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Israel media review

Countdown to the shoe drop: What the press is saying as it awaits the Omicroncalypse

With tens of thousands of daily coronavirus cases seemingly around the corner, prophets of doom and government critics aren’t waiting to have their say

Jaclyn Bernstein of New York stands in confetti, among the few to observe the Times Square New Year's Eve ball drop early Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP/Craig Ruttle)
Jaclyn Bernstein of New York stands in confetti, among the few to observe the Times Square New Year's Eve ball drop early Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP/Craig Ruttle)

1. Bumbling toward doom: With the New Year approaching, Israel’s government is taking action to crack down on gatherings, and reimposing mask-wearing at outdoor events with 50 people or more. But with case numbers skyrocketing, and an Omicron onslaught viewed as almost inevitable, the press has some questions and a lot of criticism.

  • Take the rollout of the mask directive for instance. “Prof. [Nachman] Ash signed a directive yesterday on wearing masks at outdoor gatherings, but never told the public,” reads a headline in Haaretz, noting that Israelis only found out because he happened to mention it as an aside during a press conference.
  • In fact, the delay in announcing the mask mandate and the restriction on gatherings, only made official an hour before midnight Thursday, means much of the criticism is still aimed at the lack of regulations for New Year.
  • Leading off the paper’s print edition, Ido Efrati writes that the government has essentially given up on trying to control the spread of the variant, given that it doesn’t seem to be making people too ill.
  • “The battle to stop the spread has been discarded in favor of preparing the second line of defense, lowering serious illnesses as much as possible with vaccinations and drugs for those already affected, and preparing hospitals for a rise in the number of patients in serious condition,” he writes. “This is how the coronavirus turned from a national threat requiring solidarity across groups into a private matter with public consequences. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made it unambiguously clear this week: Each family for itself.”
  • Yedioth Ahronoth slaps an “exclusive” across its front page, cluing in the world to the shocking fact that rapid antigen tests are less reliable than PCR tests. Columnist Nadav Eyal’s story actually does have some surprising details as it explores what it says is Israel’s failed testing regime in schools, which relied on the rapid results; namely that among children who had both an antigen and PCR test on the same day, 40 percent of those who came out negative on the antigen were positive on the PCR. (No, he doesn’t attribute the stat to a source, but it’s cute of you to ask.)
  • “The coronavirus cabinet knows about these numbers but fears, idiotically, that the whole testing system will collapse: the PCR tests can’t keep up with demand,” he tsks. “All due respect to these considerations, but it would be worthwhile to warn the public about the dangers: False security created by an unsustainable test.”
  • He also chides the government for appearing to follow the British model of letting everyone get infected and what happens happens. “What are restrictions going to help us now,” he quotes an unnamed expert as saying. “We’ll double the number of infections every day or two, it’ll save us three days. Why not save our energy and public trust for a situation when we need a lockdown, which hopefully we won’t.”
  • But ToI’s Nathan Jeffay quotes another expert advising against looking to other countries as a guide for reaching something resembling herd immunity. “The data coming from countries with high transmissions, such as the UK, seems to show severe cases are low, but we’re on a different schedule for administering vaccines, and Israel gave booster shots earlier which means they will wane here first,” says epidemiologist Michael Edelstein. “Every country has its own epidemiological situation now, and in the case of the UK, it’s given different vaccines in many cases, applied different delays between shots, and some other differences. This underscores the fact it’s hard to draw inferences between countries.”
  • Tzachi Grossman, a member of an expert panel advising the government, tells Army Radio that the government is doing fine, even if it may look like ministers change their minds along with their underwear.
  • “It leaves the impression of zig-zagging, but you need to judge the decisions based on results, not the logic behind it. Israel is open and operating, unlike other Western countries. Sometimes the logic is hidden,” he posits.
  • Grossman also defends the lack of tight New Years’ restrictions. “There are some restrictions the public won’t abide by. This night only happens once. It could be the decision-makers had a dilemma … You need to consider not only the epidemiological benefits.

2. The storm is coming: While 4,000+ daily cases is among the highest seen in Israel thus far, it’s still only half the 10,000+ seen during the Delta wave. But nobody is under any impression that the other shoe won’t eventually drop, and the media is filled with chicken littles pecking their keyboards (or squawking into microphones) with prophecies of doom.

  • Weizmann Institute Prof. Eran Segal tells Channel 12 that numbers are following the exact trajectory predicted weeks ago, with 20,000 to 30,000 daily cases possible by next week.
  • And it gets worse: “I’m not sure we’ll be able to measure it because we’ll be limited in our ability to test so many people a day,” he says.
  • Hadassah hospital’s Dror Mevorach advises the Kan broadcaster to “prepare for a huge spread of the pandemic,” citing a recent study that predicted 1,500 to 2,000 seriously ill patients by mid-January, up from the current 92.
  • “I get the impression that the illness is less severe on a basic level, but that does not mean there won’t be seriously sick people and deaths. At Hadassah, we are getting ready to absorb a huge flow of patients needing hospitalization. Our infrastructure is limited, we don’t have enough beds in the ICU or internal wards. There’s a possibility we won’t be able to provide services [to everyone.]”
  • In Israel Hayom, columnist Eldad Sitbon calls Omicron a “game-changer” and concludes that “based on its first steps [in Israel] things are not looking good.”
  • Haaretz reports that some in Israel are girding for hospitals to have to deal with children being hospitalized as they get infected en masse, as is being seen elsewhere. The paper cites a document from Hebrew University predicting that kids under five will make up 4% of seriously ill patients.
  • “Treatment of children is different. In Israel there are about 150 pediatric intensive care beds, most of which are taken. And so the big question is what quantity do we expect to be able to handle when it comes to children,” Hebrew University Prof. Doron Gazit is quoted fretting.
  • Is Armageddon averted after all? South Africa. where Omicron got its start, reports that its infection wave is abating as quickly as it came, and with no significant change to its death rate from the virus. Some good news to hang onto.

3. When Mahmoud met Benny: Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s hosting of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his Rosh Ha’ayin home is also near the top of the news agenda.

  • In ToI sister site Zman Yisrael, Tal Schnieder writes that Gantz is doing more to foster positive relations with the PA than was done over the last decade.
  • “Right after the May Gaza operation, Gantz said he thought the PA should be bolstered as a bulwark against the Hamas terror group,” she writes. “This was the opposite of the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tactic in the last few years, which was to wipe the floor with Abbas and the PA as Hamas’s stature grew stronger and stronger.”
  • Walla’s Barak Ravid notes that former US president Donald Trump told him that he would have preferred Gantz to be prime minister because it would have made his deal of the century more doable. “The Rosh Ha’ayin summit … is proof that Trump analyzed the situation exactly. Gantz may not be prime minister and a peace deal seems far off, but in the last half-year, the defense minister has led a dramatic change in favor of ties between Israel and the PA.”
  • Not everyone has rose-tinted glasses around the meet. Haaretz’s Amira Hass writes that Abbas likely went to warn Gantz that things were reaching a breaking point if Israel doesn’t start taking the peace process seriously (or maybe to learn about where Jews actually come from).
  • “The guesswork regarding the essence of the meeting is linked to another meeting, held in Abbas’ office in Ramallah a week ago,” she writes. “One of the invitees told Haaretz that the expectation was that he would deliver an important message on internal and political Palestinian affairs. But to everyone’s surprise he expatiated at length about the origins of Ashkenazi Jews (Khazars who converted to Judaism, he says), and about the differences between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, Jews from Arab and Islamic countries. According to this invitee, at some point, Abbas said he was fed up with the diplomatic freeze, and that the PLO’s Central Council would convene in two months in order to make crucial decisions. Last Sunday, the Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki repeated the same pledge/warning. In an interview he gave to the official Voice of Palestine radio station, he said that the Palestinian leadership would not wait much longer given Israel’s distancing itself from agreements it made and that at the end of January the Central Council would meet and take important resolutions.”
  • Israel Hayom’s Jacob Bardugo writes that it’s beginning to feel a lot like Oslo, and he doesn’t reference the accords in a good way.
  • “Abbas is happy with Bennett, the PLO is satisfied with [Ayelet] Shaked. It’s half a year and you can feel the change everywhere. Bennett and Shaked are weakening the settlers and boosting the Palestinians,” he fumes. “Hold tight. Your Oslo is back.”

4. Is it over yet? Finally, news outlets are wishing fare-thee-well/don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out to 2021 by looking back at a year that was kind of a mixed bag. Like pretty much every year we’re still on this green earth.

  • “I don’t know about you guys, but this 2021 feels like it was 10 years,” tweets Kan’s Esty Perez.
  • Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer beams that 2021 was the year Israel learned the importance of democracy.
  • “Israeli democracy managed to ensure its own survival this year, against considerable odds,” he says. “Looking back at 2021, it was a remarkable display of resilience. The government changed without the need for a revolution or a coup, and the former leader who would have continued ruling for as long as he could, is facing charges of bribery and fraud in the Jerusalem District Court.”
  • It’s also the year Israel forgot how to drive, Walla reports. According to the site, 2021 was the deadliest on the roads of the last four years. “The conclusions of a year-end report on road safety published today should be a breaking point for the government’s handling of road collisions. The same thing was written here in October when a road safety trends report came out, but since then nothing has changed, and 89 victims have been added to the death toll, which now stands at 361,” Keinan Cohen seethes. “And that’s not even the final number, which will be published January 1, 2022, and include those who were injured and died within 30 days of a crash.”
  • Enough with 2021, Israel Hayom editor Boaz Bismuth is ready for 2022, and apparently also ready for someone to bring him the clicker so he can watch his stories.
  • “We are living in strange times. What used to be is not necessarily what will be, because the past is gone,” he writes in a column given the top slot in the paper he edits. “Superpowers are in decline, and new powers are rising to take their place. Some European universities have even stopped teaching the ancient languages of Greece and Rome, and the level of interest today’s young people have in the past means they don’t know their Mamluks from their Milky Ways. It’s the zeitgeist. There has never been such easy access to information, and we’ve never seen such a lack of interest in looking at things in depth. For millions of young people, even a 30-second video is becoming too long and tiring.”

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