And now we play the waiting game
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Hebrew media review

And now we play the waiting game

Concerns over a strike on Syria may have reached fever pitch, but the press and politicians are urging calm

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Israelis carry boxes with gas masks at a distribution center in Tel Aviv on August 28, 2013. (Photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
Israelis carry boxes with gas masks at a distribution center in Tel Aviv on August 28, 2013. (Photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

After days of mounting hype over a possible American-led coalition strike on Syria, in response to allegations that President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his people last week, the Israeli media is trying to calm frayed nerves and assuage the public’s concern about missile strikes from the north.

Pictures of lines hundreds or thousands long waiting for gas mask kits grace the front pages of Israel Hayom and Maariv, illustrations of the rising frustration — and resultant mayhem — of Israelis trying to get protection against a possible retaliation by Syria against Israel.

Yedioth Ahronoth‘s top story is about the “Point of no return” which unnamed American officials said has already been crossed regarding a strike on Syria. Its opening paragraph, however, conveys the overarching mood of apprehension. “The world, and in Israel in particular, is waiting for the moment that appears unavoidable: the American strike on Syria, which is expected to take place in the coming days,” it writes. “The principle questions that remain open are the precise moment the attack will take place, what its strength will be, whether Israel will be drawn into the fray.”

Israel’s bottom line, the paper writes, parroting top Israeli politicians, is that “Israel will not get involved in the fight.” It quotes a senior security source saying the same thing that senior politicians have said: “the chance that Israeli will be struck is very slim to none.”

In the 20 pages Yedioth devotes to the Syria issue, the paper runs a brief Q&A segment on “Why the odds Israel will be hit with chemical weapons are slight.”

Maariv, however, leads with a US intelligence report that there is no concrete proof tying Assad to the alleged deaths of up to 1,300 people in the reported sarin gas attack last Wednesday.

“[US] government sources stated [Thursday] that there is no conclusive evidence that Assad is who ordered the use of chemical weapons in the attack that took the lives of 1,300 people last week,” the paper writes. “The American intelligence services intercepted an urgent phone call between a source in the Syrian Defense Ministry and one of the commanders of the chemical weapons facilities, only a few hours after the chemical attack, from which it can be discerned that the Syrian Defense Ministry was surprised by the strength of the weapon’s use by the field commanders.”

Israel Hayom calls the present situation “Warning and calm” and notes that while the military continues to gear up for conflict, and gas masks are flying off the shelves like hotcakes, “the security and political elites — despite the continued threatening warnings from abroad — are actually trying to calm the public at large ahead of the High Holidays,” which begin next week.

It runs a poll which found that 66.6 percent of respondents backed an American and/or European attack on Syria, and 66.8 percent are concerned that such an attack will draw Israel into the mix. While 71% of those polled said they had a working gas mask, only 37.6% said they expected to use it in the coming days.

Haaretz devotes no fewer than nine pages, not including its cover, to the developing crisis in Syria. Its front page shows a disgruntled looking caricature of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a gas mask atop his pate, alongside which reads, “Obama doesn’t want to attack, Assad doesn’t want to respond, and Netanyahu doesn’t want to get involved — but reality in the Middle East has rules of its own.”

Columnist Yossi Verter takes up a page arguing that Netanyahu needs Assad’s downfall — or a similar political or security triumph — in order to secure his reelection in the next elections. Didn’t we just have elections?

“From Netanyahu’s perspective, Assad’s ouster might inject the United States with greater confidence to confront Iran. In short, Netanyahu could go down in history for spearheading a historic move,” he writes, and that could propel him to victory in the next elections. “Until now, the options for ‘something big’ were presumed to be reaching an agreement with the Palestinians or an operation against Iran’s nuclear facilities, whether carried out by Israel or by the United States − or by both together. Now, though, perhaps sooner than Netanyahu planned, the possibility is looming of a different something big.”

The paper is also the only one that features on its front page reports that the country to which Israel intends to deport its illegal African migrants is Uganda, news that enrages the paper’s editorial staff. It writes that Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s “announcement’s wording can lead one to think, mistakenly, that Israel is helping these migrants on their way to a coveted destination.” To the contrary, the paper argues, the move “is nothing but an attempt at mass expulsion of the African migrants, many of whom are refugees and asylum-seekers protected by international law.”

According to Yedioth Ahronoth, the particulars of the deal have yet to be published, and the deal with Uganda has yet to be signed, but it was negotiated by Netanyahu’s personal envoy Hagai Hadas, “who solidified the benefits package for [Uganda]” for taking the Sudanese and Eritrean migrants off Israel’s hands.

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