I have long hated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I hated him back when I was more right-wing and I obviously didn't like him better when I became more left-wing. Over the years, I've said positive things about both Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres, and I can respect both a right-wing Machiavel like Avigdor Lieberman and a potentially transformational left-wing leader like Ayman Odeh. But I cannot recall ever saying anything positive about Bibi, whose relentless divisiveness and highly-personalized political style made him a harbinger of the populist-nationalist tendency that has wreaked havoc across the West.
Yet now, for the first time, a little part of me wants him to win — to reward him for Israel's exemplary rollout of the COVID vaccine.
Before getting into that, I should probably explain: yes, Israel is having yet another national election, their fourth in two years. Over that period, Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud Party and Israel's longest-serving prime minister, has refused to step down in the face of multiple corruption indictments. Instead, he has indicted the political and legal system itself, denouncing the charges against him as a witch hunt, and turning Israeli politics into a national test of personal loyalty. Three successive elections, from April 2019 to March 2020, failed to break the logjam: The opposition was unable to achieve a majority or to force Likud into a subordinate position in a coalition, but neither was Likud able to form a majority with only its typical partners. The eruption of the pandemic is what ultimately split the opposition alliance, and led to the current coalition, which Netanyahu has now torpedoed in a bid to get rid of his unwelcome coalition partner, Benny Ganz's Blue and White party, and take firm control once more with a right-wing coalition that will protect him from the courts.
The latest election would seem to offer ample opportunities to ditch Bibi if one were so inclined. Left-wing voters could opt for Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai's new party, The Israelis. Right-wing voters could opt for former Likudnik and one-time heir-apparent Gideon Saar's new party, New Hope (no relation to the Star Wars franchise). Centrist and secular-minded voters could vote for Yair Lapid's party, There Is a Future. Far-right voters could support Naftali Bennett's party, Rightwards, to assure that any post-Netanyahu coalition had a decidedly rightward tilt — as current polls suggest it definitely would have. Regardless of your political persuasion, there's no reason to vote for Bibi unless you want Bibi.
So why on Earth would I be changing my tune, even slightly?
The answer is the vaccine rollout. Israel stands head and shoulders above the entire world in the alacrity with which they have set out to inoculate the entire country. In only two weeks, they have given shots to over 10 percent of the population and 25 percent of those over 60 years old. The only thing that will keep them from sustaining this pace through the rest of the month is a limited supply of vaccine — but that should be relieved in late January when their orders to Modena are fulfilled (to date, they have been using the Pfizer vaccine).
By way of comparison, the United States has vaccinated less than 1.3 percent of the country, even though we started a week before Israel did and have already distributed more than three times that many doses. And Europe is doing substantially worse, having placed their orders later than other wealthy countries, moved more slowly to approve the vaccines, and in general behaved in a shockingly lackadaisical manner around this all-important subject.
And it is all-important. Even before the emergence of the new, more transmissible strain of the virus, it was clear that non-pharmaceutical interventions had failed to adequately contain an autumnal wave of the virus, and that the best hope for a triumphant exit from the COVID era was through rapid mass-vaccination. But the new strain takes the urgency to an entirely new level. As rapidly rising cases in the U.K. demonstrate, a turbo-charged pandemic could quickly prove disastrous, overwhelming already-strained health-care systems and necessitating vastly more severe mobility restrictions than anyone has experienced since the spring, with all the social and economic costs they entail. That's why the U.K. is belatedly scrambling to figure out how to stretch existing supplies (including the risky strategy of mixing and matching vaccines) and cut through bureaucratic obstacles that have slowed their rollout to date.
Israel, by contrast, bought their vaccines early, planned for an aggressive rollout, and are executing on that plan. That has to be rewarded somehow, just as failure needs to be punished. Arguably, doing so is as important for democracy as holding leaders accountable for breaking the law.
Consider what incentives we create if we don't punish governments for screwing up in visible, measurable ways, nor reward them for succeeding. Particular interests are always in a better position to reward politicians for serving them than the public is. The only leverage the public has to keep the government focused on the general welfare is the ability to remove from office those who neglect it. If we decline to do so when the case is manifest, we give the green light to vastly greater neglect and corruption in the future. By the same token, if we don't reward questionable figures with a second look when they behave in an exemplary fashion, then we are telling future leaders not to bother trying to win over the skeptical through performance, but instead at every fork to choose the low road of negative polarization.
The fight against COVID has been a complex one from the beginning, and few governments or institutions in Europe or the Americas have covered themselves with glory. But compared to the effort to contain the pandemic, the vaccine rollout is relatively straightforward and clear. We should be unsparing toward those leaders who botch the job.
That means liberal New Yorkers need to be willing to vote for a Republican if Mayor De Blasio and Gov. Cuomo don't stop pointing fingers at each other over prioritization and focus on getting needles in arms as fast as possible. It means conservative Georgians need to be willing to vote for a Democrat if Gov. Kemp can't get his state's vaccination numbers out of the cellar. And it means we need to give appropriate respect to leaders in states like North and South Dakota that did a terrible job of containing the pandemic in the first place, but that are now leading the league in both the percentage of the population vaccinated and the percentage of doses distributed.
The same goes for Netanyahu, notwithstanding all his other faults.