Like most of the rest of the world, Israel continues to battle the growing threat of Covid-19. The number of confirmed cases surged to over 400 yesterday. However, Israel also ramped up its testing numbers dramatically. So it is unclear whether the virus spread significantly over the past few days or whether we are simply conducting more testing. However, to date, there are no confirmed deaths as a result of the Coronavirus in Israel. So far, the heath care system is managing - but things seem very tenuous. The Israeli government announced this morning that Israel had obtained more than 100,000 test kits and plans to increase testing levels very shortly. The obvious hope is that Israel will be able to stave off the type of situation that is now occurring in Italy, Spain and some other countries. But it is unclear whether efforts will be successful.
At the same time, Israel is continuing to experience a very serious political crisis. There is only an interim government - and it is one that did not win a majority of support in the most recent elections. As you may know, Netanyahu's Likud party was only able to put together a coalition of a total of 58 Knesset Members, which is less than the required 61 to be able to form a government. That 58 includes two Ultra-religious (Haredi) parties and the Yamina party. Netanyahu has insisted that any "national unity" government with the Blue and White party must include these additional three parties, they are parties with only 7 or 8 seats.
In response, the largest "opposition" party Blue and White has been running a two pronged strategy. One the one hand, they have been negotiating to form a unity government with Netanyahu - but only as long as he makes significant concessions. In order to reach a deal, Likud will need to share power with respect to key cabinet posts and Ministerial positions, components of the governments agenda and a range of other matters. To date, it has shown very little willingness to do so.
Blue and White will simply not agree to delay or cancel Netanyahu's criminal proceedings. He is facing significant criminal charges and has dragged Israel into three consecutive elections in an effort to win a majority and legislate away his legal challenges. So far, this strategy has bought him time but has not produced his desired result.
Blue and White's alternate strategy is to form a government that relies on the support of 15 elected Arab members of Knesset. Some of these members are anti-Zionist and hostile to the State of Israel as a Jewish state. Others are not. This plan has been roundly attacked by the right in Israel and elsewhere as an attack on the values of the Jewish state.
The Blue and White party is not proposing any action that would harm Israel as a Jewish state. The recognition of elected Arab members of Knesset is logical and appropriate. After all, Israel has Arab Supreme Court Judges, police officers, doctors, lawyers and every other occupation you can imagine. Like with any other coalition agreement - or other arrangement, the Blue and White will have to make some concessions while ensuring that any such concessions are in the interest of the State of Israel.
Netanyahu and the Likud party have made far reaching concessions over the past few years to the "Yehadut HaTorah" party which is largely an anti-Zionist party. Significant amounts of money have been diverted from the health care system, the public education system and other areas to be funneled into ultra-orthodox Yeshivas and other institutions. Similarly the "Shas" party is also supported by many ultra-orthodox who do not serve in the Israeli army, study secular subjects or work in the general workforce.
One of the main demands of the Blue and White party - supported by both Lieberman's party and the coalition of left wing parties - is to shift back the secular/religious balance in Israel - to take back some of the power that Netanyahu has given these groups over the past few years. Based on the past few elections, there is clearly a majority in Israel who would support moving things in this direction.
At this point, Netanyahu has not been able to form a government. However, he is acting as if he has complete and total authority. He has held press conferences at which he insists that he won the election since his party had more votes than the Blue and White party, even though he can't put together 61. He has instituted increasingly severe restrictions on Israeli society to control the spread of Covid-19. While that may be laudable and even required, he has done so without any real legal authority or oversight.
Netanyahu's government closed down the courts at 1 a.m. - the day before his criminal trial was about to begin. His representative, Yuli Edelstein, shut down the Knesset yesterday after 1 minute - to avoid allowing a vote that would remove Edelstein from office. Netanyahu authorized the secret service in Israel - to track cell phones and credit cards - to be able to enforce self-isolation rules for Israelis who are supposed to be self-quarantined. Restrictions are likely to become more severe, bringing Israel into a state of almost complete Martial Law.
No one really disagrees that Israel urgently needs to take dramatic steps to stop the spread of Covid-19. Even many Israelis who generally oppose Netanyahu would agree that he has taken some important and timely steps to keep Israel ahead of the curve. Israelis urgently need to follow the isolation recommendations of the World Health Organization and so many disease control experts around the world. Does that extend to the necessity of monitoring the cell phones of all citizens? That is unclear.
At the same time, these steps have to be made by an accountable government with oversight and input from members of a majority government. There may be things that are being missed or areas in which we are overstepping. In some cases, we may not be going far enough. Having majority support also increases the likelihood of full support from the public. For the most part, Israelis seem to be cooperating but there must be people who are concerned about such a narrow concentration of power. This can generate skepticism even if the actions taken are correct.
Israel urgently needs to form a government that can react properly to this current health crisis. The most logical resolution is a shared power arrangement between the Blue and White party the Likud party - as a first step - without the various smaller parties that each side has also relied on for support. But to date, Netanyahu is insisting that any deal include all three of his coalition members - while excluding the Arab Members of Knesset.
In this context, the Blue and White's alternate plan is important and reasonable. Once the Blue and White party demonstrates that it can and will form a government, even a minority government - Netanyahu will be forced to realize that he needs to make concessions in the national interest. Or his party needs to do so. So far, they are not at that point. Most of the actions of Netanyahu to date - suggest that he is hoping that a fourth election will finally be the one to help him get rid of his criminal problems.
In the meantime, Israelis find themselves under a Martial Law system. New decisions are being made every day that tighten restrictions - and these decisions are being made by one person - who did not win the most recent election - with little or no oversight. Very dangerous time for the country on two different tracks.