Coronavirus: Netanyahu’s Chance to Return Trump’s Favor

By | Mar 09, 2020
Coronavirus, Latest

Jewish politics from the nation’s capital.
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1. Coronavirus outbreak tests Netanyahu-Trump relations

Relationships can get that way sometimes. Out of the blue, something comes up and adds an unexpected strain on what was, until then, nothing but a great friendship.

For Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, the buddies who have formed their own trans-Atlantic mutual admiration club, it took a tiny, in fact, microscopic, creature to put some stress into the Jerusalem-Washington pipeline.

The coronavirus epidemic threatening to shut down the world’s economy, to confine millions to their homes and potentially to take the lives of many, has forced Netanyahu into a corner.

Ever since the beginning of the outbreak, Netanyahu has been leading Israel in one of the world’s strictest and most aggressive responses, including isolating Israelis from tourists, visitors and returning Israeli travelers who may potentially carry the virus. This policy has led to an almost complete closure of Israel to the outside world, since Israelis returning from travel to most countries in Europe and Asia are required to enter a 14-day home quarantine, and non-Israeli visitors from those countries are simply sent back.

Until Sunday, the United States, where hundreds of coronavirus cases have already been detected and thousands more are expected once tests become available in the coming days, was conspicuously left off this list. 

Israeli public health authorities have been urging the government for days to include travelers from the U.S., at least those coming from Washington State, California, New York and the Washington, DC area, in the list of visitors forced into quarantine, but Netanyahu held back, delaying the decision and then finally agreeing to consider a worldwide ban, which would include America but not name it as a specific country of concern.

Why this extreme caution?

The reason goes back to Netanyahu’s good friend from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Just as Trump was there for Netanyahu when he needed a nice diplomatic gesture on the eve of Israeli elections (and then on the eve of the next one, and the next one) and just as he was willing to go further than any other American president in fulfilling the wishes of an Israeli center-right government, now Trump needs Netanyahu to do him a solid.

While Netanyahu chose to lead the coronavirus crisis in Israel by taking it to the extreme, emphasizing the grave threat facing the nation and convincing citizens to go into great discomfort and disruption of their daily lives, Trump has chosen a different path. Worried about the devastating impact the outbreak would have on the American economy, and, by extension, on his own political future, Trump sought to assuage fears, question public health authorities, and make clear there’s no room for fear, panic or disruption.

An Israeli decision to include the U.S. in its list of plagued nations whose citizens are not allowed to enter the Holy Land, alongside countries like China, Italy and Japan, would have punctured the business-as-usual image Trump has been working so hard to maintain.

And that’s where his friendship with Bibi was put to a test, and prevailed.

Netanyahu, despite pressure at home, managed to keep the U.S. off the list of specific countries posing a danger to Israel. By doing so, he may or may not have increased the risk of infections in Israel—time will tell. What is clear, however, is that Netanyahu proved to Trump he’s a trustworthy friend, willing to repay a favor, when called on.

2. The AIPAC coronavirus scare

As of Monday, three participants at the March 1-3 AIPAC policy conference, held in DC, were confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus. Two of them were part of the New York delegation and had gotten infected after being in touch with a Westchester Jewish lawyer sick with coronavirus, before coming to the conference. The third is a resident of Los Angeles who was diagnosed after returning from the conference.

Given the magnitude of the epidemic, it is not unreasonable to expect that a conference, which brings together nearly 20,000 people under one roof, would also see a few cases of infection. And so far, there is no credible concern that these participants had passed on the virus to others attending the AIPAC conference.

It does raise, however, a question:

Was there room to consider canceling the conference, which took place while the coronavirus was already raging in Europe and Asia and starting to spread through America? The many hand sanitizing stands throughout the conference center and the signs urging participants to take preemptive hygiene measures indicate that AIPAC was aware of the risk. Like other organizations, it decided the risk wasn’t significant enough. Days later, many other groups moved to cancel their planned Washington conferences which were scheduled for this week and next.

3. Biden racks up Jewish endorsements

Joe Biden’s Super Tuesday momentum has been carrying over with an impressive list of endorsements from top national and local political leaders. It includes many Jewish figures on the Democratic side: Mike Bloomberg, who bowed out after his unimpressive performance last week, called on his backers to support Biden. Florida Representative Ted Deutch, a Bloomberg backer, didn’t miss a beat and switched his endorsement to Biden. Others have hopped on the Biden train, including former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, California senator Dianne Feinstein, and her former colleague Barbara Boxer. Former Michigan Senator Carl Levin endorsed Biden in time for his state’s primaries this week. Biden can also register the endorsement of freshmen Congresswomen Elissa Slotkin and Elaine Luria.

Bernie Sanders’s list of Jewish endorsements is markedly more modest, though he does have the support of former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich (who endorsed both Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).

4. Where will the Warren Jews turn?

One of the reasons Sanders has amassed so few endorsements from members of his own tribe is because most progressive Jewish politicians and former government officials chose to back Elizabeth Warren. The list included, among others, Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Jamie Raskin, former Senator Russ Feingold, alongside a slew of Jewish former national security officials.

Where will they all turn now that Warren has dropped out?

Most are still in wait-and-see mode, at least until Warren makes her voice heard on her preferred 2020 candidate.

5. Anti-Semitism hits Bernie’s run for the White House

Among the many attacks Sanders has endured during his campaign, almost none were related to his Jewish faith. Until last Thursday, when a known white nationalist, waved a Nazi flag while Sanders was speaking at a Phoenix, Arizona campaign rally. Sanders responded Sunday to the incident, telling CNN: “I never expected in my life, as an American, to see a swastika at a major political rally. It’s horrible.”

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