Steinberg: Israel bounces between election and coronavirus

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference about the coronavirus in Jerusalem on March 11. (Flash90 photo)

Israelis went to polls for the third time in a year on March 2, just as the reality of the coronavirus threat was beginning to sink in. The combination created an eerie tableaux, including special polling stations set up so that over 5,000 people then in quarantine could dash in, vote, and run back. It was as if fate had conspired to maximize the uncertainty of our lives far beyond any reasonable threshold.

And then came the election results  – initially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to have done better than expected, and would be able to form a government, irrespective of the imminent beginning of his corruption trial. But when the votes were all tallied, the country was gridlocked again, and the anti-Netanyahu seats in the Knesset were slightly greater. Once again, we face complete political uncertainty accompanied by intense backroom wheeling and dealing. And some people began to talk about a fourth election in September.

In parallel, the number of Covid-19 cases are growing slowly, and as Israel tried to stay ahead of the contagion curve, the country gradually closed its doors to the world. Ben Gurion airport is largely empty – every day looks like Yom Kippur – with only a few flights daily to allow tourists to leave, and to bring home Israelis. Thousands of El Al employees were placed on leave until further notice, and the entire tourist industry was frozen. What all of the wars failed to accomplish was done by the fear of the corona pandemic. 

For the most part, the government has continued to function, with Netanyahu still very much at the helm. Almost every day, ministers and experts meet and issue new instructions, and top officials from the Ministry of Health, often accompanied by the prime minister, are making public statements and answering questions in a remarkable display of openness.

At some points, particularly when the question of extending quarantine requirements from Europe to the United States was being debated, there were open and substantive differences of opinion between the officials. As a result, the public was exposed to the unknowns and difficulties, and were prepared for future scenarios.

In the middle of all of this drama, we tried to celebrate Purim – which lasts for most of the week in Israel (based on the Book of Esther, walled cities, such as Jerusalem, celebrate a day after the rest of the country). Children still dressed up and some parties were held, but the shadow of the virus was everywhere. And as soon as the celebrations in Jerusalem ended, the government banned all gatherings of more than 100 people, including sporting events, concerts and theatrical performances. Synagogues announced staggered times for prayers to avoid going beyond the limit. On the next day, the schools were closed, shutting down the country even more.

Economically, Israel is in the same boat as other developed countries. Many people will be able to work from home, but many other sectors will be hit hard. As trade routes are disrupted and the global crisis takes its toll, Israel  will also be hit badly. The government has pledged to help businesses survive the impacts, and to keep the planes flying (if necessary, under Air Force control) with products destined for export markets, to the degree that these continue to function.

For the most part, Israelis have shown remarkable co-operation with these edicts, and there were few signs of panic. Perhaps the experiences provided in past wars prepared the public for this kind of self-discipline. Netanyahu is given credit by some of his harshest critics for clear and effective leadership. There is also discussion of an emergency government which he would expect to lead.

How the politics and the pandemic will play out is of course unknowable. Most of the efforts focus on getting through the day and week, and beyond that, hoping to arrive at the Passover holidays in reasonably good shape, under the circumstances.