The Italian flag projected on the walls of the ramparts of Jerusalem's Old City in a show of support for those suffering from coronavirus in Italy. Photo: AFP/Menahem Kahana

The novel coronavirus, while putting Israel on lockdown, has also given its embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a second wind against domestic challenges.

Israel has reacted more swiftly and taken more extreme measures to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus than most countries. Though not hit particularly hard – 213 cases and no fatalities at last count – Israel closed all restaurants and bars and banned gatherings of more than 10 people.

On Sunday, the government approved far-reaching steps, such as allowing the surveillance of all phones with no court order. The Israeli police have been arresting individuals for breaking mandatory quarantine orders.

While in many countries, there would be significant push-back against the curtailment of civil liberties in a time of crisis, in this communitarian society, taking measures to combat threats is second nature. Israeli society has traditionally banded together against threats, under strong government leadership.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the wily premier, has been using this tendency to his advantage. Unable to secure a majority in a third straight election campaign, this crisis has given him hope of restoring popularity and changing the narrative from his legal troubles and electoral failures.

A crisis allows Netanyahu to build on his image as the most competent politician and leader in the country. In the most recent poll on the matter, 45% backed Netanyahu as best equipped to serve as prime minister, while only 34% backed Gantz. The coronavirus crisis has granted Netanyahu many chances to take on the role of powerful and compassionate leader.

His justice minister, Amir Ohana, issued an order in the middle of the night to delay all court activity to a “state of extraordinary emergency.” This delays Netanyahu’s corruption trial to May 24, well after the period allocated for the creation of a government.

Rivals back off

The move is highly problematic, considering not only the possible political motives but also the very limited authority the current government and its ministers have within the scope of the caretaker role it now occupies. Whether the move was utterly cynical or not, it provides Netanyahu with breathing space from a court case which was scheduled to open on Tuesday.

Sensing which way the wind was blowing, some members of the left-wing bloc signaled their willingness to join a Netanyahu led coalition. Orly Levy-Abekasis, a lawmaker running within the Labor Party framework, announced she would not recommend Gantz as Prime Minister. Two members of the Blue and White Party, Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, have meanwhile voiced their unwillingness to sit in a government relying on Arab party support.

As a result of the weakness of their position, Blue and White was reportedly considering joining a unity government with Netanyahu at the helm — something they have been unwilling to countenance thus far. In the spirit of national reconciliation required to deal with a national crisis, President Reuven Rivlin called in Netanyahu and Gantz for three-way discussions over the possibility of creating a national emergency government.

The stage seemed set for yet another miraculous revival of Netanyahu’s fortunes, as the heroic leader of a government created to fight off the threat of Covid-19.

The seeming improvement in Netanyahu’s fortunes alarmed his dyed-in-the-wool rivals and created a far-reaching and unlikely coalition of backers for the Blue and White opposition party. The Gantz-led party has thus far been unable to form a coalition since their potential allies have not been willing to sit in the same government.

On the one hand, the Yisreal Beitenu party led by Avigdor Liberman has a long history of racism against Arab citizens of Israel and has been unwilling to sit or be supported on the outside by the Arab Joint List party. Meanwhile, the Arab party has not wished to back a government including Yisreal Beitenu for similar reasons.

As Netanyahu seemed on the verge of another grand escape, both parties announced they would recommend Gantz as the next prime minister, thus potentially allowing him the first chance to form a government.

Chance for Gantz

Though he will have the required amount of recommendations to begin negotiations over a new government, it is hard to see how Gantz could pull together a functioning government. There are several massive obstacles.

While the Joint List has decided to unanimously recommend the former chief of staff as prime minister, there are significant divisions within the party. The fiercely anti-Zionist Balad wing of the party did not endorse Gantz in the previous election, stating his “Zionist ideology, his right-wing positions are not much different from the Likud.” This time they decided to vote differently. A Balad official told Asia Times that “we have not changed our mind about Gantz, but getting the racist Netanyahu government out of power takes precedence.”

The Likud reacted fiercely to the prospect of a government backed by the Arab party. Minister of Tourism and head of the Likud negotiation team Yariv Levin said: “Neither in routine times nor in emergencies is there room for a government that relies on people who do not accept Israel as a Jewish state and support terrorism.”

Meanwhile, the Liberman-led Yisrael Beitenu party has also recommended Gantz as their choice for prime minister. However, they have not endorsed a narrow government backed by the United List. Instead, the former defense minister recommended an emergency government to help fight the coronavirus outbreak.

This will give President Rivlin some leeway to pursue his preferred solution, a unity government with some form of rotation mechanism.

With all this in mind, the ability of a former military chief of staff to form and sustain a government with anti-Zionist and anti-Arab elements coexisting seems minimal. It is also unclear if Gantz can control the more right-wing elements in his own party. At best, this motley crew of renegades can hope to block the resurgence of Netanyahu for long enough to see his court case take down the prime minister.

While all the political drama unfolds, the Israeli media is completely focused on the spread of Covid-19, leaving the politicians almost unnoticed in their craven machinations. It is unprecedented for such intense political competition to unfold in moments of national crisis in Israel.

Partisan divisions are overcoming the traditional sense of unity which has typified the handling of previous crises in the country. Political dysfunction will certainly not aid the response to the rapidly spreading epidemic.