Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial for corruption was supposed to begin on 17 March. He had been charged on three separate counts: the first indictment, for fraud and breach of trust, has to do with the alleged receipt of ‘gifts’ – cigars, champagne – with a total value of $200,000 from the Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and the Australian billionaire James Packer. The second, also for fraud and breach of trust, relates to a deal he allegedly made with Arnon Mozes, a newspaper publisher, for favourable coverage in Israel’s largest daily. The third, for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, concerns regulatory decisions he allegedly took in favour of a telecoms mogul, Shaul Elovitch, in return for positive stories on a news website under Elovitch’s control. Two weeks before the trial was due to begin, on 2 March, Israelis went to the polls for the third time in 11 months. For the past year Israeli politics has been in stalemate: Netanyahu has been unable to form a governing coalition, in part because one of his supposed allies – the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by Avigdor Lieberman – has refused to be part of any government led by him. The pressure on him was growing. Netanyahu was determined to win the election soundly and form a coalition before his trial began, so that he could push through legislation to keep himself out of jail.
As the opinion polls predicted, Netanyahu’s Likud party won the largest number of seats – 36 out of 120 in the Knesset – but he was again unable to form a coalition. Together with the religious parties, which have become his loyal allies, he amassed 58 seats, three shy of a majority. He then went on camera to give Israelis another lesson in the country’s long history of racist mathematics. The Knesset wasn’t split between 62 centre-left and 58 right-wing seats, he said: there were actually 58 for the Zionist right and 47 for the Zionist left, because the Joint List – a group of parties representing most of the 1.6 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, which won 15 seats – shouldn’t count. In his words: ‘As the Joint List denigrates our soldiers … it is actually 58 v. 47 … That was the will of the people.’
The feeling in the air, as we watched Netanyahu on TV madly writing these numbers down on a big piece of white paper, was that we were witnessing his last days in office. The old racist tricks that used to work so well for him – in 2015 he mobilised voters by warning them that ‘Arabs are going en masse to the polls’ – had begun to lose their power over those in Israel, including the president, Reuven Rivlin, who consider themselves liberals. And Netanyahu’s attempt to deny the legitimacy of the Joint List wasn’t going according to plan. Under the Israeli system each party recommends a candidate for prime minister; the president selects the one with the best chance of forming a coalition. The Joint List took the politically courageous step of lending their nominations to Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White alliance, who as chief of the general staff between 2011 and 2015 had been in charge of two wars on Gaza, Operation Pillar of Defence and Operation Protective Edge. The Blue and White list also includes two other army chiefs: Gabi Ashkenazi, who led another assault on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9; and Moshe Ya’alon, who was defence minister during Operation Protective Edge. These people are militaristic and committed to Israel’s security-minded, anti-Arab programme. But, in a historically unprecedented move, Joint List members of the Knesset, all but one of them Arab citizens of Israel, chose to put aside their differences with the Blue and White list in the interest of securing the one goal they all had in common: to get rid of Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s alleged corruption, his increasingly anti-democratic legislation, horror stories about his wife misusing state funds: all these, combined with the growing discontent of the ‘patriotic’ Blue and White list, prompted the feeling that even if Israel was not going to end its occupation of the West Bank, lift its 13-year siege of Gaza, renew negotiations with the Palestinians or deal with the open wound of 1948 then at least a great change was beckoning – a Bibi-free future. In the words of Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List,
we are going to recommend Benny Gantz to the president as part of our principle of saying ‘No’ to Netanyahu. We are recommending Gantz as a tool, while the core of the issue for us is to topple Netanyahu … We know that the current alternative to Netanyahu is not Che Guevara, but … we want to see him out.
‘Sof Idan Netanyahu’, the end of the Netanyahu era, was around the corner. The prime minister himself must have been weighing all possible options that would enable him to remain in power. Which urgent security issue would he seize on this time as a problem which apparently only he could deal with: Gaza? Iran? Hamas? Hizbullah? But amazingly he didn’t have to mention any of them.
On 15 March – two days before Netanyahu was due to appear in court, the first time in Israel’s history that a sitting prime minister would go on trial – the justice minister announced that the courts were to close. The coronavirus emergency, an official statement released in the middle of the night said, made all non-urgent court activity impossible. It now seems more and more likely that Netanyahu’s political career has been saved by a virus.
Next to the ‘corona’ – as it’s referred to in Hebrew – Netanyahu’s dodgy dealings can be made to seem a minor issue. And he has known how to play it. By the second week of March he was in his element. Setting up a daily 8 p.m. press conference, he spoke about unity and good personal hygiene, said that ‘love is distance’ and demonstrated how to sneeze into a tissue. ‘Let’s put politics aside for the time being,’ he said. ‘It is now time for a national emergency government.’ The media rallied to his call, and so did less likely allies. The novelist David Grossman went on TV to urge a ‘unity government’ of Likud and Blue and White. ‘Hatred will wait for better days … we need an emergency unity government now,’ Aviv Geffen, a rock star and once a leading peace activist, said in an op-ed. Even the journalist Gideon Levy, who is usually highly critical of government policies, felt it was time to leave Netanyahu alone. ‘Netanyahu is the best there is for now, with the emphasis on “there is” and “for now”,’ he wrote in Haaretz, upsetting many on the left. He argued that there was no real difference between Likud and Blue and White – true enough, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and that it was a mistake to continue to focus on Netanyahu while the world was trying to fight a pandemic.
On 20 April, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, it was announced that a deal on a unity government had been signed. The date was no coincidence: this was Netanyahu’s way of belittling the charges against him, and highlighting the more profound common principles that Jewish Israelis can unite around. Under the terms of the deal, the unity government, composed of Jewish parties only, will operate for 36 months: Netanyahu will be prime minister for the first 18 months, and Gantz – who only a month ago was promising Israelis that he would not ‘sit in a coalition with an indicted person’ – will be deputy PM and defence minister. For the second 18 months, assuming the government lasts that long, the roles will be switched: Gantz as prime minister, Netanyahu as deputy. Netanyahu will continue to have control of the Judicial Appointments Committee and a de facto veto on appointments to the Supreme Court as well as nominees for state prosecutor and attorney general. For the first six months the government is to deal mainly with Covid-19: any other legislation will need agreement from all the coalition parties. There is one exception to this: plans to annex parts of the West Bank will go forward from 1 July, in order to ensure that Israeli sovereignty is imposed while Trump is still safely in place. And the deal on the unity government has another little clause deeply congenial to Netanyahu: it was agreed that, during his time as prime minister and as deputy PM, he can continue to fulfil all the functions of his office notwithstanding the indictments against him. In other words, with a little help from ‘corona’, Bibi has done it again.
So far, Covid-19 hasn’t hit Israel as badly as many other countries: as of 24 April, there have been 14,882 known cases and 193 deaths. The messages circulating on WhatsApp, though, are the same as anywhere else: jokes about toilet paper worth its weight in gold, people gaining weight while stuck at home, the shortage of eggs etc in the supermarkets, along with references to books, movies, TV shows and verses from the Bible that allegedly predicted the outbreak. Israel’s schools were shut down on 12 March. Their closure – together with the disappearance of grandparents’ support – have made life with a child rather hectic, as you shuttle between How to Train Your Dragon and a Zoom class on the history of Gaza at the end of Ottoman rule. But I know I’m lucky. For those who’ve lost their jobs, or who have to work in unsafe conditions, the challenges are much more serious.
The most severely affected section of the population has been the ultra-Orthodox community. In the city of Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, there are almost 12 cases per 1000 people. Celebrations for the Purim holiday, which involve drinking, dancing, costumes and masks, were held as usual on 9-10 March – in most cases with no restrictions at all – and seem to have accelerated the spread of the virus. Much of the subsequent criticism was directed at the health minister, Yaakov Litzman, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who later himself became infected with Covid-19: he had specifically exempted ultra-Orthodox institutions from the general restrictions. But some secular Israelis – in a disturbing echo of the way Jews in Europe were accused of ‘spreading the plague’ during the Black Death – have turned on the ultra-Orthodox community as a whole, one of Israel’s poorest groups, many of them living in densely populated neighbourhoods and choosing to have little access to television, radio and the internet.
As finance minister under Ariel Sharon (2003-5) and as prime minister (2009-20, or, if the latest polls are to be believed, until the end of time), Netanyahu has pursued the cause of privatisation and neoliberal economics while neglecting basic services and investment in public health. According to the Gini index, Israel was the most unequal state in the OECD between 2013 and 2015; it moved up to second most unequal in 2016 when the US took the bottom spot. A report published last year by the Taub Centre for Social Policy Studies made it clear how low down the list of government priorities Israel’s public services are: there are 2.2 hospital beds per 1000 people compared to an OECD average of 3.6, or 4.1 in countries with similar healthcare systems. The report also revealed acute inequality in hospital services between Israel’s centre and its periphery, and the absence of any kind of plan for the future of the health system. Revealingly, when Covid-19 began to spread in Israel, Netanyahu ordered Mossad to undertake a secret shopping expedition in the Arabian Gulf (probably the UAE) to buy up 500,000 coronavirus testing kits for Israel’s use. The decision says as much about the government’s neglect of public services as it does about its generalised panic.
Meanwhile, the government has done nothing to alleviate the concerns of the more than one million Israelis – 24 per cent of the workforce – who are currently unemployed. When the government announced its £18 billion plan to support the economy during the emergency, it came as no surprise that the money wouldn’t be released to those who had lost everything overnight but would take the form of loans to be advanced only to businesses with acceptable reorganisation plans. This wasn’t about helping businesses in a time of crisis: it was about forcing them to adopt the government’s way of thinking.
Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine has been mentioned over and over again in the last few weeks: in the Israeli case, when disaster struck, there were hands, not necessarily invisible, intent on shifting the state’s responsibilities onto its citizens. And the state uses all the resources at its disposal to keep those citizens in line: while the ‘heroic’ Mossad has been operating behind enemy lines to sneak coronavirus testing kits into Israel, Shin Bet has stepped up its surveillance of ordinary people, tracking the movements of mobile phones. Netanyahu has made unstinting use of emergency regulations; he has sought to paralyse the work of the Knesset and the courts; he has set up a ‘unity government’ to pursue his own agenda. Gantz – the one person who was in a position to replace him, through an alliance with the representatives of Israel’s 1.6 million Arabs – has now surrendered any chance of a more democratic Israel in favour of supporting the prime minister’s anti-democratic legacy. For Netanyahu the prognosis is good. For Israel, the future will be at least as bad as the past.