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Israel's resurgent virus crisis rattles Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu's stumbles in the face of a worsening coronavirus outbreak appear to be denting his support
Benjamin Netanyahu's stumbles in the face of a worsening coronavirus outbreak appear to be denting his support GALI TIBBON POOL/AFP/File
4 min
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Jerusalem (AFP)

His poll numbers are sinking, protests are growing and economically punishing restrictions have just been reimposed: surging coronavirus cases in Israel have left Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu encircled by trouble.

After a late-night cabinet meeting, the government on Friday announced that stores, markets and various other public spaces would be closed on weekends, while restaurants are limited to takeaway services through the week.

Netanyahu's office said the premier wanted to avoid another "general lockdown" -- a move that would likely infuriate a public battered by the pandemic.

But it is clear that coronavirus stumbles by Netanyahu, a right-winger, have dented his support.

A poll this week by Channel 13 found that 61 percent of voters were "displeased" by his handling of the crisis.

That marks a stark reversal for Netanyahu, whose response early in the outbreak won praise.

After his government curbed flights and imposed lockdown measures in March, Israel briefly reduced its daily tally of newly confirmed cases to the single digits in early May, but in recent weeks new cases have regularly topped 1,000 per day.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, 57.5 percent of the public supported Netanyahu's coronavirus management at the beginning of April.

As of July 12, that number had fallen to 29.5 percent.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, whose support has been essential to keeping Netanyahu in power, have voiced frustration over the looming threat of renewed synagogue closures.

Netanyahu met with ultra-Orthodox party leaders this week and said he wanted to ease their "distress," while pledging to hold consultations before imposing any closures.

- 'Storming the Bibistille' -

Netanyahu has taken responsibility for the hasty re-opening of Israel's economy between late April and June -- measures widely seen as triggering the resurgence in cases.

Protests against economic hardship have spread across the country, and some 10,000 people demonstrated in Tel Aviv on Saturday.

A rally outside the premier's Jerusalem residence on July 14 saw minor skirmishes with police.

One Israeli media outlet dubbed it the "Storming of the Bibistille," as that rally coincided with the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille during the 1789 French revolution.

The new restrictions cap at 20 the number of people allowed to assemble in open air spaces.

Opposition lawmaker Ofer Cassif of the mainly Arab Joint List told the Ma'ariv newspaper Friday that this was a "politically motivated" decision to suppress further protests.

In an apparent bid to quell rising public anger, Netanyahu has also announced plans for cash payments to all Israelis.

- 'Need someone in charge' -

Meanwhile, a blame game has erupted between politicians and public officials.

Among them is Siegal Sadetzki, the former director of public health who resigned this month, levelling blistering accusations at the government and claiming her expertise had been ignored.

For Dan Ben-David, an academic at Tel Aviv University, Netanyahu is responsible for Israel's undeniable coronavirus missteps.

"How did it help us, opening up the economy, if now we have to close it again?" asked Ben-David, who also co-leads the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research.

The coronavirus crisis had exposed how Netanyahu had neglected parts of the government, including the health ministry, during his 11-year-long tenure, Ben-David argued.

"The prime minister has not cared about anything internal in any serious manner," Ben-David said, arguing that Netanyahu had devoted his attention largely to security, diplomacy and macroeconomics.

With the health ministry weakened, multiple commentators have noted that key decisions, including on re-opening the economy, fell to the prime minister.

But the premier's attention has been divided -- notably between his corruption trial and the prospect of annexing territory in the occupied West Bank.

"Who is taking care of the crisis here?" Ben-David asked. "You need to put someone in charge."

- Bennett as anti-covid chief? -

Calls have mounted for the government to name a coronavirus response coordinator.

Surveys show that at least 40 percent of the public think Netanyahu's bitter rival, ex-defence minister Naftali Bennett, is the best person to lead the pandemic response.

According to a Channel 13 poll, 45 percent of the public think Bennett should be named Israel's anti-coronavirus chief; 26 percent said he should not, and 29 percent said they were unable to make up their mind.

Forty percent said he should be named to the position in a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, although 38 percent in that poll were against such a move.

A hard-line right-winger, Bennett has joined the opposition, and the acrimony between him and the premier is widely known.

On Twitter this week, he urged the government to "wake up".

Bennett has released a coronavirus response plan and chastised the government over its alleged failure to develop adequate testing and contact-tracing capacity.

On Thursday, he told reporters that he had asked to take over the coronavirus response but was still waiting on an answer from the prime minister.

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