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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Coronavirus Test: Trusting the Politician You Distrust

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A lot remains unknown about the coronavirus, but like all diseases, it has no political preference. It doesn’t afflict President Donald Trump’s supporters or Blue and White’s Benny Gantz’s supporters any more than it afflicts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters or Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s supporters. And yet, it’s difficult to detach the discourse about the virus from the one about politics. This is true in the United States, where the debate serves to prove again that the president isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. This is truer in Israel, where the coronavirus hit during a fierce election campaign.

The mingling of politics and the virus was widespread in the days before the election. Example: A former university president sarcastically suggested that the government is trying to sow panic by way of reducing the number of voters in certain areas. She even predicted that after election day, government policy will change.

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It didn’t. Some things can be learned from this. First, that university presidents aren’t immune to conspiracy theories nor to stupidity. Second, that university presidents can be as stubborn as everybody else; she was offered an opportunity to apologize for her comments but used it to double down. Third,  that the government’s policy was more about the virus than about the election. Fourth, that the government still seems to believe that its policy was the right course.

Israel took a hard-line toward dealing with the virus from the outset. It asked citizens to self-quarantine after returning from countries such as Italy or Germany. It was quick to limit public gatherings. The prime minister proposed that people not shake hands. His health officials were given the authority to set the tone and lead the way.

At first, the skeptics were many. Politics played a big role in this. Israelis thought that the government was attempting to use the coronavirus to win the election. Then they started to suspect that the government was attempting to utilize the coronavirus as it strives to form a new coalition. And of course, skeptics came from other quarters: Foreign Ministry officials grumbled about Israel’s decision to block entrance of South Korean tourists early on. Finance Ministry officials grumbled about the impact of decisions on Israel’s economy.

The prime minister’s health officials were given the authority to set the tone and lead the way.

Most of the pushback gradually declined or mellowed after critics realized that Israel’s policy kept the virus, relatively speaking, in check, while the infection spread unfettered in other countries. For example:  Those who thought that Israel had rushed to impose restrictions reconsidered their view on March 9, when Italian officials placed the entire nation on lockdown.

And yet, the coronavirus isn’t an easy test for Israelis, at least, not for the half of them who view Israel’s current government as a menace. In fact, this is not unique to Israelis. Around the world, people’s trust in their governments is declining. In the U.S., when asked in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing “almost always” or “most of the time.” Trust in government began eroding during the 1960s and kept declining, with occasional upticks, ever since. In the past decade, Americans’ trust in their government to do the right thing has not surpassed 30%. That’s also the share of Israelis who trust their government in the past decade.

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The coronavirus challenges this trend by imposing an urgent demand to trust the government and do as it tells you to do. Netanyahu tells you not to shake hands — you ought to listen, even if you think Netanyahu is a bigot. Netanyahu tells you to go into quarantine — and you ought to do as he says, even if you believe that he will use every means and utilize any trick to keep his job. Netanyahu says the coronavirus is a true crisis whose remedy necessitates dramatic means — and the governments expects the public, including those who have very little trust in its good intentions, to abide.

It is a test for the government, which must ensure its decisions aren’t tainted by political calculations; and a test for the public, which must learn to trust even an untrustworthy government on some crucial matters.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. Find more analysis of Israeli and international politics at The Jewish Journal.

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