Israel’s Netanyahu riding the wave of coronavirus
Haitham Ahmed, Wednesday 18 Mar 2020
Steeped in controversy, Israel’s Netanyahu seems not above using the coronavirus outbreak to prolong his time in power

Palestinian political analysts and observers say they believe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic and panic around the world to achieve several goals. Most notably, implementing more steps in the notorious plan issued by US President Donald Trump to end the Arab and Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They point to accelerated steps by Netanyahu and other Israeli officials and settlers for the Judaicisation of Jerusalem and building thousands of residential settlement units around Jerusalem. They say Netanyahu has given orders to build settlements everywhere in the West Bank, and has confiscated more land to build more settlements. Meanwhile, settlers are trying to grab more land from Palestinian citizens to bury the idea of a two-state solution.

Analysts believe Netanyahu wants to prolong his days in power, especially after elections in Israel on 2 March did not give him a majority to form a government despite full support from the radical right in Israel. On 12 March he called for forming an emergency government made up of Zionist parties and excluding the Joint Arab List because it represents internal Palestinians. This is yet another example of his blatant racism. Netanyahu believes forming an emergency government due to the Covid-19 outbreak will allow him to stay in power until the end of the pandemic, which means postponing his trial on corruption charges which could land him in jail.

Analysts add that, accordingly, Palestinians should focus on highlighting to the world Israeli violations, to prevent Netanyahu from achieving his goal of annexation, expansion and Judaicisation. Anas Abu Oreish, a Palestinian expert on Israeli affairs, said that despite holding general elections for the third time in less than one year, and the victory of the right-wing led by Netanyahu and his Likud Party, this did not give him or his radical right camp outright control over forming a government. Neither his rival, Benny Gantz, leader of the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) Party and his centre-left camp. Neither side won the required 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset where a majority is half plus one.

Abu Oreish said that election results in the Zionist state make the official Palestinian position more difficult with limited choices, and for several years to come. He added that all phases of the conflict were complicated, but the Palestinian people did not once surrender. In fact, they became more creative in their tools and methods of resistance and struggle. He added that Palestinian resistance is one of the main reasons why Israeli elections for the third time showed deep rifts within the Zionist entity. Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz can form a government, and this crisis will not end with the victory of one party over another. Even if Israel annexes the Jordan Valley region and other territories, the Palestinian resistance will continue until the land and people are liberated.

Ahmed Hazem, another Palestinian analyst, believes the election results confirmed that Israel’s so-called left has vanished and can longer participate in forming Israeli policy like it once did. He continued that history and events have proven there is little difference between the policies of the right and left in Israel, since both adopt the same line with regards to Zionism and the Palestinians. “Overall, there is no difference between the black serpent and the yellow serpent,” he said. “They are both poisonous.”

Hazem continued that all over the world, left-wing parties adopt opposite policies and practices to right-wing parties not only on domestic affairs, but on all fronts. However, in Israel it is entirely different because the quarrel between the right and left is only over power. In general, they agree on the Palestinian issue. “Experience has taught us this, as power rotated between the two sides,” he said.

According to Saeed Zaidan, another Palestinian expert, the options of forming a government are either an alternating national unity government or a narrow cabinet led by Netanyahu (to include renegade Knesset members from other parties), or a narrow government led by Gantz with outside support from the Joint Arab List. Zaidan believes that all options are possible, but the duration of either narrow government would be short. “In all cases, the shadow of a fourth election is still present on the political scene in Israel,” he asserted.

He continued that the outcome of the 2 March elections did not change the political party line-up, as in previous elections in September 2019 and April 2019. Therefore, a fourth election is a possibility unless there is a magic formula of forming an alternating national unity government. The unprecedented success of the Joint Arab List thrust it onto the parliamentary and political scene, especially in light of the collapse of the Zionist left.

Zaidan pointed to two major fissures in Israeli politics: one between Jews and Palestinians, and the other between conservative Zionists (religious and nationalist) and liberal Zionists (right, centre and left). These two divisions are exactly what is obstructing and complicating the formation of a coalition government. It is also due to Netanyahu’s person and the charges of bribery, corruption and breach of trust levelled against him. Zaidan warned that forming a national unity or narrow government led by Netanyahu will accelerate the annexation of settlements, while a narrow government led by Gantz supported from the outside by the Joint Arab List would not dare to take such a step unilaterally.

Hani Habib, a political analyst, believes that after three rounds of elections in one year to stay in power, Netanyahu today appears as the country’s saviour in the Coronavirus crisis. He is calling to face this crisis by forming an emergency government in partnership with Kahol Lavan and other parties, without wasting any more time. It is as if he is sacrificing to save Israel from the pandemic, and he is the only one who can lead a government that can save the country. When calling for this government, Netanyahu did not forget to reiterate his racism against Arab Israelis by saying: “Supporters of terrorism in the joint list have no place in this government.”

Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, Netanyahu’s trial, scheduled for 17 March, was put off because the government is trying to shut down courts. Thus, the Coronavirus outbreak could be the reason of Netanyahu remaining in power.

On Sunday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin met with Netanyahu and Gantz after talks with other parties. Sources close to the meeting said Netanyahu and Gantz did not discuss an alternating government. Rivlin invited Gantz to form the new government after the latter won the support of 61 Knesset members, including the Joint Arab List and Yisrael Beiteinu Party.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 March, 2020 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly