How the Coronavirus Saved Netanyahu’s Political Career

For an Israeli leader who stokes fear to fuel his power, the pandemic came as opportunity.

An Israeli woman wearing a face mask with "crime minister" written on it
An Israeli woman wearing a face mask with "crime minister" written on it, lies on a banner bearing the face of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Israel, on April 19. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—For leaders around the world, the coronavirus has been a colossal challenge, testing their ability to manage a crisis on an unparalleled scale. But for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the pandemic has also been a political salve, allowing him to put off his corruption trial, smash the country’s main opposition party, and now forge a governing majority that had eluded him since late 2018.

In the coming months, it could provide another dividend for Israel’s longest-serving prime minister: a chance to fulfill a nationalist agenda of annexing parts of the West Bank and effectively quashing Palestinian aspirations for a state of their own

Netanyahu finalized a power-sharing deal Monday with his main political challenger, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, after weeks of cliffhanger talks. Under the agreement, which cites the “historic crisis of the coronavirus spread,” Netanyahu will continue serving as prime minister for 18 months, and then cede the position to Gantz.

The deal ends a long period of political uncertainty in Israel, which included three national elections that resulted in stalemate.

The third election, held just last month, left Netanyahu in political peril. His Likud-led right-wing bloc captured 58 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Gantz, a former army chief, seemed close to forging a coalition that would have ousted Netanyahu after 11 years as prime minister.

Then cases of the new coronavirus began skyrocketing in Israel. As Gantz’s coalition-building stalled, Netanyahu took to the airwaves nightly to brief the country on the growing threat while urging his rival to join forces against the virus in an emergency government.

Gantz had long maintained that the criminal indictments filed against Netanyahu last year disqualified him from continuing to serve as prime minister. But on March 26, he relented, agreeing in principle to a partnership and splintering his own party—about half of which refused to go along. It took another three weeks to finalize the deal.

“Benny Gantz had an option to form a minority government. And then this coronavirus struck, and gave Netanyahu another lifeline, and opportunity,” said Yaakov Katz, the editor in chief of the English-language Jerusalem Post. “Without the virus, I don’t know if we would have a government right now.”

The pandemic allowed Netanyahu to reassert his leadership credentials and demonstrate that he was “in a league of his own” when it came to political experience—a slogan from his election campaigns.

His addresses were part doomsaying, part calls to rally around the flag, and part personal promotion—talking up Israel’s relative success in fighting the pandemic. The prime minister’s social media account bragged, falsely, that Forbes had declared Israel the safest place to be during the coronavirus emergency.

Netanyahu was bolstered by Israel’s relative success in the coronavirus battle. The country of 9 million has fewer than 10,000 active coronavirus cases, and the number of daily virus survivors this week surpassed the number of newly diagnosed. Fewer than 200 people have died.

The crisis played to Netanyahu’s strengths, giving him a news agenda to dominate and another opportunity to assert himself as a national savior, said Anshel Pfeffer, the author of a biography on the prime minister.

“Netanyahu is a great director of drama in which he is also the main star,” said Pfeffer, who writes for the Economist and the Israeli daily Haaretz. “He ramps up the fear factor, emphasizing a great threat to the nation’s existence, but he always has the solution right up his sleeve, and that is why Israel needs his leadership to ride out the crisis.”

For Gantz, the crisis offered cover to go back on a yearlong vow not to serve under a prime minister mired in a corruption scandal. While Gantz invoked the need to avoid the possibility of a fourth consecutive election, his decision to partner with Netanyahu appears to have torched his credibility among a broad base of supporters. It also splintered Blue and White, and killed an initiative of center-left parties to pass laws that would have disqualified Netanyahu from being prime minister over his corruption charges.

The political chatter class ridiculed Gantz as a naif over the agreement. An Israeli satire show showed Gantz’s head as the main course of Netanyahu’s Passover holiday meal. Yossi Verter, a political columnist for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, dubbed the emergency government a “Israel-bluff” and accused him of “surrendering time after time.”

The deal did exact concessions from Netanyahu. He agreed to vacate the premier’s office after 18 months and cede the position to Gantz. And Netanyahu’s new cabinet will be divided evenly between his Likud party and Gantz’s bloc. But many political analysts thought the deal left Netanyahu in the driver’s seat and Gantz with no political leverage. Few believe Gantz will actually get his chance to serve as prime minister.

The coalition agreement allows Netanyahu to continue serving even while his trial on bribery, fraud and corruption charges goes forward. In the event Israel’s Supreme Court disqualifies him from serving in the role, the agreement stipulates the government will dissolve the parliament and call new elections rather than finding another prime minister.

Crucially, the agreement also sets in motion a governmental push this summer to take legal steps toward a unilateral annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank—a watershed for Netanyahu’s ideological base and a milestone more than a half-century after Israel occupied the territory in the 1967 war with its Arab neighbors.

Such a move could eliminate the already-slim prospect of a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, warned Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, in response to the agreement. “The formation of an Israeli annexation government means ending the two-state solution and the dismantling of the rights of the people of Palestine as established under international law and resolutions,” Shtayyeh tweeted on Monday.

This week, Israel took the first steps in an “exit strategy” from its near-total lockdown over the past month. But if the economy fails to recover or Israel suffers a second wave of virus, Netanyahu’s standing could be undermined.

Indeed, the government is already being criticized for relatively low fiscal support for businesses and individuals. An Israeli private sector insurance company predicted a 50 percent rise in business bankruptcies this year, more than twice the worldwide average. Netanyahu also came under fire for lax enforcement of the lockdown among ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. His own health minister, an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker, was accused of violating the restriction orders.

“He has received fairly high marks from the public for his handling of the crisis because of the relatively low number of fatalities and the fact that the hospitals have not been overwhelmed,” said Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “It may be harder to sustain that support if there is a second wave, or if the economic recovery proves difficult. But for now, he has benefited from it.”

Netanyahu dubbed the virus the “enemy,” portraying the coronavirus as threat akin to suicide bombers, Hamas rockets, Iran’s nuclear program, and even former U.S. President Barack Obama—and pitched himself as the only one able to defeat it, said Katz.

“If you look throughout Netanyahu’s political career, he always needs to present the Israeli electorate with a threat that looms out there,” the Jerusalem Post editor said. “Corona was another opponent, so-called adversary, so called threat, which Netanyahu, from day one, was the leader in the fight against.”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick