Covid-19 is not Hamas-13 or Galil-82 or Kippur-73. It cannot be fought accordingly by the IDF; the nation cannot be led accordingly by its Prime Minister; its people cannot respond accordingly with the well-rehearsed mental and practical drills we have.
The Policy Waltz
A great deal of time is spent trying to compare the success of different countries’ reactions to Covid-19, not least by many political leaders. There is already debate at this fairly early stage as to the most empirically effective policy, at least which stands up to the norms of a free, democratic society. However, there are just too many variables, one of which is sheer good or bad luck, and in any case it is likely far too early to carry out a meaningful reckoning.
For those seeking a statistical analysis and comparison, and some idea of which trends might be at least somewhat universally relevant, I would draw your attention to the excellent work of Tomas Pueyo, which can be read here.
However, some things are not empirical, and predate the Covid-19 pandemic. What follows is an instinctive hypothesis, which can happily be revisited with sufficiently reliable data points and research – it is not dogma; this is intended to be critique, not criticism.
Governments have the serious challenge of balancing a constant cycle, not of the much commented two linear and often conflicting forces – immediate public health concerns vs longer-term economic damage, but of those and a third factor, which is the psychological contract a state has with its citizens, driving and driven by the behaviour of each party. To extend on Pueyo’s language, I call this the “Policy Waltz” – here, the policy is health, but it could be in any discipline.
As one changes any element of these three, it will have a knock-on effect on policy options and outcomes elsewhere. For example, a decision to reopen certain stores is triggered by health officials deeming the threat to be lower but also the behavioural instinct of a populace after six weeks of lockdown, that they are willing to tolerate some level of risk, and the need to restart at least parts of the economy.
How much of each factor leads to which decision? It certainly should not be driven just by one of these factors, but must be a careful balance between the three. This is a highly iterative process, and as each policy is executed, it may have to be recalibrated according to unexpected outcomes.
Preparedness is not simply a matter of having sufficient capacity of ICU beds or stockpiles of PPE; nor is it sufficient to have the financial firepower, in the public or private sector, to weather the economic storm. It has become clear that an equally crucial factor is the readiness of citizens to trust their government, and of governments to trust their citizens, in equal measure.
This allows a balance of freedom to make individual choices on acceptable levels of risk and reward, with the responsibility to protect vulnerable people and institutions through tempering these choices with what is in the common good.
Israel’s unique experience
Spend any time in almost any part of Israeli society and most people will concur that it is largely extraverted, much as we would typecast the USA, Australia or Brazil, in contrast to seeing Scandinavia, much of Asia, and New Zealand, as introverted by comparison (I use the terms extraverted and introverted with a degree of artistic licence, and please note that the spelling of extrAvert follows Jung’s original spelling as the opposite of intrOvert, and is perfectly correct!).
Alone among these and other OECD countries, however, Israel suffers from ongoing military threats, and relentless terrorist attacks.
The former rears its head periodically in wars and major operations, which thankfully have become progressively less existential in their nature over the 72 years of the state, setting aside the issue of Iran’s potential nuclear threat. The Israeli public holds a collective memory of how to react and behave in one of these crises – the opening of public and private bomb shelters, checking of gas masks, water and other essentials, the mobilisation of reserves.
Largely the terror is restricted to constant but low-level issues that the IDF and society have learned to counteract to reduce overall loss of life – the barrage of rockets is largely neutralized by the Iron Dome, and the tragic but ultimately low-fatality stabbings and car rammings are reduced through public awareness, improved intelligence, physical barriers, fast responses and strong deterrence.
In both cases, it is notable that a clear majority of Israelis show defiance, unity and camaraderie, often in very public ways. We rally together against a clearly defined enemy, even as there is often difference of opinion and feeling as to the strategy of how to vanquish them, and our level of obligation to mitigate collateral damage to those we presume have little agency but to live in the enemy camp. These debates, too, are vocal and public.
In other words, we are used to externalising our responses to a “normal” war, feeding off others doing the same, to create an atmosphere of psychological robustness, almost macho in nature. This could be argued to shape our exuberant, extraverted society, or perhaps these characteristics are what shapes the response; most likely it is something of a virtuous circle.
The quiet Israelis
As the level of rockets that penetrate the Iron Dome drops precipitously from the peak during major flare-ups, 95% of Israelis return to normal life, whilst 5% still have to plan every activity around the possibility of needing to seek immediate shelter, because the Iron Dome is not infallible.
The struggle of the state to deal with the resultant wave of PTSD cases among hundreds of thousands of citizens in the Gaza Envelope, which occur due to the impossibility of maintaining that psychologically robust atmosphere over the long-term and living a normal life, was an outlier for what we are now going through.
Largely unseen and unheard, this part of the population must instead internalise, as individuals and families, and as small communities, how to react physically and psychologically to the constant danger.
Doing so successfully is therefore fundamentally a matter of introspective and introversion. This is the antithesis of the “Israeli way” of handling the threat. It is another reason why most Israelis do not engage with the ongoing situation in the Gaza Envelope until it envelops them too, as it does periodically; we simply do not have the psychological tools for introverted wars.
We do better when there is a clear “other” to blame; the people of the Gaza Envelope are immensely sanguine that a handful of radicals are holding not just them hostage, but effectively also nearly two million Gazans, through their actions. Just look at the recent Zoom conference call between civilians on both sides of the Gaza border that led to many of the Palestinian participants being threatened by Hamas for the crime of “normalisation”. The “other” is therefore hard to define and cannot be bargained with.
Benjamin Netanyahu is a complex figure; books have already been written about him and many more will follow when he finally retires from public life. The Israeli public voted him back in (or at least did not vote him out) in the midst of this crisis. This suggests that the majority of the Israeli approve of his leadership style (or at least dislike the alternatives), including his initial handling of the pandemic.
Undoubtedly Bibi also influences elements of societal behaviour, having served for so long, and this has surely affected the unique psychological contract between Israel and its citizens – for good and for bad.
This is a country that reveres its military, especially the generals and those who served in combat, with particular reverence for the Special Forces and the Air Force, due to their elite nature, missions that often appear more outlandish than a film script, and therefore their unique risk profile.
We only have to look at Bibi’s constant reminder to us that he was in Sayeret Matkal, or Gantz, Ashkenazi and Ya’alon building a serious political force on their credibility as former Chiefs of Staff, Bennet’s credentials were burnished in the mysterious Maglan unit, and Yair Lapid is forever mocked for merely writing for the IDF newspaper.
It should therefore be no surprise that our political leaders, as graduates of the military, revert to militaristic rhetoric during most crises. This demonstration of archetypal macho masculinity is often the best behaviour when there is a known enemy to rally against; it creates the surge of adrenalin needed to carry a population through arduous moments.
Furthermore, the populist leader will find that what works for his (I struggle to think of a contemporary female populist leader apart from Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner – my views on the parallels between her and Bibi are here) election campaigns will work equally well in these moments; eternal optimism that “we can win” provided we can defeat the “other”, and “only I can save and lead you in these moments”. These are recurring themes worldwide in societies with populist governments at the moment.
It should be noted, however, that the protocol in Israel when a “normal” war breaks out is for the IDF to manage proceedings, thus elevating the Minister of Defence as the political point-man, to a stature on par with the Prime Minister. It is probably not a coincidence that for many years, the PM would in fact also hold this portfolio. This speaks to the deep trust most Israelis have in the institution of the IDF, which is perhaps as sacrosanct as the NHS is to most Britons.
No ordinary war
The war against Covid-19, though, is no ordinary war. Israel, so singularly equipped practically and psychologically against military assault, finds itself fighting a very different battle now.
Here, we must fight an introverted war, one which takes place largely in the privacy of our own homes, or for the unfortunate few, behind the doors of the ICU. We cannot externalise our reactions to this war; quite the opposite.
We have weeks on end in which we must internalise them, carrying out small, humble acts of self-discipline, with few public gestures to provide moral support and the surge of neurochemical responses we are used to, to get us through the battle. This is where the people of Sderot have been for years; finally we have, in a peculiar way, an experience that might grant us some much needed extra empathy for them.
And indeed it is empathy that in these times we need to hear from our leaders, alongside decisiveness, stoicism, realism and the correct level of optimism. Bellicosity is of no use when we are cooped up in our homes. What exactly is the good of exhortation? How much of a dopamine response do we get from Netanyahu trumpeting Israel as top of the league on various measures taken? The dissonance is actually negative.
It is incumbent on leaders in this time to tell the truth. We do not know how many people will die. We do not know how long it will take to win. We do not know what the lasting economic impact will be. For a populist, this is anathema, but the people are asking these questions themselves, and most are instinctively not reassured by a leader who has answers. Churchill’s finest speeches were objectively terrifying in the picture they painted, but they struck a chord because they spoke the truth of the situation, and this allowed people to steel themselves accordingly.
This is a private war, which people need reassurance to keep fighting through their personal behaviour, even though the very measure of winning is unclear. It is the quiet leader, or the one who finds a different tone, as even the normally effusive Boris Johnson has done, who can provide that reassurance during this introverted war. Instead of the populist personality cult of “only I…”, what we need is the individually empowering message of “only you…”
If compliance with social distancing and wearing of masks in public is anything to go by, then the majority of citizens of Tel Aviv, so far at least, feel individually empowered towards “only I…” as well, in the sense of “only I need not comply”.
Who shall lead us?
In most countries, it is a time for scientists and civilians to lead. In Israel, the “normal” war protocol was set aside, which is for the IDF to lead the management of the situation. The irony is that it might have been more effective, and eventually the IDF were called on anyway.
One cannot help but suspect that it suited Netanyahu politically to sideline the highly competent Bennet at Defence in favour of Litzman, surely the only Health Minister in the world to be battling a 21st century disease with no smartphone and no email account, who caught the virus from a minyan he attended in breach of his own regulations.
At the time of the breakout, Bibi was also in a head-to-head battle with Blue & White, headed by those three former Chiefs of Staff, in a third election within 12 months. It would have been politically challenging to overly empower the IDF at that moment, rather than show himself to be the sole leader capable of pulling Israel through the crisis. Therefore it was unsurprising that he had no interest in immediately entering a unity government with Blue & White for the purposes of riding out the crisis.
One could argue that keeping the response as a civilian project was the right thing, given the previous analysis of the need to fight a different kind of war, one of internalisation and introversion, of empathy and humility. But whilst nothing can change the nature of the enemy, and hence the characteristics needed of the people to fight the war, the mechanism needed to feel familiar.
Using the IDF as the driving force of the response, with the attending mobilisation of forces, would possibly have provided much greater reassurance, as well as removing any sense of politicisation.
Reservists could have acted as auxiliaries to assist Home Command, delivering essentials to those who needed to be protected from the enemy by observing a stricter quarantine, supporting the police in enforcing social distancing rules and periodically more rigorous periods of lockdown, and so on. The irony is that troops on the streets in Israel would represent restored faith in the politicians’ ability to set aside personal ambitions to resolve a national crisis.
So, counter-intuitive as it may seem, I believe that whilst the rhetoric needed to be very different to that which we expect when the country is on a war footing, the operational response should have been just that. The effect of the policies that were brought in may have been less jarring if that familiar process were followed.
Paying into the mutual trust
The problem with politicians’ leadership of such operations is precisely that every policy either is or can be perceived as politicised; every outcome scrutinised to deem success or failure, and reward or punish those politicians accordingly. In turn that can lead to the perception or temptation of politicians massaging the reporting or the figures of that outcome.
Governments which have a healthy psychological contract with their citizens have a very different playbook. Only hindsight will allow us to understand who got it right, and with so many variables, what worked in one country (or even one region or state) might not work in another. So it is not about demonstrating an immediate vindication of one policy or another.
Leaders must be able to trust their population with information, take measured risks in dancing the waltz, hold their hands up when they make honest mistakes without fear of punishment, and share the feeling of success and victory with those citizens. This requires them to be seen as less bombastic and dogmatic, and more empathetic whilst remaining calm and rational, and showing a clear appetite to rise to the occasion and set a personal example.
Unfortunately, I struggle to credit many members of the Israeli Cabinet with any of this – many simply do not believe they need to apply their own laws, and now we have a grotesquely enlarged Cabinet, at great expense, in the midst of this crisis. It should therefore not be a surprise that there is a sense of great agitation across the population, as two steps of the waltz appear to be faltering – economy and behaviour – just as we seem to now have a firm grip on the third – health.
The economic polka
This will be the topic of some future postings in much greater detail, but suffice to say that unfortunately the government response has been rather paltry. The outgoing D-G of the Ministry of Finance puts a brave face on it, pointing out that we benchmark solidly in the middle of the OECD pack in terms of the rescue measures as a percentage of GDP.
But this does not take into account our high cost of living, low savings rates, low home ownership among the most vulnerable, and a whole host of other variables. Not only that, but the predictable shambolic structure of delivering much of the financial assistance has pushed many, especially small business owners, even closer to the brink, financially and mentally.
This was in many ways a glaring opportunity missed, for the most part – a chance to raise an unprecedented sum of money, given that in any case we have increased our debt-to-GDP ratio from 60% to 75%, to not only kick-start the economy but actually tackle some of our vast infrastructure shortfalls. One or two positive examples, such as accelerating electrification of the railway network whilst trains were not running, are the shining exceptions that prove the rule.
It was also an opportunity to rebuild bridges with the Diaspora, by issuing a special Israel Bond to finance some of these projects and creating a raft of attractive private sector investment vehicles in the style of the 1990s Yozma VC programme. The uncertainty investors had in Western stock markets, currencies and other asset classes presented a window of relatively good risk-reward and price ratios for Israel-focused investments.
Instead, when it comes to Israel, the Diaspora community is focused on handling the awkward matter of it being to the left of the Israeli and American governments in terms of the annexation of much of the West Bank. And we say it’s the Arabs who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Waltzing back to normality
This crisis has given many of us pause to reflect on societal values and behaviours, the optimal relationship between the citizen and the state, and the kind of leadership we need to deliver on this and put us on an upward spiral instead of a downward one.
Perversely, as Israel emerges from lockdown over the coming months, if the economy rebounds and the number of fatalities remains in the low hundreds, I believe the complete opposite will happen. I think it is why Benny Gantz decided to throw in his lot with Bibi – there will be no reckoning, because victory will be declared, and “rak Bibi” could have got us through this.
I believe this is a huge missed opportunity, not least for Bibi. This was his chance to show genuine statesmanship, and to be a leader to all of us. It was a moment for our extraverted nation and its prime minister to carry out a “heshbon nefesh”, a true reckoning of the soul.
The contract between the state and its citizens is fundamentally broken. Vast parts of society feel alienated entirely. Some have grown used to the idea that the state is there only to give to them, whilst others are on the reverse of that equation, paying a disproportionate tax in blood and treasure. This crisis has revealed the sense of material success of the “Start-Up Nation” to be illusory for the vast majority.
Narrow interest groups are played off against each other, and fleeting moments of national unity only seem to happen during the highest highs and the lowest lows. 72 years ago, our founding leaders developed the concept of “yisraeliut” – Israeliness – to try and cajole the disparate citizenry of the nascent state into some form of unity.
This starts by the people listening to the “other” within our midst – Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, left and right, Tel Aviv and Sderot, Ashkenazi and Sephardi… the pairs trip off the tongue. No wonder we needed yisraeliut, and no wonder it often seems absent.
We need leadership to guide us through this process, and be willing to be shaped by the outcome. That is a leadership we can trust to better waltz with us in any policy field when we finally return to business as usual, and through the next crisis.
The same founders had the prescience to juxtapose Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haaztmaut. We move on consecutive days from sombre remembrance and introspection to great public expressions of extraverted joy. But this year, the introverts will have it their way.
What we learn from this is that as individuals and societies, we must allow both tendencies to exist comfortably within us. The very word independence in Hebrew shares its root with the concept of self; independence is both an individual (introverted) and collective (extraverted) concept. At different times in our personal lives and in the life of a nation, we must be prepared to wield whichever is necessary for us to emerge victorious.
The first step on the road to renewing the contract between us, and to building a new yisraeliut, is therefore for us all, including our leaders, to cultivate in ourselves and each other, and to always listen out, above the din that was until recently the exuberant quintessence of Israeli society, as Elijah learned to do – “not in the wind, not in the earthquake, and not in the fire”, for “kol dmama daka”, a still, small voice.
That voice has a different kind of strength to the one most Israelis already have, feel comfortable with, and are used to expressing, but we will not be a great nation until we find it together. This crisis gives us all the moment to do so.