If there’s one moment in 2020 that Israelis would want to rewind and delete it would be prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement on May 26, when his cabinet had just decided to reopen restaurants and swimming pools. “You can go out, go back to normal as much as possible, have a coffee, have a beer. Have fun.”
After nearly two months of a nation-wide lockdown, it looked like Israel had beaten coronavirus. Less than two hundred Israelis had died from Covid-19, the border closures and severe restrictions had swiftly brought down infection rates and the decisions taken by Mr Netanyahu were being hailed, not just in Israel, as prescient and accurate.
For the first time in years, sixty percent of Israelis in surveys were supportive of his leadership.
Ten days earlier, he had finally succeeded in swearing in a new government, his fifth. It had taken three consecutive stalemated elections, the last of which was in March this year, until he managed to browbeat the man who had set out at the end of 2018 to replace him, Benny Gantz. Twice he had been on the brink of defeat when Mr Gantz had nearly mustered a majority to swear in a government of his own. But despite its majority in the Knesset, the opposition failed to get its act together. Right-wing MKs refused to be part of a coalition supported by the members of the Arab Joint List. Mr Netanyahu exploited these divisions skilfully, ultimately forcing the election-weary Mr Gantz to join him in coalition, appealing to his sense of patriotism in a period of international emergency and in return for the promise that they would rotate in the prime minister’s office in November 2021.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister promised he would stick to the agreement between Likud and Blue and White “without tricks and without schticks,” but that promise evaporated just as quickly as the proclamations of victory over the coronavirus. As Israel emerged from lockdown, it transpired that the government hadn’t prepared an exit-strategy which would prevent a second wave of infections. A creaking civil service, infighting at all levels and politicised decision-making combined to delay comprehensive covid-19 testing, localised differential lockdowns to prevent new outbreaks and an efficient contact-tracing system. In their absence, within weeks from the lockdown being relaxed, infection rates began spiking again.
The only part of the Israeli government with the resources and flexibility to set up mass-testing and contact-tracing quickly - the IDF - was barely utilised in the early months of the pandemic, despite the entreaties of the defence minister, first Naftali Bennett and then Benny Gantz. It was hard to avoid the impression that had they not been political rivals of the prime minister, who placed himself at the head of the national coronavirus effort, refusing for half a year even to appoint a task-force coordinator, the military would have been called up earlier.
Eventually, it would take a devastating second wave, propelling Israel to the highest level of daily infections per capita, anywhere in the world, before the IDF was given responsibility for contact-tracing.
Meanwhile another political conflict was brewing, as infections were being recorded disproportionately among the ultra-Orthodox community whose rabbis resisted the social-distancing and lockdown measures in their shuls, schools and yeshivas. For long periods, the Charedi community which consists of around twelve percent of Israel’s population made up a third of Covid-19 cases. But the Charedi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism remained Mr Netanyahu’s last dependable allies in the Knesset and he remained powerless to enforce a lockdown on them. In September, the government voted in favour of a series of local lockdowns in “red” towns and neighbourhoods. Twenty-four hours later, the plan was abandoned under pressure of the ultra-Orthodox politicians. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as most Israelis prayed in small outside gatherings, the Charedi shuls were open as usual.
By then, Israel had broken another world record by becoming the first country to enter a second nation-wide lockdown.
Coronavirus also served to delay the start of Mr Netanyahu’s trial for bribery and fraud by three months, but it finally began on 24 May. In the corridor outside the courtroom, flanked by Likud MKs, he made an impassioned speech attacking the legal establishment. But inside, he sat on the accused bench facing the judges of the Jerusalem District Court, staring impassively forward, his face covered by a mask, as the charges were read out.
The indictment would loom over Israel throughout the year as he fought a war of attrition against his prosecutors, in delaying tactics in the court room and a smear campaign against the attorney-general and prosecutors in the media.
Mr Netanyahu’s overriding concern, influencing everything he says and does has been to remain prime minister throughout his trial and to try and cobble together a majority in the Knesset for an immunity law and to replace the attorney-general and state prosecutor with more friendly lawyers who will reconsider the case. The agreement with Blue and White which included the appointment of the obdurate Avi Nissenkorn as justice minister stymied these attempts. But the agreement included also a convenient loophole.
Both parties agreed to pass a belated state budget for 2020 and for 2021 as well, but there was no penalty for blocking the budget and the existing law, that a budget had to pass by a set time or the Knesset is automatically dissolved and elections called, remained in place. This allowed an “exit-point”, one which Mr Netanyahu is expected to use in order to avoid the rotation and to try once again to win his elusive majority in a fourth election in two years.
This is where Israel finds itself at the end of 2020, fighting a third wave of Covid-19 and with a dysfunctional government for over two years. At least the vaccines which arrived in December spell, hopefully, an end to coronavirus. But yet another election is unlikely to solve the political deadlock.
And yet, almost unbelievably, despite the pandemic and the politics, it was a year of historic breakthroughs for Israel. No less than four Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, announced they were normalising ties with Israel, to the chagrin of the Palestinians who for decades had relied on an Arab consensus that normalisation would happen only when they achieved statehood.
It was the culmination of a historic shift in the region, where a silent alliance between Israel and Sunni Arab regimes, against Iran, had been in the making for two decades, and the unique opportunity of the last year of an American administration which was focused primarily on furthering the interests of Israel and its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf.
Years from now, when we look back on Israel’s 2020, there will be three separate historic narratives - it will have been the year in which Israel, like nearly every other country in the world, dealt haphazardly with Coronavirus; the year in which Benjamin Netanyahu’s struggle for political survival continued to dominate the country’s affairs; and the year of a historic shift in the Middle East, which will outlive the pandemic and the prime minister.