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NA Reports – Coronavirus as an X-Ray of Politics - The Case of Israel Lev Grinberg
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NA Reports – Coronavirus as an X-Ray of Politics - The Case of Israel

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020

Lev Grinberg, President of the Israeli Sociological Society

The pandemic spread of Covid-19 is part of globalisation, and similar to globalisation it penetrates every country, but in very different ways. The differences are related to local features. Coronavirus became a tester to diagnose social diseases, and from a political point of view the Coronavirus functions as an X-Ray. Everything became transparent: leadership skills, capacities of state institutions, the capability of political actors to cooperate, as well as power relations within civil society and between them and the State. It also helps to comprehend how politics have shaped various health systems within a historical perspective, and not only in the current context of the pandemic crisis. Israel is a very interesting case, both from a historical perspective of the political building of the health services, and the present reactions to the crisis. 

The Coronavirus caught Israel in the worst political crisis ever, after three rounds of elections and a stalemate preventing the formation of a stable government coalition (at the moment I write these lines, the coalition agreement was not approved by the Courts or the Parliament [Knesset]). The first case discovered in Israel entered from Italy a week before the third electoral round, once again without a clear winner [1]. The Coronavirus X-ray uncovered two contradictory features of the state capacity to deal with the pandemic: 1) a very efficient public health system, which succeeded in keeping very low levels of mortality (24 deaths per million citizens) [2]; and 2) very dysfunctional state institutions, unable to cooperate in order to detect and monitor the contagion chain after the first infected travelers arrived in the country, producing a very high level (‘EU like’) of contagion (1800 cases per million). However, probably the worst of all findings of the X-ray was political: the opposition parties, which promised in three consecutive rounds not to sit in a government with the currently indicted Prime Minister, were effectively divided by Netanyahu under the pressure of the Coronavirus shock.


On March 19th 2020, a New York Times headline stated that ‘Hundreds of Israelis Protest Netanyahu’s strict measures’ [3]. This title was somewhat misleading. The original and creative car demonstration – slowing traffic and maintaining social distancing – was not against the strict measures of lockdown, but against the anti-democratic strict measures taken by Netanyahu, which were camouflaged as Corona-fighting measures. The most salient of them was the closure of Tribunals (postponing his own trial), and announcing the use of extremely penetrating digital monitoring data, invoking the successful use of this method in Taiwan.

Indeed in the first days before the elections Israel seemed to have a very efficient functioning state, like Taiwan, controlling every person coming from abroad (it is very easy to do this because, as a small ‘island’, Israel has only one airport to enter the country through, and all territorial borders are closed). However, while tens of thousands of travelers were sent to quarantine at home, no effective surveillance on them was implemented on March 18th. When Netanyahu announced the first drastic lockdown, it was too late, and figures of contagion were showing a dangerous situation, all too similar to the first days of the Italian contagion. Eight days before Netanyahu’s dramatic speech, and three days after the discovery of the first case of contagion within the community, most Jewish citizens participated in the Purim celebrations: kids in the schools, and grown-ups in massive parties. This was apparently the big moment of mass contagion.

The furious demonstrators after Netanyahu’s speech suspected that the Prime Minister intentionally let the situation deteriorate, in order to use the shock of the Coronavirus crisis so he could stay in power, despite the fact that he lost the elections two weeks before. Although I am usually suspicious of political leaders’ hidden motivations in general, and of Netanyahu’s in particular, I do not believe this was intentional. What he definitely did was to prioritise his political interest to stay in power, over the need to lead, direct and coordinate state institutions in order to face the pandemic threat.

The most salient dysfunctional institution, responsible for the high levels of contagion, is the Ministry of Health, while the most effective and functioning factor appeared to be the public health system, which succeeded in maintaining a relatively low level of mortality. I will try to explain this apparent contradiction. Israel has a relatively very good universal public health system, although it was dried out during the last ten years by constant cuts imposed by the Treasury’s austerity policies. The path-dependent history of institutional building of the public health system is worth a short review, for the purposes of comprehending the present situation.

The three largest public health providers were established before the establishment of the State of Israel, by Zionist political parties. Providing health insurance to the Jewish migrants to Palestine proved to be the most efficient way to recruit political support and members, given the absence of alternative private or public health insurance. The first provider (Clalit) was established in 1911 by the Zionist Labor movement, which linked it later on to membership in the General Organization of Hebrew Workers in the Land of Israel (Histadrut). In 1933 the National Health provider was established by the Revisionist nationalist party, in order to erode the hegemonic power of the Labor movement in the World Zionist Organization. In 1941 the Liberal party established its own Health provider (Maccabi). After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the three providers continued competing to attract clients. Clalit had an obvious advantage until 1977, while the Labor party was in power. However, it has remained the largest since then too.

In order to improve accessibility to their services, the three providers opened community clinics for their members, with general and specialised doctors in all cities and small towns. Public Hospitals were established by the State or by Clalit. In 1995, when the Labor party was in decline, and strong criticism emerged as to the enforcement of membership in the Histadrut (in order to be entitled to health insurance), a reformist group of leaders in the Labor party initiated the enactment of a comprehensive National Health Law [4]. The new Law is inclusive, and it provides all citizens with health insurance, maintaining the plurality of health providers. It allocates the health tax collected by the State to each provider, according to the number of members and their health situation, encouraging the competition between them in order to improve their services. The main problem was that since 1995, in the absence of direct connections between health providers and parties, the former have lost political power, and the budget for health started to shrink compared to expanding needs and prices. In reaction to the budget cuts, the public hospitals started to provide private services, and social inequality in accessibility to health services increased.


The largest Jewish population in poverty in Israel are the Ultra-Orthodox Jews [5]. Due to an historic compromise in 1948, they are exempted from military service, conditional on their continued studies in religious schools (Yeshivas). This condition produced very dependent citizens, preventing academic education and participation in the labor market. Their relationship with their political parties is clientelist, for the supply of almost all services, while a Committee of the most prestigious rabbis dominate both Ultra-Orthodox parties: Shas and Yahadut HaTorah. Given their high levels of poverty, the increasing privatisation of hospital services worsened their access to public health services. This is the context that led the Yahadut HaTora party to demand control of the Ministry of Health, aiming to protect their own constituencies. Netanyahu’s failure to articulate coherent health policies is related to the fact that the two Ultra-Orthodox parties are his most important allies in his political bloc [6].

The absurd fact is that, given the conjunctural power of the ultra-Orthodox parties, their communities have been the most infected, with a larger proportion of contagion and death. Why? Because the gathering to pray in the synagogues was not banned until very late, and because some religious communities are so autonomous that their rabbis commanded them to ignore the State isolation policies. These people continued gathering for prayer, Yeshiva studies, and wedding parties, which became a main source of mass contagion. The most serious negligence of the Ministry, however, is the lack of testing in senior citizens homes, the largest population at risk. Despite the fact that there were several early cases of contagion in these homes, and despite the high number of deaths among their inhabitants (a third of the total), the Ministry still did not start a mass testing operation in senior citizens housing. This is a matter of harsh public criticism, given the fact that Israel is ranked very highly in the number of tests per million citizens (35,000).

Not surprisingly, the most discriminated population in terms of tests are the Arab citizens of Israel, who, assuming that the state will not protect them, took the initiative of self-protection by civil society organisations. Until now this self-organisation from below is more effective than that of the State institutions, leading to low levels of contagion and death. However, some focuses of mass contagion – unnoticed due to the complete lack of tests – have been discovered in the last few weeks, and they are alarming due to difficulties in maintaining social distance in poor, overcrowded neighborhoods. The lowest levels of contagion and death are among the Palestinians under occupation, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with 60 cases per million and 0.4 deaths per million [7], emphasising the malfunctioning of the Israeli State institutions.

Given the increasing criticism of the Ministry of Health, there is public pressure to transfer the operation of the ‘war’ to the military and security forces; namely, the tests in the senior citizen homes, control of entry to the airport, and mass testing of the whole population. The military is indeed considered the most efficient deep State institution, but Netanyahu refused to delegate authority to them. His managerial style following the crisis remains the same as before: keeping control of all fields of policy as the most essential way to stay in power. Netanyahu’s political calculations were crucial in preventing the use of military organisational resources: the Minister of Security is the most challenging rival within his coalition, and leader of the most extreme nationalist party, Yemina.

The third Ministry that is shaping policies in the institutional triangle of the deep State is the Treasury. Its policy to continue market activities as much as possible is responsible for the relatively late declaration of lockdown, and it is also responsible for the current pressure to end the closure and go back to work as soon as possible [8]. The Treasury is implementing a very conservative austerity policy that exacerbates the recession, mainly by forcing 70% of public sector workers to unpaid leave [9] (an act that also encouraged dismissals in the private sector), and injected a stimulus of merely 25 billion Dollars, aiming to reinvigorate the economy.


So how did Netanyahu succeed in staying in power, despite losing three electoral rounds? By manipulating two main feelings: fear of the Coronavirus, and hatred of Arab citizens. In his daily public speeches (monologues without journalists or questions), he always included alarming warnings of the dangerous virus, with over-exaggerated presumed death numbers, emphasising his excellent leadership, arguing that Israel is ranked as the most secure country in the whole world. The speeches always ended with a dramatic call to the opposition parties to join his government in a National Unity Government (NUG) against the Coronavirus, invoking the NUG established on the eve of the 1967 War. This is a War and we need to unite under my leadership, was the message of his moving and effective speeches.

The second leg of Netanyahu’s success was the complete de-legitimisation of the option to include in any type of coalition the Joint List, the party that represents 20% of Arab Israeli citizens. Since Rabin’s assassination in 1995, the formation of a coalition with parties representing the Arab minority (as Rabin did), has been totally de-legitimised. During the three consequent rounds of elections, Netanyahu’s campaign mainly focused on warning his main rival party, Kahol Lavan, about the danger of forming a coalition with ‘Palestinian terrorists’. Without the Joint List, however, the opposition parties have no majority in order to form an alternative coalition to Netanyahu [10]. Kahol Lavan was internally divided on the question of whether they should cooperate or not with the Joint List, and it ultimately split, making Netanyahu the only leader in town.

The Coronavirus created a global crisis, it has penetrated every country, and is shocking politics everywhere. However, as I argued, the reactions vary according to pre-existing conditions. In Israel, it uncovered the lack of alternative political content among Netanyahu’s opposition, and made clear their incompetent leadership, compared to the remarkable performative and demagogic skills of Netanyahu. However, real leadership, meaning capability to minimise the risks and protect the most vulnerable populations by maximising the use of existing resources and coordinating State institutions and civil society capacities, was lacking. The political arena has been emptied - of substantial debates, alternative policies, and dynamic opposition actors - since October 2000, and it is in a state of constant deterioration [11]. This became transparent in the light of the Coronavirus X-Ray, and it reached its highest peak following the shock of the pandemic crisis.

[1] For a detailed analysis of the political arena after the second round see my article [Settler Disunity: Examining Israel’s Political Stalemate”, Catalyst, vol 3, No3, pp 114-131.
[2] All data updated on April 27, 2020.
[4] For the sake of transparency, I want to make clear that I was a strategic adviser of these Labor leaders. Although the reform succeeded in saving the health system, it increased the crisis of the Labor movement, stripped of their organisational power and political goals.
[5] The most salient population living in poverty are the Arab citizens.
[6] Netanyahu’s minoritarian 58 KM bloc (out of 120 Kneset members) includes 36 Likud, 9 Shas, 7 Yahadut HaTorah, and 6 Yemina.
[7] Assuming the data is updated and credible.
[8] At the time I write these lines, most small business have been opened, except big markets, and the opening of schools is planned soon.
[9] They were forced to apply for unemployment payments, reducing in this way their salaries by 30–50%.
[10] The bloc of parties preventing Netanyahu’s nomination as PM comes to a total of 62: Kahol Lavan – 33, the Joint list – 15, Labor-Meretz – 7, Israel Beiteinu – 7.
[11] For an extensive description and analysis of the deterioration, see Grinberg, L. Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine – Democracy vs. Military Regime 1992-2006 (Routledge, 2010).

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