JERUSALEM – As he seeks reelection, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has turned to a straightforward strategy: Count on the rock-solid support of his ultra-Orthodox political allies and stamp out the coronavirus pandemic with one of the world’s most aggressive vaccination campaigns.
But with ultra-Orthodox communities openly flouting safety guidelines and violently clashing with police trying to enforce them, this marriage of convenience is turning into a burden. Netanyahu has watched his political partners undermine the country’s war against the virus and spark a public backlash that threatens him at the ballot box.
“Netanyahu’s hope is that Israel will be the first country in the world to be vaccinated, that he will be able to open the economy to everyone, ultra-Orthodox and secular, and then the problem will be forgotten,” said Moshe Klughaft, a campaign strategist who has advised Netanyahu in the past. If the current troubles persist, he said, “Netanyahu will be in big trouble.”
Less than two months before the March 23 election, Israel finds itself in a paradoxical situation. In just one month, it has vaccinated over a quarter of its 9.3 million people and is on pace to inoculate the entire adult population by election day. At the same time, it has one of the developing world’s highest rates of infection, with some 8,000 new cases detected each day. This week it tightened a month-old lockdown by closing its international airport to nearly all flights.
There are a number of reasons for the ongoing outbreak. Before the airport was shuttered, Israelis returning from abroad brought back with them fast-spreading variants of the coronavirus. Other segments of the population have also failed to comply with lockdown provisions that have closed stores, schools and restaurants.
But there is little question that the ultra-Orthodox sector — where schools remain open, synagogues are full and mass weddings and funerals continue to take place — has been a driving force in the spiking numbers.
Experts estimate that the sector, making up about 12% of Israel’s population, accounts for 40% of new COVID-19 cases. Official data also shows that vaccination rates in ultra-Orthodox towns, where science often takes a back seat to faith, are well below the rest of the country.
The ultra-Orthodox have long wielded disproportionate influence in Israel, using their kingmaker status in parliament to extract concessions from the nation’s leaders. Ultra-Orthodox males are exempt from otherwise mandatory military service. The community’s schools receive generous subsidies while providing subpar educations that focus almost entirely on religious studies and ignore critical subjects like math, English and science. As adults, many males shirk the workforce, collecting welfare payments while studying in religious seminars.