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How Israel Failed Its COVID Test

Israel is besieged not only by a deadly virus, but by identity politics, sectarian strife, and dishonest leadership. As the economic consequences of lockdown multiply, social and political tensions will only rise.

TEL AVIV – When the Jewish new year began late last month, Israel was enduring its second nationwide lockdown, after daily per capita COVID-19 infection and death rates reached some of the world’s highest levels. How did a country with practically closed external borders, sophisticated technological and institutional capacities, a high-quality and efficient health-care system, and a culture of solidarity in wartime fail so spectacularly at addressing the pandemic?

Although long years of neoliberal economics have certainly taken their toll on the country’s welfare system, the answer lies elsewhere. Partly, it is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s deceitful, divisive approach to managing the crisis – and to governing more generally – that has been laid bare. But, more fundamentally, Israel’s pandemic failure reflects the deeply fragmented society and dysfunctional political system of which Netanyahu has taken advantage throughout his career.

The virus has exposed Israel as a polarized federation, whose various tribes put their sectarian interests ahead of the common good. The ultra-Orthodox community, for example, has sought to exercise its autonomy above all – and it has paid the price, with the country’s highest COVID-19 infection rates. Though this community comprises only about 12% of Israel’s population, it accounts for about half of all infected people over 65 and under 18. Until recently, Israel’s Arab community – 21% of the population – did not lag far behind.