Israel media review

5781 problems and a lockdown’s just 1: What the press is saying on September 21

Israel’s just a couple of days into its 2nd lockdown and health officials, along with much of the media, are already declaring it a failure. Still, no one seems sure what to do now

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, September 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, September 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

1. Some new year, huh? Less than three days in and just about all of the media seems to be in agreement that the current lockdown format is not sustainable, though not everyone is on the same page as to whose fault it is and what should be done next.

  • Not only that, but there seem to be mixed messages as to whether Israelis are even following the closure rules. Channel 13 opened its Sunday evening broadcast with footage of empty highways and a declaration that 54 hours into the lockdown, Israelis were apparently following the guidelines for the most part. The network interviewed the spokesman of National Roads Company of Israel who says the footage proves Israelis are following the lockdown guidelines.
  • Channel 12 and the Kan public broadcaster opened their newscasts with similar footage and assurances. But shortly thereafter, they each went on to explain why that is not entirely the case. Channel 13 interviewed a police officer manning a checkpoint who recalls a four-month pregnant woman who stopped  by and claimed she was on her way to the hospital. At which point, the cop says he heard one of the woman’s children shout from the back of the car, “mom, when will we get to the park already.”
  • Yedioth Ahronoth goes with “We cannot continue this way” as its headline for a post-holiday issue highlighting the public’s inability to follow the guidelines, with a picture of a Tel Aviv boardwalk relatively full of exercising Israelis — something that does not actually violate the guidelines. The paper says the public “voted with its feet” against the new restrictions and that the lockdown has “crumbled” in its first 48 hours.
  • All three major TV broadcasts reported on the Jaffa cafe that chose to thumb its nose at the lockdown and had been serving some 50 guests when police arrived to shut it down. The restaurant was joined by falafel stands in the Old City of Jerusalem, an ice cream shop in Holon, a hookah store in the north and likely many others that were uninterested in shutting down just because the government told them to.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “Israelis on social media joked that this year’s Rosh Hashanah holiday—which often involves trips to family homes, parks and outdoor barbecues—felt similar to Yom Kippur, a solemn holiday when Jews are expected to fast and atone for their sins and during which roads in Israel are kept largely empty. ‘What time does the fast begin?’ quipped Israeli comedian Nadav Abukasis on Twitter Friday evening.”
  • “Another Rosh Hashanah like this one and I’m converting to Islam,” tweets Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson.

2. Agree to disagree: It’s not only the media that’s sure the lockdown isn’t working. Channel 12 reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most  health officials are already pushing to expand restrictions on Israelis, while only the government’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu seems to oppose the idea.

  • Gamzu worries what further restrictions might do to the economy and wants to give the current lockdown strategy a chance to work. The network says that regardless, it’s unlikely that there will be additional restrictions implemented before Yom Kippur next Monday due to the “political costs” of such a move.
  • Channel 12 also reports that the government has no set date for when the current lockdown should expire. What health officials do expect though is for the number of seriously ill patients to climb by 100 to 200 in the next couple of weeks. One health official tells the network that the spike will be thanks to those Israelis who chose to hold their family holiday meals a day early in order to skirt the lockdown.
  • The Kan public broadcaster reports that the government is leaning toward shuttering outdoor markets as well as imposing additional restrictions on the number of private sector workers allowed to go into the office. However, as is the custom with seemingly every decision regarding coronavirus restrictions, the minister in charge of the sector set to be affected by the proposed rules is opposed to their implementation. In this case, it is Finance Minister Israel Katz.
  • Kan says that imposing additional restrictions will be an uphill battle, not only because Gamzu himself opposes them, but also because trust in the government is so low that the public is unlikely to heed them.
  • Channel 13 says that Katz is lobbying to allow all businesses to operate, and that those who do not do so according to the guidelines will be stripped of the licenses altogether.
  • In his Channel 12 interview, Gamzu warns that virus numbers are reaching “emergency” levels that could see the country face 600 deaths a month. “Our situation is very grave,” he says. Indeed, Israel recorded 30 new deaths in 24 hours on Saturday.
  • Gamzu says that with the number of serious cases likely to soon hit 800, he had ordered all hospitals to open additional coronavirus wards, warning “we’re in an emergency,” and noting there would be some reduction in elective medical procedures.

3. It’s all about Bibi: Like just about everything in Israel these days, how one views the public’s ability to adhere to the guidelines has much to do with how the the media outlet grading it feels about Netanyahu.

  • Israel Hayom’s front page leads with contrasting photos of the empty highways showing how much of the public is abiding by the lockdown, alongside pictures of anti-Netanyahu protesters gathering at outdoor protests at the beach and outside the premier’s Jerusalem residence. Next to the latter pictures is the caption “So who are the [real] out of touch ones,” in what is a clear dig at the anti-PM activists who have long called Netanyahu out of touch. Meanwhile, the paper’s main headline for the day asserts that a tightening of the lockdown is “unavoidable.”
  • Pictures of the Rosh Hashanah feast held by anti-Netanyahu, health guideline-ignoring protesters makes the rounds through the feeds of several prominent right-wing journalists, including Channel 12’s Amit Segal who tweets, “Bibi is against the coronavirus, so they’re in favor of it.”
  • Channel 12 cites senior health officials livid over scenes from Balfour Street in Jerusalem, where protesters held a closely seated Rosh Hashanah meal on Friday that was somehow supposed to signify their disgust with the premier’s alleged corruption. “Who are they really trying to dig at? The government? They’re only hurting themselves and the rest of the public,” one official says, before going on to similarly lambaste the beach parties that took place in Tel Aviv under the guise of additional anti-government protests and called on police to do more to shut down such activity — an impossible task given that the current guidelines allow these events to take place.
  • In Yedioth, Nahum Barnea sides with the protesters, writing, “In the United States, the rage will be channeled at the polls. Each side will arrive there with their own rage. Americans can take comfort in the fact that they currently have a choice. There is an alternative. But the angry Israelis have no choice but to demonstrate — and now they want to take this away from them as well under the auspices of the coronavirus.”
  • In Maariv, right-wing commentator Kalman Liebskind writes that while Netanyahu has given the State of Israel diplomatic achievements that can be matched by no politician, his failure in managing the day-to-day affairs of the country prove that it is unfortunately time for him to go.
  • “I do not remember another such period in my life, when I felt like a citizen so abandoned to my own fate. All around, a pandemic is raging, the death toll is rising rapidly, the critically ill are bringing the wards closer to collapse, the economy is facing a fatal blow, hundreds of thousands of people are getting up every morning for another day without work and no livelihood and the feeling is that it is not at all clear what the captain in charge is doing and whether he is even concentrating on what is important as the waves threaten to turn the ship over on all of us,” he writes.
  • In Haaretz, Aluf Benn warns against the ongoing public infatuation with Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett at Netanyahu’s expense. “Bennett isn’t offering the public just a specialty in managing crises but also a strict right-wing ideology. First of all, racism: ‘I’m not going to establish a government based on Arab votes or Arab abstention, ever.’ Bennett doesn’t even cloak himself in the whitewashed wording of a dispute with the largely Arab Joint List, like other politicians. With him it’s simpler: If you’re Arab, your vote doesn’t count.”
  • “The right-wing positions are irrelevant. This is not the issue now, but rather the coronavirus, and if Bennett is elected prime minister, he will discover, like his predecessors, that things look different when you’re in the driver’s seat and he’ll put his ideology in quarantine. Still, don’t be tempted. Whoever wants an egalitarian Israel, which seeks peace inside and out and protects human rights with a strong court, should be worried about Naftali Bennett’s leap to the top. He should be taken seriously,” Benn adds.

4. Who’s next: Fresh off last week’s diplomatic achievements, the Trump administration is now working to land another few blows to Iran by declaring UN sanctions are back in force against the Islamic Republic.

  • Haaretz’s Zvi Bar’el points out that the US is going to have a hard time seeing through its latest attempt to reimpose snapback sanctions against Iran because even its newfound allies are unlikely to be interested in playing hardball. “It’s not just China and Russia that are faithful to their dealings with Tehran. It’s also Washington’s allies in the Gulf – Qatar, Oman and even the UAE.”
  • Meanwhile, President Donald Trump tells reporters during Friday’s press briefing that Kuwait is “so excited” about the recent normalization deals he’s helped broker, and that it too wants to join the fun.
  • However, many analysts don’t seem to be buying it. “Kuwait has a semi-representational parliament, where 80% of MPs signed a statement opposing normalization only weeks ago. Kushner himself said Kuwait is “out there taking a very radical view on the conflict.” If they’re next, I’d be shocked. But I’d concede that this is very new era w/ new rules,” writes Alliance for Middle East Peace executive director John Lyndon.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that while Saudi Arabia’s King Salman remains committed to a boycott of Israel coupled with a strong stance in favor of the Palestinian demand for an independent state, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is open to normalization with the Jewish state and the business opportunities it could bring as well as public coordination in the struggle against Iran.
  • According to the report, the crown prince knew in advance of Israel’s negotiations with the UAE and Bahrain, but did not tell his father for fear he would try to sabotage the efforts, a move that angered the king. Bin Salman reportedly knew that his father’s public opposition to an agreement between Israel and the UAE could make the negotiations difficult.
  • MBS also directed local media to publish glowing coverage of the UAE. and Bahrain deals. A message to Saudi newspaper editors, seen by The Wall Street Journal, instructed them to defend the moves as “historical and honorable.”

5. RIP RGB: News of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death dominates headlines in the US, but makes smaller waves in Israel, partially due to its timing — on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, two days before the next newspaper would be published. However, many Israeli outlets make sure to give the major news its fair share of coverage. In the US, Jewish news agencies highlight the late justice’s deep Jewish roots.

  • Haaretz’s editorial seeks to make Ginsburg’s passing about Israel. “The values of human rights, and the very rule of law and obliging elected officials to abide by it is now under assault, both in the United States and in Israel. In both countries, populist leaders are seeking to distort judicial values in the name of their appetite for absolute political power, without checks and balances. Israel must fight off these assaults, strengthen the court and transform Ginsburg’s legacy, the legacy of liberalism and equality, into an integral part of its national identity.”
  • Eulogizing RBG, Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer writes, “As a young woman, she felt she had to make a choice between her religious observance and her growing feminist awareness. Like many other Jewish women of her generation who were raised in religiously traditional homes, Ginsburg told Cohen she couldn’t make peace with the deep gender inequalities built into her parents’ Orthodox practice, and that she had been particularly alienated by the idea that women didn’t count in a Jewish prayer quorum.”
  • Jane Eisner writes in the Forward, “What I want to acknowledge is her important place in American Jewish history. Ginsburg represented the apogee of Jewish achievement in this fraught land. As unique as she was, she also was an archetype, the epitome of what America had to offer a wandering, battered people.”
  • “This was the quintessential Jewish aspect of her character. Yes, she was raised a Jew, married a Jew, belonged to a synagogue, supported Jewish causes, here and in Israel. But more than that, Ginsburg epitomized the liberal intellectual ideal that has come to characterize so many modern American Jews — grounded in the belief that American institutions will bend toward justice if presented with unassailable rational arguments, and that they can best be led in that direction from within,” Eisner adds.
  • The Forward’s current editor-in-chief, Jodi Rudoren, highlights RGB’s close relationship with the staunchly conservative justice Antonin Scalia. “That’s the ultimate lesson of Ginsburg’s amazing life. The value of dissent, and the value of respectful friendship through disagreement. Those are the things we must hold as Trump and McConnell and the rest wrangle over the seat she leaves.”
  • JTA’s obituary recalls a 1993 speech RGB gave to the American Jewish Committee following her appointment to the court. “I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew… The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.”
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