Benched by Syria
Hebrew media review

Benched by Syria

The idea that Israel is a bit player in a greater game up north is driven home as Russia confirms it is going ahead with an advanced weapons sale

Soldiers practice dealing with a non-conventional attack, Wednesday (photo credit: David Katz/The Israel Project)
Soldiers practice dealing with a non-conventional attack, Wednesday (photo credit: David Katz/The Israel Project)

Front pages can do many things. They can inform you. They can get you riled up or put you to sleep. They can make you barf your Cheerios or sell you watches. But it’s not often a front page can scare the living bejeezus out of you.

One look at the dramatic front page of Haaretz Wednesday, though, and you may want to grab a gas mask, some cans of tuna and bottled water and lock yourself in a sealed room for the foreseeable future.

The page features a front and center picture of men in hazmat suits walking away from a building which is spewing some noxious looking green smoke. Yes, you eventually realize, it’s just a drill, but the adjacent headline, about an arms embargo on Syria being lifted and Russia going ahead with a game-changing sale of an advanced air defense system, is not. Is this our future?

At least there is Amos Harel with a partly sunny analysis reminding readers that when it comes to the conflict in Syria , Israel is mostly just riding the pine and hoping the good guys win out, with only the occasional assist from the bench (overwrought basketball analogy mine). “After the series of threats, some of them subtle, that senior Israeli officials burst out with last week, it seems that they will try to return to a more quiet and moderate approach. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, asked yesterday about the transfer of the S-300 [air defense system], made do with saying noncommittally that ‘we already know what to do.’ The war in Syria is heading toward creating damage also in Israel, but it seems within the general balance there are also positives that should not be given up on.”

In what we can only assume is an uncanny coincidence, Maariv‘s analysis, reprinted from an Israel Defense article posted on Tuesday, uses not only the same analogy of a bench player, but has almost the same exact headline as Harel. And Brig. Gen. Hanan Gefen comes to pretty much the same conclusion: What’s happening in Syria is a Syrian fight that Israel will have little control over. “The question ‘what is good for Israel’ is the least relevant in these situations, not because it isn’t important but because nobody can give the right answer. There’s no textbook solution. Israel is not an important player in this conflict which is spreading before our eyes. We are bench players.”

Amos Harel may have thought Ya’alon’s quote was pretty milquetoast, but Israel Hayom thinks enough of it to blast it across its front page in trillion-point font. The paper, which has a later bedtime, is the only one to report on the report that the White House is looking into the possibility of a no-fly zone in Syria. The tabloid also quotes an unnamed source in Jerusalem saying the purpose of the S-300 isn’t to protect Syria, but to neutralize Israeli planes within Israel.

The paper’s Boaz Bismuth notes in an analysis that Assad is using the confusing nature of the Syria conflict to keep himself in power. “Assad has understood this for a while and is using the rift between world powers to survive. But we’re still stuck with him not only because of Russia, but because of the enemy standing against him. The Free Syrian Army contains jihadists and al-Qaeda members. The West may know how to arm well, but it’s a little harder to separate [the rebels] from their weapons.”

Yedioth Ahronoth is less concerned with Syria and more with what the level of religious observance will be for those in uniform called to defend the country against it. The paper leads off with the fight over the ultra-Orthodox draft, reporting that the Peri Committee will meet again Wednesday despite Ya’alon’s continued opposition to criminal penalties for ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers.

The tabloid mostly repeats the news already in yesterday’s paper — Lapid’s threats, what was already passed, who is for and against — but predicts (correctly) that the draft proposal will pass. It also reports unconvincingly that Yaakov Peri, the man behind the plan, agreed to some small changes requested by Ya’alon, but immediately walks it back with a strong denial from the Peri camp.

Haaretz tackles the story from a much overlooked angle, taking a deeper look into the hesder yeshiva program, in which students combine religious study with army service, and the political implications changes to the system will have, particularly for the Jewish Home party and its leader Naftali Bennett, who draw much of their support from hesder participants and alumni.

“Hesder yeshivas don’t have consensus in the knit kippa camp,” Yair Ettinger writes. “Like other subjects swirling these days within the community: rabbinical interference in everyday life and politics, the identity of the next chief rabbis, relations with the Haredi world, questions of freedom of religion. Not long ago, the community was split over questions of loyalty to the state, refusing orders and evacuating settlements. Today what threatens to break the national religious bloc touches on Jewish identity and issues of religion and state. In Jewish Home, there are at least two tribes trying to live together despite different definitions about religiosity and Israeliness.”

Yedioth reports on another bird of a feather not sticking together, particularly a Yellow-tailed Stork that lost its way from Africa and wound up in the north of Israel. The bird, which is rarely sighted here, has brought flocks of watchers up north to search for it, the paper reports, but wildlife officials are keeping its location secret to try and protect it.

In Maariv, Avraham Tirosh opines that those lambasting President Shimon Peres for his speech in Jordan on Sunday where he backed the Arab peace initiative should put down the Kool-aid and listen to what they are saying: “Peres didn’t say a new thing, not regarding his known positions, and not in getting carried away by his stance, when he opened his heart to [Mahmoud Abbas] and got a cold shoulder in return. But what of your leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?” Tirosh asks the right-wing critics. “He spoke with the president before he left for Jordan, knew in advance what he would say and didn’t stop him from going, as he has done in the past when the president was on his way to meet with Abbas.”

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