What happened to Benjamin Netanyahu?

The Israeli public is held captive by one man’s quest for victory, even when that victory is neither attainable or desirable.

Israel is by no means unique on the world stage in instituting policies that are wreaking economic and social havoc to fight the invisible enemy. What makes the country's experience uniquely sad, however, is the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, largely responsible for liberalizing Israel’s economy with sweeping reforms is now, with undeterred determination, destroying the economy he helped build, and consequently, bringing many small business owners to their knees as well as setting back a generation of children by closing schools.

Netanyahu and his cadre of health advisors have decided that a successful approach to Covid-19 requires a near-total shutdown of the economy and a subservient population willing to sacrifice earthly pursuits and aspirations for the collective good.

Considering that Netanyahu is a renowned supply side economist, a believer in free enterprise and individual liberty, as evidenced by his contributions to the Israeli economy, such an approach seems, to put it mildly, odd and unbecoming.

Indeed, much of Israel's past 15 years of growth can be attributed to Netanyahu who, before his reign as longest serving prime minister, served as Minister of Finance in Ariel Sharon's government from 2003 to 2006 until becoming prime minister in 2009.

As Finance Minister, Netanyahu introduced and rammed through far-ranging reforms in an attempt to modernize the Israeli economy and help free it from its socialist shackles.

Under Netanyahu's tutelage, the top individual tax rate was cut from 64% to 44% and corporate taxes decreased from 36% to 18% with government spending capped for three years. As a result, unemployment dropped and the tax rate went from 35.6% of GDP in 2000 to 30.5% in 2015. 

Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel began to abandon its often romanticized past of socialist ideals. The emergence of prosperous Israel with a roaring economy showed many Israelis that free enterprise without excessive government intervention was far superior to the empty promises of a socialist utopia. In many ways, Netanyahu - even with the ongoing investigations - has been a force for good and more importantly, a facilitator of a more free, better Israel.

So, what happened?

With numerous political victories, as evidenced by his ability to retain the premiership for 12 years during which he has marginalized or altogether destroyed his political opponents, Netanyahu is perhaps uniquely determined and successful in pursuing policy objectives. 

Netanyahu seldom loses a battle and almost always wins the war. He has crafted Israel's political map in his image to the extent of running circles around his dumbfounded opponents. With strategic mastery, he is undoubtedly, in a league of his own (to borrow from his own election campaign slogans).

These same qualities - determination and stubbornness - are visible today, perhaps more than ever in the way Netanyahu is handling Covid, with one crucial exception:  His government’s Covid strategy is rapidly destroying decades of progress he helped achieve.

This stubbornness is perhaps felt most in the way it has impacted a generation of Israeli children. Knowing that children are not at risk, Netanyahu has insisted on keeping schools - and even kindergartens - closed for months.

Netanyahu seems to have embraced the notion that in a Covid-crazed world a leader must show disregard towards the many implications authoritarian Covid policies have on the society at large in order to guarantee victory against the invisible enemy, no matter the cost.

Indeed, Netanyahu has not shown remorse or recognized the many terrible implications - such as rise in unemployment, domestic violence and suicides - of his government’s policies.

When Israel emerged “victorious” from the first wave, Netanyahu was proudly educating foreign leaders on how to beat the pandemic. When the so-called second wave hit and Israel was reeling, Bibi was forced to accept the taste of shame as case numbers climbed. 

Perhaps the fear of shame - and the subsequent insistence on staying the course - is what strengthened Netanyahu’s resolve in pursuing a destructive and stubborn Covid strategy. The many leaks from cabinet meetings reveal an obstinate, undeterred Prime Minister not to be reasoned with.

The indefatigability with which Netanyahu is pursuing policies that are greatly harming the Israeli economy and deeply damaging the future of a generation of Israeli children are perhaps made from the same cloth as the determination he showed in modernizing the Israeli economy. Unfortunately for the people of Israel and unlike in previous times, this determination is not serving them well.

Today, the Israeli public is held captive by one man’s quest for victory, even when that victory is neither attainable or desirable.