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Health Crisis and Political Crisis: Benjamin Netanyahu's Double Rhetorical Maneuver during COVID-19

Crise sanitaire et crise politique : La double démarche rhétorique de Benjamin Netanyahou pendant la COVID-19
Ariella Lahav
Cet article est une traduction de :
Crise sanitaire et crise politique : La double démarche rhétorique de Benjamin Netanyahou pendant la COVID-19 [fr]


Ce travail analyse les premiers discours du Premier Ministre israélien, Benjamin Netanyahou, traitant de la COVID-19 dans le contexte de la crise politique unique dans laquelle se trouvait plongé Israël au moment où la pandémie a éclaté. Il montre non seulement que la rhétorique de Netanyahou visait, comme celle d’autres dirigeants occidentaux, à persuader son auditoire d’obéir aux règlements liberticides—et pour cela, à construire son autorité et sa légitimité, ainsi que la légitimité des mesures prônées contre la pandémie, mais qu’elle visait aussi à reconstruire et réhabiliter son ethos (endommagé par son inculpation) comme chef d’État seul capable de gérer une crise d’une telle ampleur, et donc de diriger le pays ; et à convaincre son rival politique de rejoindre un gouvernement dit « d’union nationale d’urgence ».

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  • 1 The number of cases is updated daily by the Ministry of Health. (...)
  • 2 See Maor et al. (2020) for a detailed description of the measures that the authors criticize as dis (...)
  • 3 A second lockdown was imposed in September, and a third in December. On December 20, 2020, Israel h (...)

1The first confirmed case of Covid-19 was recorded in Israel on 27 February 20201. Measures such as travel restrictions and the imposition of self-quarantine were progressively decreed from early February, followed by a series of emergency measures and legislative decisions, including school closures and lockdowns2, with the announcements of reliefs as of April 16, 20203.

  • 4 Pierre Rosanvallon’s term (2008: 29). For the theoretical framework, see Ruth Amossy's introductory (...)

2The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like other elected however “imperfectly legitimate”4 Western leaders, had to address the public and justify the legitimacy of the decreed restrictions, as well as to persuade his audience to comply with such measures. It is this process of legitimation and construction of authority (in the sense of the ability to be obeyed without coercion) which affects both the person of the leader and the merits of the measures enacted, that we will study here.

3We want to show that Netanyahu’s speeches to the nation have addressed a double purpose. On the one hand, he had to reaffirm his legitimacy (challenged by his indictment)a condition sine qua non for the acceptance by the public of the extraordinary measures adopted against Covid-19, which measures were imposed at a time when he was at the head of an interim government with limited power to issue restrictive rules. On the other hand, Netanyahu, engaged in elections that he wanted, and practically had to, win, in order to avoid the continuation of his trial, had to present himself in his speeches as invested with the moral legitimacy and personal authority requisite to impose the idea that he alone, within the political class, was capable and worthy of leading the State in such troubled times, and therefore merited being re-elected.

4To understand this dual stake, it is necessary to recall that the pandemic has caught Israel amid an election period aimed at electing the members of the Israeli parliament, who in turn recommend to the President of the nation the one member who would be entrusted with the negotiations to form and lead a coalition government. A third round of elections was scheduled for March 2, 2020, after two consecutive failures within a one-year period. In April and in September 2019, neither Netanyahu (colloquially referred to as Bibi), Prime Minister (PM) for 12 years and leader of the right-wing Likud party, nor his opponent Benny Gantz, leader of the so-called centrist Blue-White party (and former Army Chief of Staff), had succeeded in forming a government. It should be noted that the three electoral rounds have polarized around Netanyahu (should one accept or oppose his re-election) more than on the ideology of the respective political parties. This was reflected in the slogan of his faithful supporters: “only Bibi” and of those who intended to oust him from office: “anyone but Bibi.”

  • 5 In December 2020 Netanyahu initiated the dissolution of the parliament. On June 3, 2021, Naftali Be (...)

5In November 2019, Israel’s Attorney General decided to indict the PM for fraud, corruption and breach of trust; the opening of the trial was set for March 17, 2020, and postponed to May 24, following a court closure order issued on March 15 by the Minister of Justice, prompting criticism that the pandemic was exploited by Netanyahu to postpone his trial, so that he could stand to trial in the position of a PM after the formation of a new government. The elections of March 2, 2020, have led to a new impasse. Under the Israeli democratic system, a government must receive a vote of confidence of a majority of parliament and historically “all governments have been [...] 'coalition governments’”. (Kenig 2013) Prior to the elections, Gantz had pledged to form a government without Netanyahu due to his indictment, but on March 22, a week after being openly invited by Netanyahu to join him (as discussed below), due to the pandemic, he expressed his willingness to support a national emergency government; on March 26, he reversed his decision, causing a split in Blue-White, and on April 20, the two men signed a coalition agreement based on a principle of rotation.5

6It was under these circumstances that Netanyahu had to manage his prior ethos in view of achieving his ends and be appointed Prime Minister. On the notion of prior ethos, Ruth Amossy notes:

  • 6 All French texts are translated by me.

To construct a self-image is always to engage in a dialogue with what others have said about us and the idea they have of us. It is therefore also reacting to the negative aspects of the prior ethos [...] this ability to rework a prior image is essential [...]. (2010: 74-5)6

7Aretè or virtue is, along with phronesis (wisdom) and eunoia (benevolence), a compulsory feature of ethos according to Aristotle; it relates to the morality and honesty of the leader: “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: […]” (Aristotle 350 B.C.E: book 1 part 2). It is precisely this virtue that was called into question in the case of the PM; because of his indictment, he was perceived by a large part of the electorate as a liar and deceiver.

8By examining the rhetorical tools, argumentative strategies and metaphors used by the PM in his addresses, the chronological analysis of his speeches reveals his dramatic exploitation of the pandemic, in view of strengthening his ethos as leader, urging the public to obey unprecedented emergency measures, and persuading his political rival to join him. Forming a government of national unity was indeed at that time his only chance to remain in power.

  • 7 Links to the PM’s Hebrew speeches are given in the notes. Quotes of the speeches in English are tak (...)

9The article refers to the speeches of PM as transcribed, taken up and published on the official website of the Israeli government,7 as well as on YouTube and the PM’s Facebook page, and quoted by Israeli newspapers. We refer to the speeches delivered from February 2 to March 14, 2020, when the PM surprisingly called on Gantz to join forces, which call he repeated on March 17 and 19.

1. Chronological analysis of speeches

10Three phases may be noted in the PM’s speeches:

111. In the first phase, prior to the elections, he focuses on building his ethos as head of State, with a view of keeping the elections on time and winning them. He manifests his legitimacy and authority by giving himself full credit for his actions: he is the one who has acted for the public good, has determined a policy, has made decisions, and has informed the public thereof.

122. In the second phase, after the elections, which to his detriment did not culminate in his victory, he consolidates his personal ethos through repeated self-praise, and at the same time strengthens the collective ethos of his government as well as its legitimacy. His argumentative strategy shifts somewhat and focuses on the public. He establishes a bond with the citizens and compliments them on their cooperation, in view of committing them to greater obedience. He resorts to pathos, appealing to emotions of fear, with the aim to convince his audience of the gravity of the situation and of the necessity of the means adopted.

133. In the third phase, he uses, for the first time, warlike terms, and makes a final gesture by openly inviting Gantz to join him in a unity government, in the fight against the pandemic. This act is the only one that can keep him in power and invest him with authority and legitimacy, as well as with the requisite recognition.

14We will examine the double maneuver of PM in these three phases.

1.1. The first phase: Building his personal ethos

15On February 24, the PM declares: “[W]e are in a position of control and we will do everything to make it last. I don’t think it’s necessary to cancel the elections [...].”8 On March 1, a day before the elections, he tries to reassure the public that it would be safe to go to the polls the next day and that the situation is “under control.”9

1.1.1. “I” and “We”

16In this phase, the PM mostly speaks in the first person, fully assuming his institutional legitimacy and the authority it confers upon him. The “I”, followed by action verbs, is recurrent in these speeches. We see it as early as on February 19: “I preferand I am directing [...], I reiterate [...], I ask [...]”.10 On February 27: “I determined.”11 Netanyahu’s agentivity is highlighted. It fortifies and reaffirms his image as a leader, and it is intended to repair his damaged ethos. He presents himself as the one who takes the initiative, who shows phronesiswisdom, one of the pillars of ethos, and who guides the government in the right direction.

17Even when he uses the pronoun “we”, declaring, for example, “we have succeeded,” he immediately reverts to the “I”: “I am directing,” accentuating not only the fact that he is part of this group of ministers, but that he is their indispensable leader. We see his propensity to express himself in the first person singular; to use, when appropriate, a “we” of majesty, thus implicitly marginalizing the role of his ministers.

18The frequent use of “I” is not new with Netanyahu. Kave Shafran relates in his book on the secrets of Netanyahu’s success, that the change of style and the use of the first person, especially on Facebook, were adopted by the PM as of 2016. In 2016 alone, Shafran observes, Netanyahu used the “I” on Facebook 573 times (2021: 57). Journalist Yaron Kelner (2020) has examined Netanyahu’s victory speeches after the six elections from 2009 to 2020 and showed the widespread use of the pronoun “I.” He observes a correlation between the successes or failures of the Likud party and the number of “I’s” used by Netanyahu: the more confident Netanyahu is in the possibility of forming a coalition, the more he uses the first person singular. In the context of the nascent government of national unityafter the March 2020 electionsKelner notes that Netanyahu has used the “I” for 39 times but, as in other cases where the votes of the two blocs were almost equal, he has also used 15 times the pronoun “we.”

1.1.2. Speeches broadcasted on TV

19It is worth noting the PM’s television appearances: what is striking, among other things, is the almost daily regularity of television interventions broadcast at prime time (20:00the time of the daily television news). The PM always speaks first, followed by the General Director of the Ministry of Health, journalists are not allowed to ask questions, except, as Maxim Lengo and Galia Yanoshevsky note, a few questions addressed only once to the General Director of the Ministry of Health, and a second time at the General Director of the Ministry of Finance. (2021: 337) Lengo and Yanoshevsky observe that the formal polyphony of the voices of the PM and his ministers serves to silence all voices except Netanyahu’s, which was perceived by the public as a monophony, intensifying the voice of the PM (ibid.: 348). This staging allows the PM to present himself as the wisest, as the one who controls everything and whom it is appropriate to address, which in turn contributes to the build-up of his authority.

1.1.3. The metaphor of the driver behind the wheel

20On February 19, the PM said:

  • 12 See note 10.

We are here in an event due to an outside force, […] We will do whatever needs to be done, with a steady hand at the wheel, and I think that the citizens of Israel need to know that there is a serious network here, in my view it is one of the best if not the best in the world in dealing with this phenomenon.12

21The logos here is based on an analogy. Note, that the grammatical subject is in the first person plural (“we will”); nevertheless, when the PM speaks of “a steady hand at the wheel” in the singular, he refers to his own as a leader. The argumentative logic of the metaphor is as follows: in a car, there can only be one driver; this driver has made responsible and methodical decisions (those are terms he will repeat), driving with a steady hand at the wheel; the citizens can rely on such a trustworthy driver to get them through the crisis (implying that the inexperienced Gantz, as the Likud campaign said, cannot achieve the same result). It should also be noted that he portrays the event as an external force, as a phenomenon to which he attributes an extraordinary magnitude, insinuating that it takes a leader of his stature to lead the citizens with prudence.

  • 13 See note 11.

22He will repeat this argument on February 27 by explicitly adding the adjective “responsible:” “The citizens of Israel need to know that there is a steady and responsible hand here13" (as we have seenhis own hand).

1.1.4. The topos of quantity

23Another argument mobilized by the PM is based on a locus, a topos, which provides a comprehensive justification of the policy adopted against the virus. It is a topos of quantity that posits that more is preferable to less. On February 19 he said:

  • 14 See note 10.

There are claims regarding over-preparation; I preferand am directing over-preparation as opposed to under-preparation […] I reiterate: Over-preparation is preferable to under-preparation.14

  • 15 Shafran (2021: 28, 114, 138).

24It should be noted that in Hebrew, a rhythm is imprinted in the utterance via the rhyme (a common strategy of persuasion and marketing often exploited by Netanyahu as well, notes Shafran [2021: 250, 252])“yeter–hesser” (over/under)which comes to imprint in the memory the topos used by the PM. The “over” which refers to “in excess,” therefore to a surplus, might have a pejorative meaning. But here, in a perilous situation, the mobilization of protective means that seem excessive is better than the recourse to deficient means (according to the French proverb “deux précautions valent mieux qu’une(“two precautions are better than one” or the equivalent in Englishbetter safe than sorry). This topos of quantity echoes deeply rooted beliefs in a country at war like Israel, where the army’s readiness must always be in surplus to ensure the protection of citizens, if not the survival of the nation, especially after the collective trauma caused by the October 1973 war mismanagement, whenin addition to the surprise inflicted by the Egyptians and Syrians on Israel attacked on Yom Kippurthe military preparation for such a surprise attack proved deplorable and far below the required standards. The military connotation of over-preparedness serves to justify the measures taken and testifies to the wisdom of the initiator thereof. It also contributes to the image that the PM often attributes to himself, that of “Mr. Security,”15 adding a martial aspect to his ethos, and suggesting that he is no less capable of acting in this area than his rival, the former Army Chief of Staff.

1.1.5. The repetitions

25The same messages are repeated in the speeches that immediately follow. On February 23, the PM reiterated that he would appoint a ministerial team to deal with “this major challenge,” also repeating his preference for over-preparedness.16 On February 27, he repeats the image of the steady hand, as well as the topos of quantity.17 This repetition process is a typical strategy of the PM (Shafran 2021: 191, 195, 197). It serves to reinforce his personal image as well as to convince his audience to obey the promulgated rules, as we will see.

1.2 Engaging the public: strengthening the image of the audience

  • 18 The term has several definitions; it is that of Cross that seems to us to be suitable here. See Dou (...)

26To enlist the public, the PM uses superlatives that gratify his audience with a flattering image: it is the best, the pioneer, the most advanced in the world, the most innovative. In addition, the PM uses the ad populum argument18 defined by Donna Woolfolk Cross as telling people what they want to hear, so that they are favorable to the person complimenting them (1994: 3). On February 19, when visiting an isolation facility, Netanyahu hailed the national preparations as being “very impressive” and equipped with “innovative technologies and methods.” On February 27:

  • 19 See note 11.

[W]e have taken steps that other countries have not. We were the first in the world to block flights […]. Today, I am announcing another step […] which […] is the first in the world. We are the pioneering State that is taking these steps [...] This is innovative [...].19

27The compliments he pays, directly to the nation, and indirectly to the government and to himself as a leader, allow him not only to promote his ethos, but also to appeal to the public’s cooperation and induce it to accept restrictive measures:

We want caution and more caution, but we also want responsibility. Therefore, I ask citizens to […] cooperate with the authorities andof course not be swept away into excessive concerns […] Just as we have been the most advanced country in the world in this area up until nowso we will continue to be […]

[W]e are acting responsibly, methodically and with a desire to enlist the cooperation of the public. We can control the disease. To the best of my knowledge, we are working better than any other country in the world […] It also depends on you, citizens of Israel, all of you, without exception. I thank you for cooperating (ibid.).

2. The second phase

2.1. Strengthening the personal ethos: self-praise

28In this phase, immediately after the elections, Netanyahu keeps speaking in the first person singular, and using action verbs, such as “I ordered.” He takes credit for the excellent situation in which he believes Israel finds itself and continues to build his ethos of authoritative leader.

2.1.1. Causality

29He uses causality: “We are in a better situation because at the outset I ordered a policy of over-preparation and not under-preparation20reiterating the motif of over-preparation as a means of self-praise.

2.1.2. Accentuating personal ties, transferring to oneself the prestige of experts

30On March 7, the PM promised to use “his personal relationships with some world leaders” to ensure collaboration. This supports the image he wants to attribute to himself as the only politician (in comparison with his rivals) who has forged personal relationships with world leaders, indispensable in these times of crisis.

31On March 8, 2020, he stated:

I spoke […] with my friend US Vice President Pence. I wanted to thank President Trump and Vice President Pence […]. They have perhaps the finest people in the world dealing with this: Deborah Birx who we spoke to today, the heads of the CDC. These are exceptional people. We can learn a lot from them and we deeply appreciate the opportunity to cooperate [...]. 21

32Merkel also relies on the scientific authority of experts; in her case, it is rather to guarantee the merits of the measures proposed under uncertain circumstances. Netanyahu, as for him, uses the “testimony,” the approval of the experts of the United States, among others, that of Dr. Birx who is at the head of the White House crisis team in the face of the Coronavirus, thus “transferring” onto his own person the glory of the experts (Cross 1994: 8, 3) and their reputation, to consolidate his own authority. The fact that the PM and the Israeli teams receive recognition from the American experts strengthens the authority and legitimacy of Netanyahu (he is acting wisely for the public good), and consequently, that of his recommendations.

33Moreover, this speech aims to build the PM’s discursive authority for all categories of audience. For those who have already acknowledged his authority, he reinforces it by recalling his strengths such as his relations with the United States, showing that these extend to the field of the health crisis. For the opponents, he refutes in advance the possible objections by presenting, as will be seen below, a government united around a national cause, respectful of all forms of democracy, enjoying the support of a great power and taking advantage of Israel’s technological superiority.

2.2. Strengthening the collective ethos of the government

34In the speech of March 4, the PM starts with ”together with the Health Minister and the professional team, I have just completed another discussion on our handling of the corona crisis.” On March 8 he repeats: “We discussed this at length today and we will discuss it tonight as well.”

35This staging of these reunions is important on several levels. The emphasis on the process of deliberation, the insistence on the continuous and repeated efforts made by the team within the appropriate institutional frameworks is consistent with the image of an exemplary democratic functioning, always guided, of course, by the PM. The references in themselves banal become, in these circumstances, the guarantor of the legitimacy of Netanyahu’s government in its management of the health crisis. Thus, insinuating that the decisions taken are made in strict compliance with democratic principles and institutions legitimizes the words of the PM who delivers them.

36In the same spirit, he insisted in the March 4 speech on the perfect collaboration between the Ministry of Health and all the other ministries involved in the management of the crisis. The persistence on the incessant effort projects an image of a dynamic government, dedicated to its task, which also contributes to its discursive legitimacy, beyond the institutional functions under which its spokesman, in this case the PM, can express himself. He emphasizes an ability (his own) to coordinate efforts, reflecting a promise of efficacy that strengthens the authority of the government and of the person at its head. In retrospect, it is even easier to understand why the PM projects the image of a democracy whose different bodies work together in harmony with the sole concern of preserving the health of citizens. This is particularly relevant in this interim phase following the elections he failed to win, as he was leading a transitional government which is deemed to possess less powers.

2.3. Building a collective image of the citizens

37In this phase, the PM uses several argumentative methods to encourage public cooperation as well as obedience to the measures imposed. We will see that the image of the audience as projected in the discourse constitutes a strategy of its own. Amossy writes on this subject:

[W]hat may be seen in the discourse is not only the way in which the speaker perceives his partner or partners, it is also the way he presents them with an image of themselves that is susceptible of favoring his persuasion enterprise. Ultimately, the speaker endeavors to elaborate an image of the audience in which such audience will wish to recognize itself [...]

A positive image that presents the audience as capable of accomplishing what is asked of it in a difficult situation, or having already successfully accomplished part of its mission, can encourage it to undertake what the speaker enjoins it to do. (2021[2000]: 67-8)

2.3.1. Image of the audience, doxa and topoi

38In his speeches of March 4, 7 and 8, Netanyahu continues to compliment the citizens, using an ad populum argument to commit them to greater obedience and to introduce new means of control. On March 8 he declared:

Citizens of Israel, I understand that this is difficult for you but I must say that your response has been impressive. It is impressive on a global scale, and it is saving lives. I thank you for following the instructions [...] (ibid.).

39The PM is clearly congratulating the citizens on their exemplary conductan effective means of engaging them to implement the recommended measures. The hyperbolic compliment “impressive on a global scale” presents obedience to instructions not as a mere duty or an act of submission, but rather as a heroic action that deserves universal admiration. The citizens are thus encouraged to rise to the level of the image of excellence that the PM attributes to them. It is within this framework that the government, who undertakes to continue protecting the civilian population, launches its appeal to the citizens.

40He also emphasizes the use of cutting-edge technologies, for which Israel enjoys a strong reputation. Thus, he implicitly alludes to the superlativethe Start-Up Nation which is part of the doxa of the audience here complimented. It is the State of Israel, small geographically but a technological giant, that has been chosen by the experts of the United States to alter together the entire world during this global crisis. On March 8, when he mentions the team of Dr. Birx, he adds:

We […] deeply appreciate the opportunity to cooperate, especially on the technological solutions for widespread screening and perhaps to get […] to home screening. I think this will change the situation, not only for the United States and for Israel, but for the world (ibid.).

41The PM constructs a laudatory image of the Israelis and of the Jewish people, presented as being on par with the United States. It encompasses the audience in a collective image that is indexed to a stereotype rooted in the imagination of the Jewish population of Israel. It is that of the “Chosen People,” a “Light for the Gentiles”a phrase borrowed from the prophet Isaiah stipulating that the Jews have a universal mission of guiding other peoples in the spiritual path. One of the hallmarks of the PM’s Corona speeches is to constantly vibrate this chord. The collective ethos projected is that of a nation that is part of the elite of the West. “But Israel is in the best situation of all other countries, together with another two or three Western countries,” he said on March 4.

42The construction of a collective image based on the dominant representations of the public is a powerful means of persuasion, aimed at uniting the supporters of the PM together with his opponents, by englobing them in a meliorative image that erases all differences.

2.3.2. I + You = Us

43To ensure the cooperation of his audience, the PM establishes a pact with it:

You ensure that the instructions are followed, and we take care of your safety. We will act together, in responsibility, calm, unity, while keeping our promises. […] together, we will overcome the crisis.22

44Here, the “I” and the “you” join the “we”, which is composed of the government (its leader included therein) and of the citizens. Netanyahu has so far characterized himself as a responsible and methodical leader; now he compliments his audience by attributing to it these same traits, allowing its members to recognize themselves in this imaginary mirror that reflects their leader’s traits. In this specular game, the audience should, in turn, pay him the same compliments. This way, Netanyahu enhances in parallel the fortification of his own ethos.

2.3.3. Value-based argumentation

45In his speech of March 8, the PM explains the then proposed measures and argues by values to influence the addressees’ willingness to comply with such measures. It is in this context that the argumentative procedure of “hierarchization of values” comes into play (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969): “Health takes precedence, over everything, it is life itself [...]” (ibid.) declared Netanyahu, implying that the supreme value of human life prevails over that of freedom.

2.3.4. Arguments from cause, from precedent and from consequences

46We have seen that the PM has used the argument from cause to strengthen his personal ethos as well as the collective ethos of the Israelis: it is because he has from the outset so well led the government and managed the epidemic, that Israel is in a better situation than other countries, he argues. He then adds that it is also because the citizens have obeyed in an extraordinary way. He intervenes mainly to explain the reason for the achievements against the virus, and his discourse here is articulated on the topos of quantity; the formula which dictated, as we have seen, a mode of action, turns into a causality when one examines the adopted policy from the perspective of its results. Thus, in his speech of March 4, he said: “We are in a better situation because, from the outset, I ordered over-preparation” and the situation is under control “precisely because of the extreme caution we are showing” and he adds: “and also thanks to you, the citizens of Israel.” On March 8, he repeats: “The steps that we have taken up until today have proven themselves because we really are in a situation of control, and the spread of the disease is of a much lower scope.” He leaves nothing to chance, and uses the connectors “because”, “because of” and “thanks to.”

47These arguments from cause serve not only to depict a winning policy, but also to introduce new measures. They give rise to an argument from the precedent, which is

  • 23 See the term “The call to precedent” under the e-course of the University of La Rochelle: https://e (...)

a special case of comparative argument. The notion of precedent [...] is at the heart of the legal argument of the Common Law, governed by case law: the present case must be judged in the continuity of previous judgments on similar cases.23

48Here: same cause, same effects; what worked in the past will work in the present; if the restrictions imposed have been successful, so will be the additional restrictive measures.

49This argument from positive consequences will balance the argumentation by fear, analyzed below. One sees how the PM never misses an opportunity to strengthen his image, even when he presents the merits of the means adopted.

2.3.5. The image of the father of the nation

50The PM reiterated his advice not to shake hands: “I once played soccer, then if you want to touch shoes […]. In my youth, I even learned Tae Kwon Do, then you can touch elbowsbut avoid shaking hands.”24 We see that addresses the citizens directly, and that his advice is not scientific. By evoking his youth as a soccer or Tae Kwon Do player, by saying that he understands the difficulty of the citizens, he plays the role of the benevolent father (hence, possessing, naturally, the requisite authority), poses as a role model to be imitated, and establishes a proximity to the recipients of his messages, presenting himself as an integral part of his audience. Here again the “I” joins the “you,” creating this inclusive “we” that Shafran comments on. (2021: 49) Shafran also shows that playing the role of the father of the nation is a recurring motif by Netanyahu (ibid.: 71).

51These little anecdotes, which seem authentic, add to the credibility of the discourse, and therefore to the trust that can be placed in both the words and the person of the speaker. Adding small personal stories is another technique of the PM that facilitates the identification of his interlocutors, notes Shafran (ibid.: 68).

  • 25 Rémi Lefebvre criticizes the fact that the word proximity has become synonymous with legitimacy: in (...)

52This proximity25 in which we are all supposed to recognize ourselves reinforces the legitimacy of the leader and should prevent us from fearing the authority of this benevolent father, which in turn should impact the reaction to the prescribed measures.

2.3.6. Fear

53In this phase, the PM resorts to pathos, to fearan argument by the negative consequence that Douglas Walton describes as follows:

Fear appeal [...] is seen as a kind of argument used to threaten a target audience with a fearful outcome (most typically that outcome is the likelihood of death), in order to get the audience to adopt a recommended response [...] One subspecies of this distinctive form of argumentation postulates only two choiceseither take the recommended action or the fearful outcome will occur. In this dichotomized form of argument, the gist of the argument is: the only way you can avoid this very fearful outcome is to take the recommended action. (2000 :1, 20)

54For the argument to be effective, Walton notes, the threat must be credible and the recommended act feasible (ibid.: 21). On March 4, the PM said:

Together with the Health Minister and the professional team, I have just completed another discussion on our handling of the corona crisis. I say “crisis” but it must be understood that we are in the midst of a global pandemic. They do not call it that, but this is the truth […] It could be that it is among the most dangerous of such pandemics in the past 100 years.26

55The PM is referring to the influenza of 1918, engraved in the collective memory as a pandemic that killed millions of human beings. Netanyahu commonly uses fear, explains Shafran: “At a time of danger we close ranks behind whoever the leader is. Fear paralyses our adventurousness and the daring needed to make changes. Netanyahu is the status quo.” (2021: 123-124)

56To introduce social distancing measures, the PM is once again using the “we” by aligning himself with the collective identity of the Israelis, ‘stroking’ their positive side:

I am asking you, citizens of Israel, to change your routines to deal with an external threat. In short, to change. It is not easy. It requires us to make many changes such as something that Israelis love to do. We love to embrace. We love to shake hands. We love to kiss.27

57In view of persuading the public to accept unnatural measures Netanyahu resorts to fear, intensifying the magnitude of the “external threat.” It has been pointed out that the Anglo-American media relating to Covid-19 has resorted to metaphors of “battle” and “war” (Jaworska 2020, Seixas 2021, Alousque 2021). Up to this point, Netanyahu has portrayed the phenomenon not as a battle between enemies, but rather as a natural phenomenon, as an external force of a unique magnitude (which incites fear), forcing us to change internally, uprooting our habits, and causing us to go “against human nature,” which intensifies the magnitude of the phenomenon and also gives a sense of disturbing strangeness, of (Unheimlich to borrow Freud’s term, in a world that deprives people of love.

3. The third phase

58In this phase, the PM will be using, for the first time, terms of war, intensifying the sense of fear by alluding to the destruction of Jerusalem two thousand years ago, and will finally invite his rival to join him in fighting the virus.

3.1. The metaphor of war and the analogy with the fight against terrorism

59It is only in his speech of March 14 (published on the 15th), which can be considered a third phase, when announcing additional restrictions, that Netanyahu uses battle terms:

[T]he struggle is first and foremost a struggle for life and for public health [...] there are thousands of deaths in the world [...] We can defeat the virus [...] we are now at war with an invisible enemy. We are at war, our enemy is the virus. It is invisible.28

  • 29 Seixas comments that after this speech of Macron, the President of Germany said: “it’s not a war, i (...)

60Netanyahu sketches a vivid and terrifying image of a battlefield strewn with dead bodies; to intensify the sense of horror, he uses very short sentences and repeats the words “war,” “enemy” and “invisible,” evoking the image of a worldwide war far more formidable than any other, because the enemythe virusis hidden, thus more difficult to detect and defeat (which makes it even more horrifying). Note that the war metaphor of the invisible enemy is found in the speeches of other leadersMacron for example declares on March 16: “We are not fighting against an army or another nation, but the enemy is there, invisible, elusive, and advancing.”29

61Eunice Castro Seixas studies the use of the military metaphor by some leaders of several Western countries and concludes that each leader uses it for different purposes:

Moreover, this metaphor aids in the managing of the health crisis through the pursuit of specific goals such as: preparing the public for hard times; persuading citizens to change their behavior; fostering national unity, mobilization and resilience; showing compassion, concern and empathy; avoiding responsibility and mitigating blame and constructing enemies and shifting blame and responsibility. (2021: 4)

62For Netanyahu, the reasoning that follows is that an extraordinary danger calls for extraordinary means: the PM introduces the subject of technological surveillance to “detect the enemy”:

  • 30 See note 32.

[W]e must first detect the enemy, as in any war you want to detect the enemy, it is difficult to detect this enemy because he is elusive, [...] tomorrow in government, we will pass a resolution on technological means [...] we have done the same to fight terrorism [...] we have no choice. We are at war which forces us to adopt special measures [...] [Technology] gives us a very effective tool to locate the enemy, to locate the virus [...].30

63To legitimize anti-democratic means such as electronic surveillance, the PM resorts to a comparison with the fight against terrorism. This is a reality (too) well known to the Israelis, arousing emotions of fear; however, thanks to the success of the fight against terrorism, the comparison serves, at the same time, as an argument from consequences.

3.2. The paralogism of the false dilemma

64Moreover, Netanyahu says “we have no alternative,” “we have no choice.” He uses the false dilemma argument as follows:

This occurs when someone seeking to influence a decision inappropriately narrows the range of alternatives, often down to only two. [...] When it comes to sound reasoning, however, the general level of complexity in human affairs makes it unlikely in any situation that there are two and only two alternatives, one of which is a little short of doom. (Gunderman and Sistrom: 2006)

  • 31 See note 15.

65It is also the ultimate excuse, based on a cliché inscribed in the Israeli collective consciousness, according to which Israel’s wars are never chosen, but always imposed from the outside. Once again, the public can be reassured, because Mr. Security31 is famous for knowing how to resolve such a situation. He will be using means with recognized effectiveness, and he is well familiar with the steps to follow, which he detailsit is necessary, at first, as in the fight against terrorism, to “detect” and “locate” the enemy. Therefore, what has previously worked in the case of terrorism will surely work here. Note, once again, the use of action verbs.

3.3. The “we” including Netanyahu and his rival

66But who is the “we” in this speech? To our mind, not only the citizens, butfor the first time in his speeches on Covidalso, and primarily, his negotiating team, including his political rival. The PM as speaker addresses his rival directly and invites him in the following speech to join in the struggle. This will become evident when the PM will say on March 17: “[W]e must join forces. We must form a unity government.”32

67Here, in our opinion, is the final chess mate, when he says on the 14th:

[I]t is impossible to take such steps in an interim government. Yesterday, I called for an emergency government of national unity because we need it. We must not move towards new elections. Everyone understands that [...] we must stabilize the State of Israel [...] by a national emergency government. I call on my colleagues, Gantz, Liberman [...] to join me [...]. [I]t is not a spin [...] you see what is happening in the world, and you understand that we are in the middle of an international crisis. There has been nothing like it since 1918, nothing that has come close to it for one hundred and two years. I therefore ask for your cooperation. We are ready to discuss it this evening, to resolve this problem and achieve it. I ask everyone to show the responsibility required in these times, to let go of all cynicism and doubt, and to move forward together. We are working 24 hours a day on this issue, joining forces, we can win, and together we will succeed.33

68The cat is finally out of the bag: unable to form a government, understanding the legislative difficulty of a transitional government that lacks full authority to impose certain extreme and anti-democratic measures such as electronic surveillance, and in fear that Gantz will form a minority government supported by one of the Arab parties and pass a law prohibiting a candidate under indictment from being prime minister, Netanyahu is taking advantage of the circumstances created by the pandemic. He urges his rivals to take responsibility for the fight against that invisible and elusive enemy, and to join forces with him, to defeat the virus. We see that he reiterates the reference to the epidemic of 1918. He addresses Gantz and the members of Blue-White directly: “you see,” “you understand”; but also indirectly (“everyone” Gantz included) when he insinuates, even accuses, that not joining him is irresponsible: “I ask everyone to show the required responsibility.”

3.4. Use of cliché and of historical analogy

69On March 19, he repeats this message:

In our distant past, we have also experienced other moments. Two thousand years ago, while a foreign enemy was besieging Jerusalem, Jews were at war among themselves, and disaster wasn’t long in coming. Therefore, I say, today specifically: We have to join forces. We must establish a unity government. We must form a national emergency government. I say to the people of Blue and White: take your place under the stretcher, we will carry it together, we will lead it together, and together, we will save the people and the country.34

70Analyzing this text, Shafran depicts Netanyahu’s linkage between Jerusalem and Covid-19 as “a feat of rhetorical acrobatics.” He adds: “Bibi is a master at linking different threats and fearsespecially where there’s political advantage to be gained [...].” (2021: 125-126)

  • 35 See Paola Paisshas (2016) on the historical example.

71The historical analogy35 consists of recalling the disaster of the destruction of Jerusalem two thousand years ago, when the Jews were pitted against each other. It is the hatred and internal struggles of the Jews that are said to have caused the loss of Jerusalem: Surely Gantz would not want to take responsibility for such a disaster.

  • 36 See the Israeli journalist’s criticism of the use of this metaphor that portrays Gantz as unpatriot (...)

72The military metaphor of the stretcher is mobilized to make the former Chief of Staff feel guilty if he abandons the PM on the battlefield. This Hebrew idiomatic expression, well known to the Israeli Jews because of their compulsory military service, symbolizes a reciprocal guarantee, a spirit of fraternity (it takes four soldiers to hold the stretcher), associated with the motto of the three musketeers “one for all, all for one,” well anchored in the Israeli military culture. Those who do not lend assistance are perceived as selfish, if not worse.36

73Ultimately, Netanyahu has succeeded in persuading Gantz to “get under the stretcher” and carry it with him...


74The chronological analysis of the rhetorical tools used by Netanyahu in his first speeches on the pandemic allowed us to grasp his dramatic exploitation of the Covid-19 epidemic, and to show that his rhetoric had a double objective: like other Western leaders, he endeavors to justify the legitimacy of the restrictive and anti-democratic measures he has advocated against the virus. He does this in several ways: he flatters his audience; he constructs a favorable collective image in which his audience can recognize itself as part of the “chosen people” of the Start Up Nation; he appeals to fear to frighten the public by evoking the disastrous consequences that would result from disobedience and promises success based on precedents; he uses military analogies and evokes historical examples.

75However, unlike other Western leaders who enjoy undisputed institutional status, Netanyahu finds himself in a unique political situation: he must formally regain his power as Head of State and be re-elected. To do so, he must persuade the voters of his legitimacy to lead the country, this constituting a challenge per se, as he will have to repair his image, damaged, among other things, by his indictment. Prior to the elections, his speech aims primarily at rebuilding his ethos as the only leader capable of managing a crisis of such magnitude and consequently of governing Israel. We have seen that in this phase he emphasizes self-praise; he frequently speaks in the first person singular; he uses action verbs and metaphors that emphasize his ability to lead alone, with a firm hand at the wheel; he insists on his ability to lead his government. Since, to his detriment, the elections did not result in the expected success, his inability to form a coalition government influenced his speeches in the second phase. He continues to build his personal ethos, transfers to his person the glory and reputation of experts, gives himself the credit for the means adopted, and at the same time consolidates the legitimacy of his government that acts for the public good. In the third phase, he recognizes that his only solution to remain in power and enjoy institutional legitimacy is to form a government of national unity. As the political outcome shows, the audience for his speeches was not only the Israeli public: he also addressed his political rival to urge him to form a government with him, allegedly in the name of fighting against the virus. Ultimately, Gantz has agreed to form with Netanyahu the so-called “emergency union” government. In this sense, one could consider that Covid-19 played the role of a deus ex machina on the Israeli political scene, allowing Netanyahu to remain in power.

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1 The number of cases is updated daily by the Ministry of Health.

2 See Maor et al. (2020) for a detailed description of the measures that the authors criticize as disproportionate.

3 A second lockdown was imposed in September, and a third in December. On December 20, 2020, Israel has launched its Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

4 Pierre Rosanvallon’s term (2008: 29). For the theoretical framework, see Ruth Amossy's introductory article.

5 In December 2020 Netanyahu initiated the dissolution of the parliament. On June 3, 2021, Naftali Bennett replaced Netanyahu.

6 All French texts are translated by me.

7 Links to the PM’s Hebrew speeches are given in the notes. Quotes of the speeches in English are taken, to the extent existent, from the official website of the Israeli government, and can be found in the same links. Other translations are mine.





12 See note 10.

13 See note 11.

14 See note 10.

15 Shafran (2021: 28, 114, 138).


17 See note 11.

18 The term has several definitions; it is that of Cross that seems to us to be suitable here. See Douglas Walton in his analysis of the term as a fallacious argument (1980: 264-278).

19 See note 11.




23 See the term “The call to precedent” under the e-course of the University of La Rochelle:


25 Rémi Lefebvre criticizes the fact that the word proximity has become synonymous with legitimacy: in his opinion, the compulsive valuation of proximity has caused a “reversal of symbolic hierarchies and representations of legitimacy [...] greatness no longer refers to [...] distance.(2004 : 136) Lefebvre believes that proximity is “a political fiction made necessary by the very principle of delegation [...] Proximity risks [...] to devalue the political institution itself, whose legitimacy is nevertheless increasingly fragile. In the end, it is doubtful that proximity would lead politics into a virtuous circle of legitimacy (ibid.: 138).




29 Seixas comments that after this speech of Macron, the President of Germany said: “it’s not a war, it’s a test to our humanity!” (2021: 9)

See also Isabel Negro Alousque who analyzes the use of metaphors by Macron and Sanchez (in Spain). In Alousque’s opinion, “this metaphorical framework serves to inspire courage and hope and to call for national unity to curb the epidemic.” (2021: 609, 595)

30 See note 32.

31 See note 15.



34 This part of the speech, the translation thereof was omitted for some reason from the official translation, is taken from Shafran, p.126.

35 See Paola Paisshas (2016) on the historical example.

36 See the Israeli journalist’s criticism of the use of this metaphor that portrays Gantz as unpatriotic or even as traitor.,7340,L-3809533,00.html

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Ariella Lahav, « Health Crisis and Political Crisis: Benjamin Netanyahu's Double Rhetorical Maneuver during COVID-19 »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 avril 2022, consulté le 21 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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