Analysis: Israel’s lockdown begins to lift as Bibi’s popularity sinks

Israel this week began lifting its nationwide coronavirus lockdown. Widely praised for its swift and tough action against the pandemic in the spring, the country last month became the first in the world to order a second shutdown after a sharp rise in cases.

But the Jewish state is in a sour mood as it begins tentatively emerging from the lockdown which has been politically calamitous for Benjamin Netanyahu and has deepened divisions within the country.

The second quarantine began on 18 September – just over four months after the first lockdown was lifted – as infection and mortality rates rose to among the highest in the world per capita. On 1 October, new cases hit a record of nearly 9,000 per day and there were fears that hospitals would be overwhelmed. At that time, the number of people testing positive for covid was 15 percent. Last Thursday, the number of new cases dropped below 2,000 a day – the threshold set for the Health Ministry to begin easing the lockdown – with the test positivity rate at 4.5 percent (the lowest since mid-July) and the R number at 0.6 percent. On Saturday, the positive test rate stood at 2.8 percent. On Tuesday morning, the Health Ministry reported 1,479 new coronavirus cases were recorded during the previous 24 hours, and there were 54 further deaths.

The number of Israelis who have died from the pandemic stands at 2,268. The Worldometer coronavirus tracker places Israel 38th in the world for the number of deaths per million people at 240 (the UK is at 12 with 642). At the end of the first national lockdown in May, Israel registered 27 deaths per million people. The number of deaths in Israel – which has a population of 9.2 million people – compared to similar-sized countries is also revealing. Sweden has a population of 10 million but has seen nearly 6,000 deaths. Belgium, which has seen 10,400 casualties, has a population of 11 million. And Austria, with its 8.5 million population, has lost 904 people.

“A lot less community spirit”

The second lockdown has, observers suggest, seen weaker public compliance. “During the first lockdown, we saw so many people who were focused on tackling this pandemic as a united community,” said Brigadier General Sigal Bar-Tzvi, commander of community policing for the Israel Police. “This time around, though, people are worrying more about themselves and their own needs. There is a lot less community spirit.” Last Sunday, in a Facebook-coordinated mass revolt, thousands of small shops opened their doors, with many larger retail chains joining them this weekend. Other shops have founded ingenious ways – one clothing store placed a few boxes of fresh fruit among its racks to suggest is complying with the sale of “fresh food” exemption – to get around restrictions.

Unlike in May when, critics say, the government lifted restrictions too quickly, there will be a phased reduction in lockdown measures carried out through to February 2021. However, Israelis can now travel more than one km from home and visit others’ homes, although no more than 10 people can gather indoors and 20 outdoors. Restaurants are allowed to offer takeaway food; businesses that don’t receive customers can open; people can visit beaches and national parks; and the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount compound are open for worship under certain restrictions. The cabinet’s coronavirus committee will meet today to discuss the next stage of easing the lockdown, which may include the reopening of businesses with in-store customers, as well as malls. Health officials will reportedly warn that either commerce or schools can reopen, but not both at this stage.

The Haredi revolt

Kindergartens and preschools have reopened throughout the country, although schools have been ordered to remain closed. However, there is controversy surrounding Netanyahu’s decision to accede to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties – which are members of the governing coalition and long-time allies – and allow preschools and day care centres to reopen in “red” cities (those areas where infection rates are still high). The majority of the population are ultra-Orthodox in these cities. “This is a dangerous gamble because these cities and neighbourhoods are suffering a ratio of carriers five to 10 times higher than the rest of the population,” wrote Amos Harel of the Haaretz newspaper.

This decision comes on the heels of reports that a plan to tighten restrictions on towns according to their infection rates – which would have hit Haredi communities, among whom infection rates are double that of the general population, hard – was abandoned in the early summer because of the opposition of the ultra-Orthodox parties. That decision is widely seen as having led to the national lockdown as the virus hurtled out of control in September.

The situation has been exacerbated by the decision of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox schools – most of them located in “red” zones – to defy the government’s restrictions and reopen. The move followed an order on Saturday by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a top rabbi in the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, that boys’ schools in the Haredi Talmud Torah system should recommence classes.

Netanyahu initially responded by appealing to the schools to obey the government and remain shut. “The Torah sanctifies life, and [doing] this endangers life,” he said on Saturday evening. On Monday, he adopted a tougher tone, while still shying away from a direct confrontation. “We will step up enforcement and tighten the lockdowns and take all the steps needed. I hope we can do this through dialogue,” Netanyahu told the weekly meeting of the Likud parliamentary party. “There was also a drop [in cases] among the Haredi public. It’s more difficult there. It’s more crowded there, they don’t have Zoom.” The health minister, Yuli Edelstein, had earlier warned schools that they risk heavy fines and losing their licenses and funding if they disobey the restrictions. The deputy prime minister and leader of the centrist Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, suggested: “we cannot accept anarchy.”

Netanyahu cornered

Other leading politicians, however, suggested that Netanyahu’s actions were being driven by political considerations, not least his own survival given that his trial on corruption charges is due to resume in January. “Because of his trial, Netanyahu is running away from a clash with the ultra-Orthodox parties. He needs them so he surrenders to them. That surrender harms everyone but first and foremost it harms the ultra-Orthodox population. The state has a responsibility to stand up against those who break the law,” Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition and head of the left-leaning Yesh Atid-Telem party said on Monday. “If I were prime minister today, an educational institution that doesn’t abide by the rules wouldn’t get a 5,000 shekel fine, it would get a 100,000 shekel fine. The next step would be to remove their funding – not partial funding, all of it. An educational institution that doesn’t abide by the law wouldn’t get a cent from the state. It’s not against the ultra-Orthodox, it’s in favour of the ultra-Orthodox. It will save their lives.”

Lapid’s words reflect growing anger among voters at Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic. A Channel 12 poll released on Sunday showed that 58 percent of Israelis think the prime minister has handled the health crisis badly, while only 36 percent say he has performed well. On the economic fallout from the coronavirus, the findings were worse, with 63 percent saying he had done badly.

There also appears to be a strong public sentiment that the government’s decisions are being influenced by politics: 63 percent thought such considerations were driving its handling of the crisis, against only 26 percent who believe that advice from health experts and officials were paramount. Moreover, 73 percent of Israelis said they believed that Netanyahu would cave to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox and lift lockdowns on high-infection “red” areas. A poll for Channel 13, which offered similar findings, also showed that three-quarters of the public expect the country to be forced into a third lockdown.

This dissatisfaction has hit Netanyahu’s overall political standing – and that of his Likud party – hard. A poll conducted for the Jerusalem Post last week found that 54 percent of Israelis – including 28 percent of those who voted Likud at March’s general election – want the prime minister to leave politics. Like others, the poll found Likud haemorrhaging support. If a general election were held today, Likud would drop from 36 seats to 28. The principal beneficiaries would be the right-wing Yamina party of former defence minister Naftali Bennett, which would see its six seats rise to 21. Lapid’s Yesh Atid-Telem would win 17, the Arab-Israeli Joint List 14, and Yisrael Beytenu, Shas and Blue and White nine each. The poll predicted seven seats for United Torah Judaism, Shas’ fellow ultra-Orthodox party, and six for the left-wing Meretz party.

While Netanyahu has shrugged off the bad news – “I never succeed in the polls, only in the elections,” the prime minister nonchalantly suggested on Monday – he is undoubtedly politically weakened. Despite Israelis having voted in three national polls since April 2019, new elections are a possibility: Netanyahu has been rowing with Blue and White for months about the budget. If a deal is not reached by December, the government will be forced into new elections. Many have suspected that Netanyahu is using the budget crisis to bring about elections and thus avoid honouring the coalition agreement which will see him stepping down as prime minister next autumn in favour of Gantz.

Netanyahu also faces the prospect of a return to the large protests against his continuing in office – which have brought together both members of the anti-corruption “Black Flag movement” and those who are suffering economic distress due to the crisis – as emergency covid-related restrictions come to an end. The lifting of the ban on people travelling one km from home allowed large crowds to return to Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem on Saturday evening. More dangerously for Netanyahu, anti-government protests have now spread deep into normally Netanyahu-friendly territory, including some West Bank settlements and the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. While Netanyahu and Likud sought to blame the protesters for spreading the virus, greater public attention is focused on the prime minister’s Haredi allies.

“Netanyahu on Saturday night was vulnerable as he has never been since returning to power in 2009,” wrote Haaretz political commentator Anshel Pfeffer this week. “The fragile foundations of his power were exposed for all to see.” The prime minister, he said, was “being held a helpless hostage by a merciless ultra-Orthodox leadership”. “This unshakable alliance was Netanyahu’s rock through three stalemated elections when he failed to win a majority,” Pfeffer argued. “Now it’s weighing him down, into the electoral depths.”