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COVID-19 Challenge, Elections and Peace Deals: Here's What Israel Went Through in 2020

© AP Photo / Oded BaliltyA view of Jerusalem Old City seen from Mount of Olives, Wednesday, 6 December 2017.
A view of Jerusalem Old City seen from Mount of Olives, Wednesday, 6 December 2017. - Sputnik International
For many Israelis, the outgoing year will be associated with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the economic crisis that it unlocked. But it will also be remembered for the trial of Benjamin Netanyahu and protests against him, for another round of elections and for a series of peace deals with certain Arab states.

In Israel, 2020 will not be remembered as a year characterised by security threats. Tensions did flare up on a number of occasions, including following the US assassination of Iran's top commander Qasem Soleimani in January, the removal of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighter's body by an IDF bulldozer in February, and the killing of a Hezbollah operative in the summer, but those did not evolve into a major confrontation.

In fact, 2020 kicked off in Israel on a positive note, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Washington to attend a ceremony where US President Donald Trump unveiled his "deal of the century" peace plan.

Deal or No Deal?

The initiative presupposed that Israelis and Palestinians would swap land, Israel would grow to incorporate up to 30 percent of the West Bank and the PA leadership would eventually be able to declare an independent state with a capital in the suburbs of Jerusalem.

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But that plan didn't fly with the Palestinians, who vented anger at the pro-Israel bias of the Trump administration.

Nor did it sit well with the international community that eyed the stance of US officials as "departing from" a series of international agreements.

Later on it was slammed by Israel's liberals, who objected to the fact that the state would bite off parts of Palestinian lands; it was also slammed in some of the country's conservative circles, who regarded the deal as a step towards the establishment of a Palestinian state, something that they wanted to avoid.

Prime Minister Netanyahu was wary of the backlash the deal has stirred. For him, that "peace deal" has turned into a burden and it was eventually dropped in July, after he nixed the idea to pass the so-called sovereignty bill that aimed at applying Israeli law over parts of the West Bank.

That decision cost Netanyahu dearly and reports suggested that several religious leaders, who were previously supportive of the PM, had turned their backs on him. But although that did challenge Netanyahu, little did he know that his main challenge was just around the corner.

The Beginning of the Disaster

In late February, Israel registered its first case of COVID-19, when an Israeli tourist returned to the country from Italy, where he allegedly contracted the virus.

Israel was quick to implement a series of restrictions to prevent the virus from spreading. It cancelled all flights to and from Italy and China, where the virus is believed to have originated, asked foreign nationals to leave the country and called on Israeli citizens to avoid going abroad, unless there was an absolute necessity.

But by mid-March, Israeli authorities realised that it was already too late as the number of cases exceeded a thousand. As panic was growing, as was pressure on the government to take action.

That action wasn't long in coming. In late March, Netanyahu announced the first full lockdown of the country. Private businesses were shut down, as were educational and public institutions. The movement of citizens was restricted, and transportation was cut to the bare minimum. Entry to the country became impossible for anyone not holding an Israeli passport.

A member of the medical staff wearing protective gear works at the coronavirus ward of the Rambam Health Care Campus, initially built as an underground medical facility before being converted to a car park, then to a center to receive patients as COVID-19 cases surge, in the northern Israeli city of Haifa on October 11, 2020.  - Sputnik International
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The policy quickly bore fruit and by the end of May, Israel had registered less than a hundred COVID-19 cases. But although the lockdown was effective in curbing the spread of the disease, it was devastating for the country's economy, pushing it into an unprecedented crisis.

Already in March it was reported that Israel, where the unemployment rate rarely exceeds five percent, had registered a jobless rate of more than 17 percent.

Back in March, that was an unprecedented number, the absolute highest since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, but as time went by and the pandemic kept raging, the number of unemployed people kept rising, nearing 30 percent in April.

The government was struggling to find the money  to please the jobless masses. Although assistance packages had been given out, they failed to satisfy many people, something that pushed crowds into the streets, where they demanded that the government handle the crisis or resign.

It was this pressure (coupled with low numbers of COVID-19 patients) that eventually led Netanyahu to ease the restrictions and let Israelis go back to normal, but as the lifting of measures was done too quickly and too abruptly, the virus started spreading again, eventually leading to a second lockdown in mid-September.

When it was finally lifted in October, Israel was still suffering from high unemployment rates and alarming levels of poverty. After two lockdowns, the country still didn't know how to cope with the acute health and economic crises, nor did it know how to restrict masses that very often were caught on camera breaking restrictive measures set by the government.

Now that Israel has entered its third lockdown starting Sunday, many have the feeling of deja vu. But, unlike previous times, there is a light at the end of the tunnel as vaccines have arrived in the state.

The first batch of vaccines arrived in Israel in early December, and by the end of the month more than 200,000 have already been vaccinated, with authorities promising that 150,000 people will be given the inoculation on a daily basis. If that happens, Israel will become the first state that managed to overcome the COVID-19 challenge.

Political Saga

While Israel did manage to find a solution to the health crisis, there is still no vaccine to the political instability that has been shaking the country for almost two years.

In March, Israelis went to the polls for a third time but while Netanyahu's Likud party managed to retain its leading position, securing 36 out of 120 seats in the parliament; forming a government was a tough task to achieve.

A handout picture released by the Israeli Knesset (parliament) spokesperson's office on May 17, 2020, shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and alternate PM Benny Gantz, during the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Jerusalem - Sputnik International
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Eventually, it did happen. In May, the 35th government was sworn in but that didn't bring the country the much-needed stability. 

Initially, the boat was rocked by the trial of Netanyahu that kicked off at the end of the month, something that exacerbated the already existing mass protests against the "crime minister", who is involved in a series of graft probes that include buying positive press and receiving illegal gifts from a rich donor.

And then, it was Netanyahu and his rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz who were struggling to agree on ways to resolving the crisis. Nor could they come to terms on the restrictive measures authorities should take to put an end to the raging pandemic.

Cracks in the coalition have also emerged as a result of the two leaders' inability to agree on a number of political issues, which included a saga round the replacement of the Minister of Justice Avi Nissenkorn, whom Netanyahu wished to oust, and the passing of the national budget that eventually led to the dissolution of the current government.

Bibi will try to form another one again, after Israelis take to the polls in March 2021 but as protests against him keep raging, the pandemic still presents an issue and the country's opposition keeps getting stronger, Netanyahu will need a miracle to remain in his seat.

Peace Pacts

Some of these "miracles" have already occurred. In August, the United Arab Emirates became the first Gulf nation to recognise Israel, partially thanks to the efforts of Netanyahu and partially because of the Trump administration.

A month later, the two nations signed a peace agreement, and on the same day Israel also inked a normalisation pact with another Gulf nation -- Bahrain.

(COMBO) This combination of file pictures created on December 10, 2020 shows a Moroccan flag off the coasts of the city of Cayenne on March 21, 2012 and an Israeli national flag on September 23, 2020 - Sputnik International
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Those cooperation deals unlocked multiple business, defence and diplomatic opportunities for Israel. They also paved the way for other regional players to follow suit.

In October, Sudan became the fifth Muslim state to normalise relations with Israel, ending decades of animosity and hostility, and in December Morocco also joined the club, becoming the sixth nation to establish ties with Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu is vowing that many more countries will follow their lead, but bolstering relations with other nations doesn't seem to translate into high ratings for the PM, with the recent poll indicating he would only get 28 seats in the country's parliament, a stark drop from his achievement in March, when he received 36 spots.

However, the accuracy of this and similar polls can be debated, if these estimates prove accurate, this outgoing year will also be remembered as the last one for Netanyahu in office. 

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