A blazing scandal and some burning questions
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Hebrew media review

A blazing scandal and some burning questions

The news that Netanyahu's lawyer will be probed after all puts the affair back above brush fire coverage for some papers, while others choose to ignore their house aflame

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Israeli firefighters during his visit at the fire command post in Zichron Yaakov, November 23, 2016. (Haim Zach / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Israeli firefighters during his visit at the fire command post in Zichron Yaakov, November 23, 2016. (Haim Zach / GPO)

On September 2, 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote of waking up, looking out his window at the great fire of London, and, thinking “it far enough off,” crawling back into his bed. The next six days of entries in his diary are taken up with frantic dispatches as the Great Fire of London ravaged the English city.

Sometimes, it’s better to imagine that a metaphorical fire is “far enough off,” like Page 18, especially when that fire threatens the good name of your patron and there is an actual literal fire to take up your attention instead.

On Wednesday, this column wrote of the fact that brush fires breaking out across the country had managed to push a broiling affair regarding the prime minister, his lawyer, a flaming conflict of interest, and some very expensive submarines off at least two front pages.

A day later, with the flames still smoldering and with papers having been published before Haifa went up in smoke, at least some of the fire coverage gives way to the scandal brewing around the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his lawyer David Shimron, thanks to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit saying Wednesday night he will order a criminal probe into the submarine affair.

That’s mostly true for Yedioth Ahronoth, which splits its front page between the two stories.

Another tabloid, Israel Hayom, though, is as protective of Netanyahu as always, and makes like Pepys or the dog in the This is Fine cartoon, calmly drinking his coffee as a fire rages around him and eventually consumes him, pretending everything with the prime minister is hunky dory and burying the story after 17 pages of fire coverage (though to be fair, it does also get a small front page refer).

Haaretz, which never took its gaze off Netanyahu, despite the fire, meanwhile keeps on keeping on, reporting on the dramatic development and filling out its coverage with four commentaries on the issue.

A day after all but calling Mandelblit a coward for failing to open a probe, the paper’s pen jockeys shift to practically lifting him on their shoulders, though some still gripe over the fact that it took this long.

That includes military analyst Amos Harel, who also notes that just because the probe is opened it doesn’t mean anything will come of it.

“The opening of a police inquiry doesn’t ensure the truth will come to light. There are 1,001 ways to drag out an investigation. Nevertheless, there are critical questions that must be answered,” he writes.

Political analyst Yossi Verter, though, turns Amos’s frown upside down and writes that the delay is justified for a case of this type, especially given the possible payoff should it become the affair that broke the Netanyahu’s back.

“For the prime minister, this may turn out to be one entanglement too many. It joins a sea of other open cases, some still secret, that relate to him and his wife, Sara. An investigation of Shimron is the closest possible thing to an investigation of the prime minister himself. It’s within spitting distance of Netanyahu’s official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street and of the Prime Minister’s Office, with all their deep secrets. At some point, quantity becomes quality,” he writes.

In Yedioth Ahronoth, the affair only gets significant coverage after eight pages of everything you ever wanted to know about brush fires, but at least the paper devotes significant space to covering the sub scandal, including two news stories, two columns and a graphic attempting to bring readers up to speed on the main players in the story.

In one of those columns, Nahum Barnea imagines the unhappy scene if Netanyahu is brought in to testify, mixing in some topical fire references too, though how topical they end up being he had no idea.

“Netanyahu, in his fourth term, is the king of his castle. He’s surrounded himself with a court of chamberlains and relatives,” he writes. “Everyone has their own agenda, everyone has their own interests, motivations, desires. ‘Did you know,’ they will ask, if they really want the truth. ‘I didn’t’ Netanyahu will answer. ‘How didn’t you know,’ they will ask. ‘You were the first to spot fire on the Carmel. Fire in your own courtyard you can’t see?’”

The last line is a reference to a statement from the Netanyahu’s office in 2011 that he was the first to recognize the size of the Carmel fire when it occurred in 2010, the last major fire before Thursday’s.

If the scandal is the real fire, then Netanyahu, or at least his mouthpiece Israel Hayom, may be the last to recognize how damning it is. The paper devotes as much space to the affair as it does to a story about kids in Abu Ghosh making cookies for firefighters, and spends much of the piece downplaying its importance.

“[Mandelblit] emphasized that this is an inquiry and not a criminal probe, and its significance is in the fact that there is tertiary information that needs to be checked into to see if there is sufficient evidence for a criminal offense,” the paper writes.

If the fire is the fire though (and Thursday’s goings on in Haifa, after the paper was published, show that Netanyahu was correct to ask for international aid Wednesday night) then the paper and prime minister can pat themselves on the back for seeing the larger story coming, just like when they patted themselves on the back for predicting Donald Trump’s win.

Starting with the front page headline “determination against fire,” the outfit presents page after page of tales from fires from across the country, including determiner in chief Netanyahu, who is credited with bringing in the international aid and then quoted saying (wrongly, as it turned out,) that we won’t really need it.

“We were already in this movie six years ago. Today, since we have our own planes, the need is much less,” he’s quoted saying.
In Yedioth, meanwhile, Netanyahu is reported to have pushed hard for the international aid against security people who said it wasn’t necessary yet.

“Police and rescue officials said asking for help from others could wait, since it’s possible we won’t need the help, but Netanyahu led the opposing view claiming, among other things that as a takeaway from the Carmel fire, Israel’s ability to respond didn’t match up to the strength of the fires.”

As for how the fires are starting, Israel Hayom notes matter-of-factly that some of them are from negligence, but not all of them.
“In other places, like Dolev and Talmon in [the West Bank] the suspicion from the get-go is of arson. Slowly, as the fires multiply, the suspicion that in other places the fires were set on purpose is growing, including some for nationalistic reasons,” the paper reports, without offering a shred of evidence.

The idea that some of the fires were set intentionally came straight from Netanyahu’s mouth, and while Yedioth runs a headline quoting him saying “there were fires set naturally and not naturally,” its coverage also offers little to no evidence to back up the claim.
Instead, it says police believe the fires are being started by a combination of unhelpful weather and negligence, including a soldier suspected of starting a fire near a West Bank base by flicking a cigarette.

In Haaretz, whose coverage of the fires pales in comparison to the other two, police chief Roni Alsheich is quoted saying it’s both.
“If people just keep their hands in their pockets, nothing will happen. If there is arson we will know how to deal with it,” he’s quoted saying. “We call on the public to report anyone who lights a fire for coffee or leaves a barbecue lit.”

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