Israel media review

Do the math: What the press is saying as parties divide and infections multiply

Netanyahu is regarded to be in the driver’s seat after rivals to both the left and right balkanize, with one foul exception; plus lockdown-ending drama rules as deaths add up

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Israel's coronavirus vaccination campaign in a video statement released on December 26, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Israel's coronavirus vaccination campaign in a video statement released on December 26, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

1. Things fall apart: The only surprise was that there were no surprises. And even that surprise, as far as surprises go, was not all that surprising.

  • Where past party slate filing deadline days were filled with 11th-hour drama, negotiations and a healthy dose of backstabbing, this time around mergers were few and far in between, with parties splitting apart or preferring to stay apart.
  • Haviv Rettig Gur sees the lack of political mergers as a result of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz both helping destroy trust between politicians, by reneging on their words to and against each other.
  • “With Netanyahu, you get cash up front, no credit,” one Likud operative tells him.
  • Labor leader Merav Michaeli tells Army Radio that she really wanted to get together with Ofer Shelah’s Hatnufah party, but they just didn’t align: “I’m bringing Labor back to being an organic party, and what it had been was the result of artificial mergers.”
  • The result is a center-left that is split between several parties, though not as many as might have been had Shelah and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai not dropped out. On the right, there are three non-Likud parties that will also split the vote. Several pundits see the campaign map as a dream come true for Netanyahu.
  • “Only Netanyahu remains immune and resilient: With each rift, one large Likud stands out, [with the party] at an almost optimal starting point for continuing its campaign, and for the day after the election,” writes Tal Shalev of Walla news.
  • Channel 12’s Dafna Liel notes that Netanyahu’s real coup de grace, if one can call it that, was managing to split the Joint List asunder by moving enough toward Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas to break him away from the Ta’al-Balad-Hadash mothership. The working assumption is that Ra’am will likely fall below the threshold and the Joint List will lose a well of votes.
  • “Breaking apart the Joint List is worth at least five seats to Netanyahu, even if they go to different parties,” she writes. “The Arab public wants unity, and Netanyahu is making sure they don’t get it.”
  • Taken together, “The position of the prime minister is seemingly better now than during the three previous rounds of elections,” writes former Likud minister Limor Livnat in Yedioth Ahronoth. “But only seemingly,” she adds, noting the various possible pitfalls facing Netanyahu.

2. When you lay down with Kahanists: Chief among those may be, once again, his decision to push a union between far-right Bezalel Smotrich and Kahanist Itamar Ben Gvir, a widely reviled and toxic figure who makes the far-right US congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene look like a Girl Scout.

  • Haaretz’s Yossi Verter writes that despite his charm offensive, the push to once again bring Ben Gvir in shows that “ultimately, Netanyahu is the same Netanyahu, the sea is the same sea and his most desired partners are the ones who want to throw the Arabs, LGBTQ people, the Reform Jews and anyone who does not find favor in their benighted eyes into the briny deep.”
  • ToI editor David Horovitz is also dismayed by Netanyahu going back to the Otzma Yehudit well to serve his political machinations.
  • “The better this latest far-right alliance fares at the polls, the worse Bennett’s Yamina is likely to do — hence the benefit to Netanyahu, and hence his readiness to do what ought to be the ideologically unthinkable. But again, these elections are not about ideology, though there will certainly be ideological repercussions. They are about our prime minister’s battle for political survival, and the radically disparate array of forces bent on ousting him,” he writes.
  • Nahum Barnea notes that a politician is defined by their worst moments: “Just as Trump was defined by his support for fascist militias, Netanyahu is defined by the umbrella he gives to Kahane’s successors. In America, it ended with a terror attack on Congress.”
  • ToI’s Gur offers another explanation, noting that in 2009, Netanyahu used the threat of Ben Gvir’s mentor, Michael Ben Ari, to woo Labor into his government: “In 2009, a Kahanist got himself elected to the Knesset without Netanyahu’s help, but his very extremism proved a useful card in Netanyahu’s negotiating hand. Twelve years later, could the prime minister be trying to engineer a similarly narrow win dependent on extremists — as leverage to pressure centrists or even leftists to take their place and balance out his next government?”
  • Unsurprisingly, the move gets little mention in Israel Hayom. Columnist Moti Tuchfeld, writing a long piece about the various mergers and splits on the right, somehow mentions Ben Gvir only once, saying that after he and Smotrich bumped elbows “Netanyahu could finally breathe a sigh of relief. The prime minister was so worried about the possibility of a split on the right, he worked on the issue nonstop.”

3. Lockdown smackdown: What surprises did come late Thursday night came from the cabinet meeting on lifting or extending the coronavirus lockdown.

  • “The cabinet agreed early Friday to extend Israel’s national lockdown until 7 a.m on Sunday following a chaotic night that saw an initial decision to continue the closure overturned by the attorney general … saying that under the terms of the coalition agreement, the decision needed to be unanimous,” ToI reports. “His abrupt ruling after midnight Thursday followed an angry government meeting where Gantz and his fellow Blue and White ministers refused to endorse the extension.”
  • Giving a play by play of the overnight action, Channel 12 news reports on “the especially major drama starting at midnight, after a vote on extending the lockdown to Sunday came before the cabinet.”
  • Michael Bitan, a minister who was in the meeting, tells Kan news that “the prime minister told [Attorney General Avichai] Mandelblit, ‘you only counsel, I don’t have to listen to you. After 10 hours of discussion, he waged a political attack, knowing that the meeting was being leaked to the press in real time.”
  • Dr. Nadav Davidovitch, a member of a government advisory panel, tells Army Radio that “there are studies on the connection between political instability and the ability to deal with a pandemic. What we saw yesterday will not contribute to the public trust.”

4. The hurt is still on: Amos Harel writes in Haaretz that models showing infection numbers should have fallen by now thanks to vaccines were wrong. “The number of new carriers per day has remained quite stable, at between 6,000 and 7,000. If a decision is made to ease the lockdown next week, it will come when the daily number of newly infected is as high as it was when the third lockdown was imposed, at the end of December.”

  • That could hurt Netanyahu, who is campaigning on the success of the vaccine campaign. In Israel Hayom, columnist Aner Ottolonghi writes that the press should cool it with doom and gloom headlines regarding the mutations, though he doesn’t exactly leave behind a sunny picture: “One can guess that the variants will lower the effectiveness of the vaccine, but it’s not likely that it will allow the virus to escape totally from immunity.”
  • Yedioth leads off its front page with a story on an experimental drug to treat those who already have the virus developed at Ichilov Hospital. “Almost all of the sick treated were released within three to five days,” Prof. Nadir Arvad, the doctor leading the research, tells the paper.
  • The news comes as Israel passes the once-unthinkable toll of 5,000 dead for the virus. In ToI, Jessica Steinberg writes about Rikma, a website created so their stories can be told, modeled on a similar memorial site for those killed in battle.
  • “It’s a kind of digital shiva,” says Amit Yizraeli, who helped develop the site. “It just didn’t feel right that people will leave this world without being remembered even minimally.”
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