Right wing politicians, proponents of a national unity government and news pundits have all argued that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the best choice to manage the Corona crisis, as he is the most experienced leader in Israel. Indeed, over the past decade Netanyahu has managed military and financial crises as well as diplomatic crises opposite various nations. Experience, pundits argue, is invaluable when facing new and unfamiliar challenges such as pandemics.
Yet three decades of crisis management scholarship indicates otherwise. Studies suggest that when facing a new and unfamiliar crisis, experience might actually be a disadvantage. The reason being that experienced leaders tend to manage a new crisis as if it were a familiar one. In other words, Netanyahu is likely to manage the Corona pandemic as if it were a military or political crisis. This could lead Netanyahu to make grave miscalculations, rely on false assumptions, choose ineffective strategies and, most importantly, commit the error of ‘risk neglect’. Experienced leaders may falsely assume that the risk manifest in an unfamiliar scenario is relatively small, as they have already managed complex crises in the past.
In addition, crises always lead to tensions within governments as ministers seek more responsibilities, while civil servants vie over access to decision makers. At the extreme, tensions within government can lead to power struggles, a lack of willingness to share information with peers and the withholding of important information from leaders. Crisis management therefore requires that leaders diffuse internal quarrels while seeking council from many civil servants. Lastly, leaders must gain public support and enjoy a high level of credibility if they are to navigate a country through uncharted territory. Lack of credibility may lead the public not to heed a leader’s warnings or follow his instructions.
Benjamin Netanyahu has already made several errors in his management of the Corona crisis. First, he established an exclusive Corona cabinet that prevents him from engaging with many civil servants. These, in their frustration, have turned to the media. Each day brings with it new leaks and accusations from the medical establishment attacking the Director General of the Health Ministry and others within the Corona cabinet. Rather than manage tensions, Netanyahu has inflamed them.
Second, Netanyahu has assumed that Israelis will respond to a health crisis as they do to a military confrontation. In 1991, Israelis sat in sealed rooms, wearing gas masks awaiting Iraqi missiles. During rocket attacks from Gaza, Israelis stay near shelters. That is not the case with Corona outbreak. In certain cities, shops remain open while young people line the streets. Netanyahu’s leadership has failed to adapt to a new menace that has no face and no arsenal.
Third, the Prime Minister failed to anticipate the behavior of various segments of the population. This is especially true of the Ultra-Orthodox community, which is only now beginning to comply with the Health Ministry’s regulations. In two weeks’ time, Ultra-Orthodox cities may see a surge in Corona cases. Netanyahu’s experience blinded him to the new scenario Israel now faces, one in which leaders must find new channels and communicators through which they can reach minority groups.
Lastly, Netanyahu has consistently sought to scare the population, and his ministries with doomsday scenarios. This only leads to short-term compliance. Over time, fear wears off. For this reason, effective communication during health crises rests on presenting the population with data and a level headed threat assessment. Leaders should also evoke a sense of solidarity and shared fate, not shared doom.
Equally detrimental are Netanyahu’s television interviews, used to dabble in politics. These actions have further diminished the Prime Minister’s credibility. A recent channel 12 poll found that the majority of Israelis do not believe that the Prime Minister will honor his agreement with Benny Gantz. Others are certain that Netanyahu has used the crisis to avoid criminal prosecution. A leader who is not trusted, cannot lead effectively.