netanyahu wanted both Bennett and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked out of the government despite their talent and appeal because he sees them as would-be successors he wished to derail.

After the first of the three elections in April 2019, Netanyahu and his loyalists rejoiced when Yamina was knocked out of the Knesset. But it rebounded in the latter two votes. In April of this year, Bennett and Shaked had the good sense to stay out of the Likud-Blue and White coalition, and retained their independence. They have now been rewarded for that decision by doubling their support since the last election while Likud has lost ground.

Bennett can also point to the fact that the pandemic policies belatedly adopted by Netanyahu are what he has been calling for all along. That is encouraging some to proclaim him a possible replacement for Netanyahu on the inevitable day when either the judges in his corruption trial, the voters or providence ends his long reign as prime minister.

That may be unlikely, though it’s enough to give pause to those in the Likud who have been thinking about provoking a fourth round of elections as a way to avoid Netanyahu having to keep his word about allowing Gantz to replace him in the top job. And it’s a reminder to Israelis that Netanyahu’s efforts to ensure that his party had nothing but a pack of mediocrities waiting to replace him—so as to forestall any realistic challenge to his authority—remains a mistake.

Netanyahu’s admirers can claim that he will dig himself out of this hole as he has done so many times before. They may be right. But the prime minister’s inability to outfox a virus the same way he has his political opponents may also be a sign that belief in his political immortality will sooner or later be exposed as hubris.

In the meantime, efforts to dismiss his critics as incorrigible leftists and electoral sore losers—and many of them are both of those things—won’t be as effective as in the past. That will remain true if Israelis are, like Americans, focused solely on their pandemic misery that Netanyahu is helpless to alleviate. As long as the security situation, including the danger of a war with Hezbollah and Iran in the north, remains on the back burner, Netanyahu’s summer of political woe will continue.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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