Vivian Bercovici: Israel's leaders are AWOL on COVID, and public faith has collapsed

Instead of containing and managing the actual COVID threat in a targeted manner, Netanyahu chose to slap draconian measures on all Israelis indiscriminately, infuriating the majority of law-abiding citizens

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Fuelling Israel’s raging COVID-19 contagion rate is a tribal entitlement that has become entrenched under the decade-plus of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership.

As this health crisis has been on an uncontrolled upward trajectory for months now, political leadership has been preoccupied with who to blame, rather than how to manage and solve.

Netanyahu blames the opposition and, most of the time, his supposed partners in his sham of a coalition government. His secular coalition members blame Netanyahu, saying that he has long failed to govern and makes decisions only on the basis of how they will postpone his ongoing corruption trial.

Then there are Netanyahu’s stalwart ultra-Orthodox political allies — crucial to his political survival — who cast the blame for the corona crisis on non-religious Israelis.

In addition to this petty and chronic abdication of duty, there is a degree of hypocrisy among leadership that was previously unimaginable.

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It seems that every day yet another cabinet minister or senior public servant is added to the list of those who brazenly flout lockdown or quarantine measures that are applied to regular folks with a police-state zeal. In fact, the head of the Shin Bet police force (comparable to the RCMP), whose office oversees all cyber-tracking of Israelis subject to corona restrictions, was busted a few days ago for breaching quarantine. On Thursday it was the IDF chief of staff who was exposed to have breached the rules.

As have so many before, they apologized, and carried on. No biggie. They seem, collectively, oblivious to the fact that their conduct has contributed to an unprecedented and complete breakdown of trust in Israeli society.

Meanwhile, the number of fines slapped on ordinary Israelis for minor breaches of irrational, extreme and unsustainable lockdown controls has soared in recent weeks. And these are not token amounts; many run into the thousands of dollars for daring to roam more than a kilometre from one’s residence. Yet the leaders seem to swan about, unrestricted.

Leading rabbis and ultra-Orthodox political leaders openly counsel their communities to ignore government health directives and adhere, instead, to their rabbis’ guidance. Consequently, far too many among the ultra-Orthodox thumb their noses at the corona-related restrictions. They gather for prayer in crowded, stuffy synagogues; attend funerals packed with hundreds of mourners shoulder to shoulder; and gather with large extended families to celebrate festive meals.

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And they say: “We’re not the problem. It’s all those leftists participating in street demonstrations against the government that are spreading the virus.”

They refer, of course, to the nightly demonstrations across Israel, involving tens of thousands of civilians, protesting the incompetence and failure of leadership at every level.

But these ultra-Orthodox claims that civilian demonstrations are COVID super-spreader events are simply untrue. It is the ultra-Orthodox population — 12 per cent of Israelis — that makes up more than 40 per cent of new infections.

And that number says it all.

In the early months of corona in Israel, contagion rates were highest in ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arab communities for similar reasons: both demographics tend to have large families living in multi-generational homes. They are also far more likely to be poor and crammed into cramped living quarters, facilitating the spread of the virus.

However, public-health directives have been followed quite diligently among the Arabs in recent months, resulting in a dramatic drop in COVID numbers in their communities — to approximately 10 per cent of new infections.

In March and again in September, when health authorities recommended strongly that towns with high infection rates be subject to more stringent lockdown measures than the population at large, the ultra-Orthodox leaders protested, saying that an anti-religious obsession informed such recommendations, not logic.

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And, because he was so utterly beholden to their political support to cling to power, Netanyahu collapsed like a house of cards. Rather than backing his highly competent apolitical health officials, he attacked and impugned their professionalism, emboldening his allies in their defiance of public-health directives.

Instead of containing and managing the actual COVID threat in a targeted manner, Netanyahu chose to slap draconian measures on all Israelis indiscriminately, infuriating the majority of law-abiding citizens.

The result? Public trust in Netanyahu’s leadership has plummeted from 57 per cent in March to 25 per cent today.

Most distressing is the craven opportunism of so many political and religious leaders, using a prolonged health crisis to jostle and elbow for advantage, regardless of the human consequence.

Many ultra-orthodox Israelis prefer a life of piety and poverty, so, it is no surprise that, statistically, they contribute far less to the economy on a per capita basis than do the rest of their compatriots. So, for them, much less is at stake during a nationwide economic shutdown. Large numbers of these families subsist on government largesse and private charity. The community resents this sudden intrusion into their usually isolated lifestyle and rhythm by a secular state with values they find anathema.

Except, of course, when they require treatment, they set aside their differences to avail themselves of the state-run medical care.

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This complex social breakdown is exacerbated by a complete failure of leadership; a crisis just beginning to unfold. Never before have civilian demonstrations persisted for so long, in such large numbers and in every corner of the country. Also unprecedented is the police violence.

Netanyahu tends to depict these demonstrators as ragtag leftists. Truth is, they represent the broadest range of Israelis, including those far less likely to participate in such civil disobedience: professionals, the elderly, the silent and very exasperated majority.

No one can be believed, least of all the government, which has become a parody of itself. The main drivers of infection continue to do as they please, unhindered, and the numbers of dead, dying and sick continue to soar.

Israeli trust in key public institutions has collapsed.

National Post

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