Coronavirus is hitting Israel hard. The number of deaths is not exorbitant, but the daily infection rate is high, threatening to overwhelm the health care system. To prevent such a scenario, the nation is again on lockdown, which threatens to destroy the economy. Small businesses are particularly vulnerable.
What’s worse is that the government seems to have no clear plan for how to get Israel out of this mess. And instead of working together, the various factions making up the “unity” government prefer to bicker with one another.
Israelis are frustrated, furious even. Some say that while they might survive the virus itself, the government’s disjointed and ineffective policies might spell their financial doom.
Enter a savior?
Seizing the chance to present himself as a legitimate future candidate for prime minister, Naftali Bennett has established a kind of “coronavirus shadow cabinet” that so far is upstaging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, at least in public opinion.
Bennett previously served as Education Minister and then Defense Minister. He is head of the right-wing Yamina party (yamina means “right” in Hebrew). And the most recent polls show that if elections were held today, Bennett and his party would win 23 seats to Likud’s 26 in the Knesset. If those numbers hold, it is very possible that Bennett could be chosen over Netanyahu to form the next government, if enough other parties backed him.
Now, Bennett is a religious Zionist, so his views on various political issues like Jewish settlements and the Jewish character of the state don’t align with those of centrist or center-left parties. But there’s no denying his public appeal when it comes to confronting a threat like COVID-19. Over the past several months and years, it has become clear to most that Bennett is that type of rare politician who’s willing to work with anyone for the benefit of everyone.
And he sees a real opportunity in the current crisis, if only Israel could halt its characteristic infighting.
From crisis to prosperity
Recently, Bennett published a booklet titled “How to Beat COVID-19. The Way to Overcome the Crisis and Lead Israel to Prosperity.” In its final chapter, Bennett writes:
”With all the difficulty, COVID-19 has opened a window of opportunity for us to launch the State of Israel an entire generation forward. Complex social and economic processes that without the pandemic would have been delayed for many years can now progress rapidly, if only we decide to act with courage and work together.
“A day will come, and it is not far off, that the COVID-19 crisis will be behind us. I do not know when this will happen, but there is something that I do know: The State of Israel must not waste this crisis. We must not resign ourselves to the feeling of discomfort, disappear behind the masks and just try to pass the time and survive until the vaccine arrives. We need to look today for the opportunities that exist in the crisis, find the new springboards it creates – and simply jump from them.
“This could be Israel’s finest hour.”
In short, Bennett’s plan focuses heavily on keeping the economy alive by allowing all manner of businesses to remain open, with restrictions and limitations. And where reduced commerce would make it infeasible for a business to operate under these conditions, the state would step in with temporary subsidies.
The important thing, according to Bennett, is that Israelis don’t just sit at home collecting unemployment checks. People need to work, he insists.
Bennett identified two strategic opportunities created by this situation: mass Aliyah, and the establishment of a new economic paradise.
As for the mass immigration of Jews, Bennett noted that amid the coronavirus crisis “geographical boundaries have lost their importance.” The relevance is that Jews living in other countries that are also under lockdown can now move to Israel without having to lose their job. After all, they can’t go out in their current country of residence, either.
Israel should encourage and facilitate this by opening its borders to all Jews and offering fresh incentives to make Aliyah, said Bennett.
Bennett’s economic scheme is more detailed, but boils down to the following points:
- Reboot and rewrite business regulations to meet the realities of the 21st century;
- Freeze government oversight of schools to allow fresh innovation in distance learning, making Israel a “global capital of educational technology and a universal incubator of groundbreaking ideas in the field of working from home”;
- A five-year freeze on all labor laws not directly related to wages;
- Lower corporate taxes to 15 percent;
- Increase the retirement age to be in line with increasing life expectancy;
- Restore public trust by having senior pubic sector employees (Knesset members, defense officials, etc) who earn more than 30,000 shekels a month contribute 20 percent of their salary to help rehabilitate the economy;
The start of a “golden age”?
Bennett pointed out that Jewish history is replete with overwhelming challenges that inspired groundbreaking solutions. And COVID-19 can do the same.
“I believe in us,” the opposition MK concluded. “If we learn to unleash the mighty forces inherent in our people, educators, soldiers, members of youth movements and entrepreneurs, the COVID-19 crisis will become a springboard.
“These forces need to be set free.
“They should be given room to maneuver, with few prohibitions and restrictions.
“I believe that in another decade we will all look back and see how this tumultuous period opened a golden age in the history of the State of Israel.”