Netanyahu takes credit for “resurrecting” Israel. Now he hopes his Covid-19 campaign will save his political future

 Netanyahu takes credit for “resurrecting” Israel.  Now he hopes his Covid-19 campaign will save his political future

Kurz, who was visiting Israel with his Danish counterpart to discuss a trilateral vaccine pact, thanked Netanyahu for pushing him into action early in the Covid-19 outbreak. After discussions and a visit to a gymnasium open to those who have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19, Austria, Denmark and Israel have announced an alliance to ensure long-term vaccine supply.

“I will never forget the start of 2020, when we got a phone call and Bibi Netanyahu told me that this virus would be a huge threat to the whole world, to Europe even if we don’t don’t know yet, ”Kurz said. “Maybe you were the reason we acted early enough in Austria when the first wave hit us hard in the European Union. ”

Netanyahu recognized from the start of the pandemic that vaccines could save not only Israel, but also its political future.

For years, Netanyahu has portrayed himself as the man who turned Israel into a global technological power. Today, as he faces a fourth election in two years and an ongoing corruption trial, the Prime Minister is touting his record of transforming Israel from a “Start-up Nation” to a “Vaccination Nation”.


div>Netanyahu made Israel’s handling of the pandemic, and in particular its strong vaccine campaign, personal: appearing almost every night on television addresses around the country in the early weeks of the pandemic, obsessively negotiating peace deals. vaccines with pharmaceutical companies, receiving the first doses in Tel Aviv. airport and get vaccinated on prime-time television.

Earlier this month, Netanyahu praised the country’s “green” Covid-19 vaccination passports over coffee at a recently reopened cafe in Jerusalem, saying Israel was “coming back to life.” And bringing Israeli society “to life” – his latest campaign slogan – may be Netanyahu’s best chance to keep his long political career alive. Winning his sixth term as prime minister with a parliamentary majority could protect him from an ongoing corruption trial and keep him out of jail.

As Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday, life returns to normal, with schools in session and restaurants reopened.

The question now is whether voters will credit Netanyahu with this return to normalcy enough to break the political deadlock that has plagued the country for two years.

“In politics, you judge the leader by the result, how the leader handled the crisis and the outcome,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a former media adviser to Netanyahu. In the case of the vaccination program, he added, “the Israelis are quite happy.”

A good start reversed by surges

The coronavirus pandemic unfolded alongside a political crisis in Israel. The first peak in infections struck last March, just weeks after the country’s third election in a year and as Netanyahu formed a coalition with his rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz.

As the Austrian Chancellor noted, Netanyahu has taken swift action to tackle the outbreak, publicly warning of the dangers of the virus and effectively shutting down Israel before the country even records its first death.

Mobile booths deployed in the streets allowed for easily accessible Covid-19 tests. Some people with mild cases of the virus have been sent to state-run isolation centers, often converted hotels, to recover. Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays where families gather in large groups for a big seder dinner, was essentially canceled after Israelis were banned from gathering in groups or traveling.

In May, after nearly a year and a half of political stalemate, Netanyahu finally established his coalition government, with an unprecedented number of ministers and MPs. And with the infection rates falling, the government has started to allow the return of public life. Israel appeared to have finished the first lap in the lead. While countries like Italy recorded tens of thousands of deaths in May, Israel’s death toll at the time was less than 300.

But as people returned to restaurants and events like weddings, so did the virus.

In July, as cases rose again, critics criticized what was seen as a haphazard and inconsistent approach to restrictions, and Netanyahu’s approval rates plummeted. Frustration over Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic turned into protests outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, leading police to use water cannons.

Crowds protest Netanyahu's handling of the pandemic in Jerualem in July.

In September, Israel had the world’s worst rate of new infections per capita, and the country was embroiled in a political row over who was to blame.

Professor Eran Segal of the Israel Institute of Weizmann Sciences, praised the government’s initial response, but told CNN the errors started after the first lockdown. A reluctance at different times to apply targeted restrictions at the local level, especially in ultra-Orthodox and Arab neighborhoods, may have helped the virus spread further, Segal said.

“Probably for various reasons, I imagine a lot of political reasons, we have failed to contain the spreads where they occurred,” Segal said.

While his Likud party holds the most seats in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, Netanyahu has been unable to form a governing coalition without the support of several small religious parties. And in some ultra-Orthodox communities, coronavirus restrictions on gatherings have met with skepticism, rejection and, in some cases, violent clashes.

Segal also criticized the government’s litmus test over the summer for lockdowns – 800 critically ill patients simultaneously would trigger a shutdown. If Israel had declared lockdowns earlier, there would have been fewer deaths and a shorter overall lockdown period, he said.

But Netanyahu has never taken responsibility for the pitfalls in his response to the pandemic. When asked in September who should bear the blame for Israel’s failure to contain the virus, he replied, “There are no failures, only achievements. ”


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Netanyahu's campaign slogan

The comment marked a remarkably different tone from President Reuven Rivlin’s a few days later when the head of state of Israel issued a direct apology to the nation.

“I know we haven’t put in enough leadership effort to deserve your attention. You trusted us and we let you down, ”Rivlin said. “You, citizens of Israel, deserve a safety net that the country offers you. Policymakers, government departments, policy implementers must work for you and only for you – to save lives, reduce infections, save the economy. I understand the feeling that none of these tasks were performed satisfactorily. ”

As the end of 2020 approached, as Israel faced a third wave of infections, the Israeli Knesset backed off attempts to pass a budget, leading to the dissolution of parliament and the calling of elections for that. year. Critics of Netanyahu, who included his coalition partner Gantz, suspected that the prime minister never wanted the current government to last long, and now the Israeli leader could see his political salvation coming just around the corner.

Bringing Israel back to life

From the start, Netanyahu lobbied for Israel to be among the first countries to receive Covid-19 vaccines, boasting of being in regular contact with major pharmaceutical companies and their CEOs.

Although he signed an early deal with Moderna, it was the special deal with Pfizer – and its Jewish CEO Albert Bourla – that earned Israel the place of world leader. Israel paid a high price and got the vaccines quickly, and in return gives Pfizer access to data from Israel’s centralized health care system to study the vaccine’s effectiveness. Israel did not detail the exact per person price it paid for the Pfizer vaccine, but a parliamentary committee revealed this week that the country had already disbursed 2.6 billion shekels ($ 787 million) for “various vaccine transactions ”and expects to spend a similar amount. amount for more in the future.

Netanyahu welcomes the first delivery of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to Ben-Gurion Airport on January 10.
Despite Netanyahu’s personal involvement, his election opponents like Labor leader Merav Michaelisay that the success of Israel’s vaccines is not only thanks to Netanyahu’s purchasing abilities, but also to Israel’s public health system, which Michaeli says was built by previous leftist governments.

But Netanyahu is doing all he can to take ownership of the immunization program and its success, making it a central part of his new positive and uplifting “come back to life” campaign – a marked change from the elections. previous ones, said Bushinsky.

“In recent years, Netanyahu’s campaign has always been supported or using the campaign of fear, that if Netanyahu is not there, the Iranians will develop the bomb, or Hamas will get stronger, or Hezbollah will attack,” he said. said Bushinsky. “This is, I think, the first election in which Netanyahu is participating in which he does not use the campaign of fear but the campaign of hope. ”

Time and luck have also been on Netanyahu’s side. With the vaccination program starting at the end of December, Netanyahu had at least three months between the first injection and polling day – enough time for the majority of the population to be vaccinated and begin to taste normalcy in the course. of the country’s “green pass” program.

“Some say Netanyahu, God touched him, that he is lucky,” Bushinsky said. “Imagine if the elections were held a few months ago when most people were not vaccinated. ”

Netanyahu receives his second shot at Covid-19 in Tel Aviv on January 9.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a cabinet minister who served alongside Netanyahu for decades, said he believes the Israelis will reward Netanyahu for the way he handled the virus.

“I believe after the year of the crown people were really exposed to the capabilities of the Prime Minister who brought Israel out of Covid-19 with new expectations, a vaccination that everyone is entitled to and millions Israelis are already crown unscathed. I believe this will reflect on the result, ”Hanegbi said.

Netanyahu, Hanegbi said, has “the inner feeling that you are there because God sent you to save the people of Israel and to lead them through difficult times.”

“I think it gives him the power and the support of the people. It’s called charisma. ”

CNN’s Oren Lieberman contributed to this report.