Quakes, high stakes, and breaks
Hebrew Media Review

Quakes, high stakes, and breaks

Seismic activity off Sumatra, Iran in Istanbul, and the Syrian ceasefire take precedence in the Israeli press

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.

Indonesians stuck in a traffic jam as they flee to higher ground to escape a possible tsunami. (photo credit: AP/Heri Juanda)
Indonesians stuck in a traffic jam as they flee to higher ground to escape a possible tsunami. (photo credit: AP/Heri Juanda)

The Israeli media focused on the earthquake in Indonesia, and its seismometers attuned to rumblings of a different sort over Sinai, Syria, and Iran.

Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv lead their Thursday editions with the double earthquake that struck 500 km off the coast of Sumatra on Wednesday. Fear of a tsunami followed in the 8.6 and 8.2 magnitude quakes’ wake, and residents throughout the region fled for higher ground. In the end no killer wave came.

Maariv runs a large bold headline, “Fear Returns to Indonesia,” and Yedioth Ahronoth’s reads, “Tsunami Frenzy.” The panic alone was newsworthy, and only five deaths and four injuries were reported in Indonesia’s Aceh province.

Charts in the tabloids compared this trembler to other recent earthquakes, all of whose death tolls and damage were far greater. Both papers describe Israeli tourists’ accounts of the events, as Thailand and India are both major vacation getaways. Yedioth Ahronoth publishes Hani Nehemias’ account from Phuket, in which she recounts (in proper holiday spirit) that Israeli tourists “Fled like it was the Exodus from Egypt.”

Israel Hayom almost seems disappointed by the lackluster earthquake off Sumatra, “Noise, then nothing,” its headline reads. Lower down, a shorter piece reminds readers that unlike Wednesday’s quake, “In 2004, it ended in a quarter million dead.”

Professor Zvi Ben-Avraham warns Israelis that they should not be overly complacent about geological activities that seem a world away. “We also reside in an area prone to tectonic calamities,” he says. Although the last major quake in Israel was a 6.3 magnitude in 1927, tsunamis have struck the Levantine coast in the past several centuries.

An earthquake in Israel is a sure thing, and only a matter of time, Ben-Abraham writes. Israelis mustn’t bury their head in the sand when it comes to the risks.

Haaretz, on the other hand, runs a brief story about the earthquake on page 12. Its lead story is a field report about the “Chaos and void” in the Sinai Peninsula. Israel recently approved the deployment of seven Egyptian battalions to rein in Sinai’s lawlessness. Despite the large-scale military operation in northern Sinai reported this week to prevent militant attacks, little change has been effected. The reinforcement of the Sinai couldn’t even prevent the latest, 14th attack on the gas pipeline to Israel earlier this week.

Anshel Pfeffer writes that emplacements “along a stretch of nearly 200 km, from the [Suez] canal to the outskirts of El-Arish, are abandoned at night” for fear of Bedouin tribes lashing out against troops. Whereas crack troops with American armored vehicles were brought into Cairo to put down the revolution last year, “the battalions sent to Sinai are filled with inexperienced, raw recruits, and their armored vehicles are almost all old Soviet wrecks,” he writes.

Haaretz reports 90% unemployment in the Sinai peninsula, rampant corruption, and in much of the area police and soldiers are nowhere to be seen.

The Istanbul Summit

World powers will sit down with Iran this weekend in Istanbul to discuss its highly controversial nuclear program. The US has taken an increasingly tougher stance against Iran of late, and Iran has shown signs of possible flexibility at the upcoming summit. Nonetheless, the talks will be the first in 16 months, and they’ve already been branded “the last chance for diplomacy” by many.

Dr. Emily Landau writes in Maariv that after 10 years of failed attempts by the international community to rein in the Ayatollahs, “it is difficult to be optimistic about it this time.” But the Americans are showing no signs of releasing the economic grip they have on Iran unless it hands over the uranium. They know the crippling sanctions are what brought the Iranians to the table. She says this weekend’s summit is a point of no return as much as it’s a small opening for hope.

Haaretz writes that “Israel does not believe, perhaps rightly, that diplomacy can neutralize the Iranian threat.” The international community is equally worried about an Israeli strike as an Iranian nuke, and Israel can use that to its advantage to garner support against Iran. For that reason, and because of the cost an attack would incur, Haaretz argues, Israel should not prejudicially disregard diplomatic efforts as worthless.

Israel Hayom features a panel of five Israeli professors who discuss the efficacy of sanctions. The story opens with the four horsemen of the apocalypse: Professor Ephraim Inbar says the only way to stop Iran from getting a nuke is to bomb it; Professor Eitan Gilboa says the sanctions will hurt Iran, but it can still keep its nuclear program going;  Professor Joshua Teitelbaum says the Americans are hamstrung and impotent in the Middle East; and Professor Ze’ev Magen argues that the West doesn’t comprehend that Iran deems a holy text the final word.

Of the five, only Professor Hillel Frisch believes the US has the strength, know-how, and will to address the Iranian threat successfully.

Assad: ceasefire or time-out?

The UN and Arab League-brokered ceasefire went into effect on Thursday morning at 6 a.m., what Israel Hayom’s calls “Assad’s hour of truth.” Maariv reports that at least 16 people were killed on Wednesday (Local Coordination Committees claimed 26), and tanks were stationed in Hama despite the ceasefire conditions. Yedioth Ahronoth reported tanks in the Damascus neighborhoods of Kfar Susa and al-Maza, too.

The Israeli press’s skeptical attitude about the ceasefire is best reflected in terse, pointed overlines above news reports. Yedioth plants “Maybe this time” above its article, and Maariv writes “‘The butcher of Damascus’ promises again.”

Professor Eyal Zisser says the ceasefire between Assad and his opponents “is not even worth the paper it’s written on.” The Damascene dictator “knows that withdrawing his troops from rebellious cities and streets across the countries constitutes political suicide.” He is merely playing for time and complying with Western demands,” Zisser says. Both Assad and the rebels are ready to fight to the last drop of Syrian blood, and there is no sign of that ending on the horizon.

As of the writing of this media review, the silence in Syria has held.

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