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Israel media review

Drop till you shop: What the press is saying on October 11

The media looks at the Health Ministry’s slow plan to ease the lockdown, but voices calling for hurrying up the openings rise to the fore, leading to prophecies of doom

View of the closed down shops in the Givatayim Mall, on October 5, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
View of the closed down shops in the Givatayim Mall, on October 5, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

1. Easing like Sunday morning: Everybody is talking about getting out of the lockdown. Reports proliferate throughout the press Sunday morning of a slow-burning eight-stage plan with two weeks per stage. Ministers who will need to decide on the plan haven’t met yet, but in much of the press it’s seen as almost a done deal.

  • “Easements on the lockdown, seemingly already by Sunday,” reads a headline on Army Radio’s website Sunday morning. Don’t pack the car up yet, though, they mean Sunday next week.
  • “The days will tell: Easements are on the way,” reads the top headline in Israel Hayom.
  • The paper reports that in a “positive” sign, for the first time on Friday the number of new cases was lower than the capacity of the new contact tracing center set up by the Defense Ministry, seen as a key milestone for allowing Israel to exit the lockdown.
  • Several reports note that the easements are not supposed to kick off until the transmission rate (R-nought, or how many people each carrier infects) is 0.8 or lower, and until case numbers are at 2,000 and dropping (a number determined by the contact tracing center’s capacity, though easy enough to fudge thanks to vagaries in testing).
  • Channel 12 news reports that the plan is the product of authorities “having learned from the last time around,” and that the two weeks are just a guideline.
  • “The time periods could become longer if infection rates pick up at the end of the lockdown,” its report notes.
  • Army Radio, though, reports that on the flip side, if infection rates drop faster, then the time between stages can end up being even shorter.
  • Haaretz reports that the easements could come even sooner than Sunday, though not for everybody: “The Health Ministry is preparing to lift the nationwide lockdown this Thursday or the following Sunday, October 18, at the latest. The restrictions on movement will end, preschools will reopen, and the private sector will be able to resume operations – with the exception of businesses serving the public in person.”
  • But the report adds that 14 towns with high infection rates will stay under lock and key (since that worked so well in the past): Bnei Brak, Rechasim, Modi’in Ilit, Elad, Beitar Ilit, Ramle, Netivot, Ashdod, Rehovot, Lod and Hadera – and a few neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem and Netanya.

2. Let my people shop: Why wait until Sunday? MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, the anti-lockdown crusader at the head of the Knesset committee convened to okay lockdown measures, tells the station there’s no reason to wait another moment.

  • “We need it now, not in another week. There are restrictions that everyone knows have no epidemiological rationale. Why wait? Society is crumbling.”
  • She’ll have the cosmeticians and some other small business owners who have promised to open against guidelines on her side. One of them, Cheli Mohoni, a cosmetician in the central city of Kfar Saba, tells Walla news that she has no choice but to open. “With the stipends they give me I can’t get anywhere. I can’t even pay the rent,” she says. “Why do I need to be afraid of serving my customers if we observe the rules and have masks? Besides a lockdown, the government isn’t doing anything and isn’t improving the health system.”
  • Channel 13 reports that a retailer association representing 400 major chains with some 18,000 retail points is joining the rebellion, vowing to open on October 18. “Retail doesn’t infect … we cannot abide by the Health Ministry’s extreme plan,” the group is quoted saying in a statement.
  • Kan reports that despite the 2,000-case milestone, “there is disagreement in the health system over whether to wait for the number set by coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu or to decide already on Sunday [today] whether to open pre-schools in another week no matter what.”
  • Channel 12 news reports that the big battle among ministers will be over whether to combine stage 2 — which is when schools can reopen for kids in fourth grade and lower — and stage 3, when retail businesses and malls can reopen.
  • “Health Ministry brass are opposed, and claim that opening schools for grades 1-4 is a critical stage that needs to stand on its own.”

3. Where’s the fire? Not everyone is rushing to open the country back up. In Yedioth, columnist Sever Plotzker writes that doing so would be repeating the mistakes of history.

  • “The loud voices being heard now in favor of canceling most of the rules sound familiar — they are reminiscent of the calls that led to the national tragedy of a premature, frightened and populist opening of the economy, education system and society in May-August,” he writes. “Have we learned nothing? Does the public really want to go back to the uncontrollable outbreak, only this time not with 30 deaths a day, but 300?”
  • In Israel Hayom, columnist Ran Reznick also rails against what he terms “complacent and irresponsible calls to again return to normal too quickly.”
  • “Once again these calls are being made not only by politicians and journalists, but also by a handful of doctors and managers who have perhaps forgotten the [Hippocratic] Oath. Pressure from the public, politicians and media led Israel to exit after the first wave recklessly, hastily and irresponsibly to a new, very dangerous normal, which led to the spread of the pandemic, the infection of tens of thousands of Israelis and the deaths of many hundreds,” he writes.
  • Speaking to Army Radio, Dr. Ran Balicer, an epidemiologist who has advised the government, says, “The decision needs to cross sectoral and community lines. If we want to keep the public healthy, the sole consideration should be epidemiology — if not, I think public trust, which is in the dumps, will go even lower.”

4. The thin black line: As of now, though, there are claims that not everyone is being treated the same, after Saturday night saw a heavy police presence in Tel Aviv for anti-government protests, and claims of lax enforcement of indoor ultra-Orthodox Simhat Torah celebrations.

  • While Yedioth runs pictures of people holding a nice socially distanced Simhat Torah dance outside, the paper’s online outlet Ynet reports that in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood and other ultra-Orthodox parts of the city, “there were many ‘second hakafot’ events. Most participants did not wear masks and there was no real police enforcement.”
  • According to the site, police did crack down on one celebration, causing the people there to riot and throw citrons at them: “In the end, the police arrested two people and left while the dancing was continuing apace.”
  • The site also reports that dozens of buses ferried ultra-Orthodox families to and from Jerusalem, with signs on them reading that they were heading to “protests for religious liberty.” The scam had been used in the past so that families could ostensibly get around restrictions on travel, except the protest exemption has since been rescinded, making the whole feint look even sillier.
  • Do you like videos of people dancing around when they should not be? ToI offers a roundup of the best grainy videos here. 
  • Haaretz, citing a senior police official ahead of the celebrations, reports that police had agreed to not enter synagogues to disperse worshipers or scuffle with those holding Torah scrolls.
  • Army Radio notes that in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, police cruisers patrolled the city, but did not intervene as “hundreds gathered in closed spaces, each kissing the Torah, with no social distancing.”
  • Kan reports that the head rabbi of the Belz Hasidic sect is calling on followers to keep acting as they have been, meaning ignore any virus guidelines. “We need to act as we have until now and God will help us so there’s no damage.” The rabbi is also quoted criticizing other rabbis giving advice, saying “they are trying to curry favor with the authorities, and the authorities are trying to curry favor with them.”
  • The outlet quotes a council member in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit saying that shops selling food should be shut down, but synagogues allowed to open: “There needs to be priorities. Someone will say, I’ll go to the shop less, but I’ll learn Torah more.”

5. Protest or bro-test: Meanwhile, the protests aren’t going anywhere, and they continue to garner plenty of coverage, with the front pages of both Israel Hayom and Yedioth juxtaposing pictures of the chaos there with comparatively orderly ultra-Orthodox Torah dancing.

  • But attention is turned more to the political scene, the biggest threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or to his opponents, after the budget issue starts to rear its head again, with politicians again trading barbs over who is forcing who to force the country into new elections.
  • A story in Israel Hayom claims that sources in Blue and White say they are willing to push off the budget deadline, which would fell the government if not met, if “Netanyahu keeps to his word on other matters.”
  • The story is quickly denounced by the party as “fake news,” which Israel Hayom also dutifully reports.
  • Appearing on Channel 12, Blue and White minister Izhar Shay does more than hint that his party has some tricks up his sleeve to keep Netanyahu from being able to maintain power should the 2020 or 2021 budgets fail to pass by the time mandated by law.
  • “Netanyahu will not be the one to call the next round. There are tools and people who will prevent him from doing so. There are people on the right who will do so. They won’t let the prime minister go to elections,” he says.
  • While he does not expound on what tools he has, Kan quotes an unnamed Blue and White source saying that party members were in talks with Likud lawmakers over the possibility of setting up an alternative government should the current one fall.
  • The outlet also reports that the party is trying to line up support from lawmakers Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel to back a minority government that would be supported by the Joint List from outside the government as another possibility.
  • Army Radio reports that Yesh Atid is pushing hard for the pair of Blue and White hawks to back a no-confidence motion that would install said alternative government, but Hauser, at least, is not biting.
  • “That’s it, Yair, no. We have a lot of Israeli Arabs partners, but nothing in common with Balad and their ilk,” Hauser says in a video shared by the station online.
  • Haaretz takes full aim at Netanyahu for appearing to hold the budget hostage to his personal political whims, and for accusing Blue and White of pushing the country toward elections: “Netanyahu is preventing approval of a budget in order to avoid handing over power and, instead, hold an election at his convenience as caretaker prime minister,” the paper’s lead editorial charges. “His lies add insult to injury. He must answer Gantz’s request to prepare a budget and get it approved by December without his games and tricks.”
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