Benjamin Netanyahu hinges on Israel’s coronavirus vaccination for re-election

Benjamin Netanyahu hinges on Israel’s coronavirus vaccination for re-election
In just over two weeks, Israel has given nearly 1.4 million people the Pfizer/BioNtech coronavirus vaccine. (AP)
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Updated 06 January 2021

Benjamin Netanyahu hinges on Israel’s coronavirus vaccination for re-election

Benjamin Netanyahu hinges on Israel’s coronavirus vaccination for re-election
  • Netanyahu places his world-leading vaccination drive at the center of his reelection campaign
  • His corruption trial, set to resume in the coming weeks, meanwhile looms

JERUSALEM: For media-obsessed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the coronavirus vaccine has arrived just in time.
With elections approaching in March, Netanyahu has placed his world-leading vaccination drive at the center of his reelection campaign — launching an aggressive media blitz portraying him as almost singlehandedly leading the country out of the pandemic. He appears to be betting that a successful vaccination effort can persuade voters to forget about his corruption trial and the economic damage caused by the coronavirus crisis.
Netanyahu, like his good friend Donald Trump and other world leaders, frequently tries to use social media and tightly controlled press conferences to bypass the traditional media — and the scrutiny that has come along with it. While this strategy has often served Netanyahu well, his obsession with controlling the message also threatens to backfire.
It lies at the heart of a corruption case in which he is accused of granting favors to powerful media figures in exchange for positive coverage of him and his family. An expanded indictment released this week outlined 150 incidents showing detailed control he allegedly tried to exert over the media. This included pressure on a news site to drop critical coverage about a lacy dress worn by his wife, and pushing the site to publish photos of her meeting actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
Netanyahu’s tactics have also contributed to a nascent uprising in his own party. Two prominent defectors accused him of creating a “personality cult” in their resignation speeches.
Since he became the first Israeli to be vaccinated two weeks ago in a festive event broadcast live on national television, Netanyahu’s office has pumped out a constant stream of statements, tweets and videos showing the prime minister extolling the virtues of the vaccine and claiming credit for making it available to the broader public.
“I have brought the vaccines and you are giving the vaccines,” he recently told health workers at a clinic in an Arab town in northern Israel as he implored residents to get the shot. “The whole world is amazed at Israel. They are writing that Israel is a wonder.”
By many counts, Israel has pulled off a significant achievement so far. In just over two weeks, the country has given nearly 1.4 million people the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine, roughly 15% of its population. That is the highest level in the world on a per capita basis, according to ” Our World in Data,” an open source research site that compares official government statistics. Israel aims to vaccinate most of the population by the end of March — just around election time.
Netanyahu has made the campaign deeply personal. He welcomed the first shipment of vaccines at the airport. He got vaccinated on national TV, and he made sure to be at health clinics to greet the 500,000th and 1 millionth people to be vaccinated — with both events streamed live on YouTube.
Netanyahu boasts of his relationships with the chief executives of Pfizer and Moderna, implying his connections helped acquire millions of hard-to-get doses of vaccines. “I speak to them all the time,” he recently quipped.
Netanyahu rose to prominence in the 1990s in great part thanks to his mastery of the media. He is at ease on camera and capable of speaking in clear sound bites in both Hebrew and American-accented English. Despite his skill as a communicator, he has had a rocky relationship with the Israeli media.
Sounding much like Trump, he accuses the media of having a liberal bias and leading a “witch hunt” against him. He has embraced social media and brags about circumventing the traditional media to spread his messages. When he invites reporters to his press conferences, he rarely takes questions.
Last week, Netanyahu welcomed the convicted US spy Jonathan Pollard to Israel, capping a 35-year saga. “What a moment,” Netanyahu declared on the airport tarmac in the middle of the night. Only no media were invited to witness the moment. Netanyahu’s office later released smartphone photos and video taken by an aide.
Materials distributed by his political party, Likud, go even further. In November, it released a video of Netanyahu getting a haircut and going to a vegetable store — a message that he was doing his part to help struggling businesses hurt by the country’s economic crisis.
“We thank you for the 24 hours every day that you give to the people of Israel,” the barber told him. “Prime Minister No. 1!” a supporter shouted as he exited the minimarket.
Gideon Saar, a Netanyahu stalwart, broke away from Likud last month to form his own party, accusing Netanyahu of turning Likud into a tool for personal survival as he goes on trial.
Zeev Elkin, a longtime confidant of Netanyahu, later joined Saar. “Mr. Prime Minister, you’ve destroyed the Likud and brought an atmosphere of a cult of personality, sycophancy, fear of expressing criticism, and a Byzantine court,” he said.
Saar’s new party, courting other right-wing voters disenchanted with Netanyahu’s rule, has emerged as a formidable force. Opinion polls forecast Saar’s party finishing second, behind the Likud, but at the head of a mix of anti-Netanyahu parties that together could end Netanyahu’s 12-year reign.
Netanyahu accuses his rivals of being motivated by little more than sour grapes and shared animosity toward him. He says they are focused on petty politics while he is carrying out “a giant vaccination operation” that will make Israel the first country to exit the coronavirus crisis.
It remains unclear whether Israel will procure enough vaccines to keep up the torrid pace of inoculations. It also is unclear whether Netanyahu’s message will resonate with the legions of voters who have lost their jobs — especially with the country in its third lockdown as it faces a new outbreak.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s corruption trial, set to resume in the coming weeks, looms. He has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. The most serious charges claim he promoted lucrative regulations that benefited the Bezeq telecom company in exchange for favorable coverage about him on the company’s popular Walla news site.
“He wants to be loved by the media, but he hates the media at the same time,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuller, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.


Lebanon’s top Christian cleric lashes out at ‘stubborn and destructive’ officials 

Lebanon’s top Christian cleric lashes out at ‘stubborn and destructive’ officials 
Updated 25 January 2021

Lebanon’s top Christian cleric lashes out at ‘stubborn and destructive’ officials 

Lebanon’s top Christian cleric lashes out at ‘stubborn and destructive’ officials 
  • President and prime-minister designate at loggerheads 

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s top Christian cleric lashed out at “stubborn and destructive” officials on Sunday for blocking the formation of a new government. 

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai used his sermon to denounce those who were blocking the process, painting a grim picture of how Lebanon was struggling during the pandemic and a financial crisis.

Politicians have failed to agree on a new administration since the last one resigned after the devastating Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut. There has also been a sharp increase in tension between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri. 

Al-Rai led mediation efforts to resolve the deadlock and complications, but failed in his endeavors.  

The patriarch fumed at “the obduracy of the officials in Lebanon in their stubborn and destructive stances for the state as an entity and institutions.”

“With what conscience, what justification, what kind of authority and right, and by whose mandate do you not form a government?” he demanded to know. “Why do you not form a government when the people are crying out from pain, starving from poverty and dying from disease?”

Hospitals were full of patients, he continued. Clinics and pharmacies lacked medicines, stores lacked food, and the monetary and economic crises had reached their climax. 

“The economy is fading away, agricultural production is destroyed, people are standing at the doors of banks hopelessly begging for their money, the major military, financial and judicial state institutions are hit in their prestige, morale and officials due to programmed campaigns and malicious rumors.”

Borders had no control, there was smuggling at the country’s expense, sovereignty was incomplete, independence was suspended, corruption was rampant, and unemployment and poverty affected more than half of the population, he added. “The capital is afflicted, the port is destroyed, the wealth of oil and gas is seized and the country (has) entered the orbit of final collapse.”

His anger followed an intense period of bickering between the country’s political factions about why a government was not being formed.

Aoun said the president had a constitutional right to approve the entire Cabinet formation before signing it off, while Hariri said the problem did not lie with him but “rather with the president who objects and says that he does not approve this or that name, but does not give an explanation for his objection.”

A statement on Saturday night from the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), led by Aoun’s son-in-law MP Gebran Bassil, attacked Hariri.  

“The time of foreign tutelage has ended and it is an illusion that some are trying to replace it with internal hegemony,” it said. “This means giving up attempts to seize the political rights of any Lebanese component.”

FPM MP Cesar Abi Khalil said that Aoun would not resign and that the FPM lawmakers had not named Hariri to head the government because they did not trust him with the task required at this stage.

Insults lit up social media, with lurid comments such as “Senile Aoun” and “Berri for theft and corruption,” a reference to Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. 

Former minister Nazem El-Khoury said that the patriarch had expressed the pain of all Lebanese people in his sermon.

He addressed the FPM, saying: “For those who claim to defend the rights of Christians, please do not be more Christian than the patriarch of the Maronites and the whole of Lebanon.”

The Lebanese daily Ad-Diyar reported on Sunday that a political and parliamentary official was concerned about “attempts to disrupt solutions in Lebanon as if there was a plot to bring down Lebanon.”

The official expressed fears that what was required was the “survival of the caretaker government headed by Hassan Diab until the end of the term.”

Diab formed his government last January to tackle the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. His administration came to office after his predecessor, Hariri, resigned in the face of mass protests.