Netanyahu credits himself with bringing Israel back to life. Now he hopes his Covid-19 campaign will save his political future.

Kurz, who was visiting Israel with his Danish counterpart to discuss a trilateral vaccine pact, credited Netanyahu with putting it into action at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. After talks and a tour of a gym open to those who have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19, Austria, Denmark and Israel announced a partnership to ensure long-term vaccine supply.

“I will never forget the beginning of the year 2020, when we received a phone call and Bibi Netanyahu told me that this virus will be a great threat to the whole world, to Europe, even if we do not know it at this time. Kurz said. “You were perhaps the reason why we acted quite early in Austria when the first wave hit us hard in the European Union.”

Netanyahu recognized early on in the pandemic that vaccines could save not only Israel, but also its political future.

For years, Netanyahu touted himself as the man who turned Israel into a global tech powerhouse. Now, as he faces a fourth election in two years and an ongoing corruption trial, the Prime Minister is touting his record of turning Israel from “Start-up Nation” to “Vaccination Nation.”

Netanyahu has made Israel’s handling of the pandemic personal, and especially its strong vaccine campaign: appearing almost every night in televised addresses to the country in the first weeks of the pandemic, obsessively negotiating vaccine deals with pharmaceutical companies, receiving the first doses in Tel Aviv. airport and get vaccinated during primetime television.

Earlier this month, Netanyahu praised the country’s “green” Covid-19 vaccination passports over coffee at a recently reopened Jerusalem cafe, saying Israel was “coming to life.” And bringing Israeli society back to life, his latest campaign slogan, may be Netanyahu’s best chance to keep his long political career alive. Winning his sixth term as prime minister with a parliamentary majority could protect him from an ongoing corruption trial and keep him out of jail.
Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion have coffee and cake at a recently reopened restaurant in the city.

As Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday, life begins to feel normal again, with schools in session and restaurants open again.

The question now is whether voters will give Netanyahu credit for that return to normalcy enough to shake off the political stalemate that has gripped the country for the past two years.

“In politics, the leader is judged by the outcome, how the leader handled the crisis and the outcome,” said Aviv Bushinsky, Netanyahu’s former media adviser. In the case of the vaccine program, he added, “the Israelis are quite happy.”

A strong start brought down by waves

The coronavirus pandemic has developed alongside a political crisis in Israel. The first spike in infections came last March, just weeks after the country’s third election in a year and while Netanyahu was building a coalition with rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz.

As the Austrian foreign minister noted, Netanyahu took swift action to combat the outbreak, publicly warned of the dangers of the virus and effectively shut down Israel before the country recorded its first death.

Mobile booths deployed on the streets allowed for easily accessible Covid-19 tests. Some people with mild cases of the virus were sent to state-run isolation facilities, often converted hotels, to recover. Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays in which families gather in large groups for a large seder dinner, was essentially canceled after Israelis were banned from gathering in groups or traveling.

In May, after nearly a year and a half of political stalemate, Netanyahu finally had his coalition government in place, with an unprecedented number of cabinet ministers and deputies. And with infection rates plummeting, the government began allowing public life to return. Israel seemed to have finished the first round on top. While countries like Italy had recorded tens of thousands of deaths in May, Israel’s death toll at the time was less than 300.

But as people returned to restaurants and events like weddings, so did the virus.

In July, when cases spiked again, critics criticized what was seen as a random and inconsistent approach to restrictions and Netanyahu’s approval ratings plummeted. Frustration over Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic spilled over into protests outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, prompting police to use water cannons.
Crowds protest Netanyahu's handling of the Jerualem pandemic in July.

In September, Israel had the world’s worst rate of new infections per capita, and the country was embroiled in a political dispute over who was to blame.

Professor Eran Segal of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science praised the government’s initial response, but told CNN that the mistakes started after the first lockdown. A reluctance at different points to enforce specific restrictions locally, especially in ultra-Orthodox and Arab neighborhoods, may have helped the virus spread further, Segal said.

“Probably for a variety of reasons, I imagine many political reasons, we were unsuccessful in containing spreads where they occurred,” Segal said.

While his Likud party holds the most seats in the Israeli Parliament, or Knesset, Netanyahu has been unable to form a governing coalition without the support of several smaller religious parties. And in some ultra-Orthodox communities, coronavirus restrictions on gatherings have been met with skepticism, rejection and, in some cases, violent clashes.

Segal also criticized the government’s litmus test over the summer for the lockdowns: 800 critically ill patients would simultaneously trigger a shutdown. Had Israel enacted blockades earlier, there would have been fewer deaths and a shorter overall blockade period, he said.

But Netanyahu has never taken responsibility for obstacles in his response to the pandemic. When asked in September who should bear the blame for Israel’s failure to contain the virus, he replied: “There are no failures, only achievements.”
Netanyahu's campaign slogan & quot;  Come back to life & quot;  hangs from his Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv.

The comment set a strikingly different tone from President Reuven Rivlin just days later, when Israel’s head of state offered a direct apology to the nation.

“I know we haven’t done enough as leaders to deserve his attention. He trusted us and we let him down,” Rivlin said. “You, the citizens of Israel, deserve a safety net provided by the country. Decision makers, government ministries, policy implementers must work for you and only for you: to save lives, to reduce infection, to rescue the economy. I understand the feeling that none of these were done satisfactorily. ”

As the end of 2020 approached, with Israel facing a third wave of infections, the Israeli Knesset abandoned attempts to pass a budget, leading to the dissolution of Parliament and triggering this year’s elections. Netanyahu’s critics, which included his coalition partner Gantz, suspected that the prime minister had never intended for the current government to last long, and now the Israeli leader could see his political salvation just around the corner.

Bring Israel back to life

At first, Netanyahu lobbied for Israel to be among the first countries to receive Covid-19 vaccines, boasting that he was in regular contact with major pharmaceutical companies and their CEOs.

Although he signed an early deal with Moderna, it was the special deal with Pfizer, and its Jewish CEO Albert Bourla, that secured Israel’s place as a world leader. Israel paid a heavy price and obtained the vaccines quickly and in return is giving Pfizer access to data from Israel’s centralized health care system to study the effectiveness of the vaccine. Israel has not detailed the exact price per person it paid for the Pfizer vaccine, but a parliamentary committee revealed this week that the country has already disbursed 2.6 billion shekels ($ 787 million) for “various vaccine transactions” and expects to spend one. similar amount. amount for more in the future.

Netanyahu greets the first delivery of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines at Ben Gurion Airport on January 10.
Despite Netanyahu’s personal involvement, his electoral opponents such as Labor leader Merav Michaeli, say that the success of Israel’s vaccines is due not only to Netanyahu’s purchasing capabilities, but also to Israel’s public health system, which Michaeli says was built by previous left-wing governments.

But Netanyahu is doing everything he can to own the vaccine program and its success, making it a central part of his new positive and uplifting “back to life” campaign, a marked difference from past elections, Bushinsky said.

“In recent years, Netanyahu’s campaign always leaned or used the campaign of fear, that if Netanyahu is not present, the Iranians will develop the bomb, or Hamas will get stronger or Hezbollah will attack,” Bushinsky said. “I think this is the first election Netanyahu has participated in that he is not using the campaign of fear but the campaign of hope.”

Time and luck have also been on Netanyahu’s side. With the vaccination program that began in late December, Netanyahu had at least three months between the first injection and Election Day, enough time for the majority of the population to get vaccinated and begin testing normality under the schedule. “green pass” of the country. .

“Some say Netanyahu, God touched him, he’s lucky,” Bushinsky said. “Imagine if the elections were a couple of months ago when most of the people weren’t vaccinated.”

Netanyahu receives his second Covid-19 shot in Tel Aviv on January 9.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a cabinet minister who has served alongside Netanyahu for decades, said he believes the Israelis will reward Netanyahu for how he handled the virus.

“I think after the crown year, people were really exposed to the capabilities of the prime minister who pulled Israel out of Covid-19 with new expectations, a vaccine that everyone is entitled to and millions of Israelis are already free of the disease. I think this will be reflected in the result, “Hanegbi said.

Netanyahu, Hanegbi said, has an “inner feeling that you are there because God sent you to save the people of Israel and guide them through difficult times.”

“I think this gives him the power and support of the people. It’s called charisma.”

CNN’s Oren Lieberman contributed to this report.


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