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Fight and flight: What the press says about Omicron, ill-timed trips and war on Iran

Questions about Omicron are flattened out by the media into a vaccination mantra, but the PM comes under fire for keeping curbs in place while seeming to give his family a pass

A woman is seen speaking on her phone at Ben Gurion Airport, on November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
A woman is seen speaking on her phone at Ben Gurion Airport, on November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

1. Solve for Omicron: A week into the Omicron era, Israel’s press is watching closely as the country, and the rest of the world, try to learn to navigate this bizarro brave new world.

  • In ToI, Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Adi Stern, head of a lab dedicated to virus evolution, calls the quest to understand Omicron, given all of its differences from previous versions of the virus, “overwhelming.”
  • “What we’re learning is that this variant is confusing and puzzling. There are a huge number of mutations in Omicron, some of which we’ve seen before in different variants, but some of which are new,” she says.
  • Fellow health expert Prof. Nadav Davidovitch tells Kan that “we’ll need another week or two to do another status analysis and see what is happening around the world. In the meantime, it seems that the virus is very contagious, but the vaccine affects it. That’s the most important message now, go get vaccinated. It could be that later we’ll see that it’s much more manageable.”
  • In Haaretz, Ido Efrati writes that what little we do know about the variant, namely that vaccines work against it to some degree, may push countries beyond the mandatory shot rubicon.
  • “Omicron is only a random variant of the coronavirus, a series of genetic ‘typing errors,’ but its appearance could become a historic event marking the point in the pandemic when an individual’s right over his or her body was taken away,” he writes. “Rightly or not, the appearance of Omicron … is causing leaders and countries to forgo the spirit of tolerance and gentle attempts at persuasion, and instead take over the steering wheel like a driving instructor when his learner is about to cause a collision. The sense is that the pandemic is breathing down our necks, and leaders are fed up with hesitation, opposition and deliberation.”
  • That may be true elsewhere, but in Israel, where coronavirus czar Salman Zarka was practically strung up for suggesting a discussion be had about mandatory vaccination, even health experts are reportedly pooh-poohing the idea. Walla reports that Health Ministry officials are shooting down the idea, saying that it’s impractical.
  • “In practice, it’s impossible and wrong to mandate the whole population to get a medical treatment unless it wants it,” a senior Health Ministry official is quoted as saying. “We need to invest in a broad informational campaign and to get the vaccine to anyone who might possibly want it.”
  • IDF ethicist Asa Kasher writes for the Channel 12 news website that “there may be justification for encouraging vaccination among those who face significant risk from getting the coronavirus, but there’s no justification to do this in a way that does not comport with the principles, morals and ethics of a democratic regime.”
  • In Israel Hayom, Mati Tuchfeld tars several ministers as being in the thrall of the anti-vaccination crowd in order to get their votes, conflating opposition to Shin Bet surveillance to track virus carriers, to opposition to the vaccine itself.
  • “[Justice Minister Gideon] Sa’ar can’t allow himself to say he opposes vaccines or make denials about COVID. But he can allow himself to become the dominant opponent of coercive moves, tracking, and oversight,” he writes. “Sa’ar joins the No. 2 person on his party’s list, who has long since thought and acted as he does now – Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton. Anti-vaxxers see her as the only one in the Knesset who speaks for them, going back to when she was chair of the Coronavirus Committee. Sa’ar throwing his hat in with her indicates a clear direction.”

2. Bend it like a Bennett: Shasha Biton may have also had something to do with Hebrew media on Thursday getting hoodwinked into reporting, wrongly, that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett would lift many travel rules for vaccinated individuals at a meeting that night, leading to scenes like Army Radio proudly “reporting first” that vaccinated individuals who visit any country other than those painted red would be free of any quarantine requirements.

  • In the end, no rules were eased and, in fact, Bennett went in the other direction, promising to slap a NIS 2,500 ($790) fine on anyone refusing to get tested a second time to get out of quarantine.
  • The idea that Bennett would ease travel rules may have also been helped along by what we will generously refer to as a scandal: his wife and kids going on vacation to some secret location abroad, just days after he urged the public to not take trips overseas.
  • Channel 13 news reports that many saw the news that Bennett’s family would be traveling as a “stamp of approval” to not cancel their own trips.
  • “The wife and kids are traveling? What, for real? What happened? Well if they can do it, we can too,” one Israeli traveler-to-be tells the channel.
  • “It’s not a good personal example, but it’s under all the laws and guidelines,” Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel tells Kan, while refusing to be drawn into condemning his boss.
  • In ToI sister site Zman Yisrael, Shalom Yerushalmi writes that some of the harshest criticism is coming from the PM’s closest political allies, who are watching Bennett’s follies stack up, fearing that they’ll be buried underneath as he vamooses off.
  • “We’re dropping in the polls and he’s continuing with his mistakes,” a senior politician from his camp is quoted saying. “Sometimes it seems like he doesn’t care anymore.”
  • Minister Issawi Frej just seems tired of trying to deal with gotcha goobers unhappy with the optics of the trip.
  • “The prime minister didn’t fly, but his family did. It was a mistake, there was a screw-up, but it’s not a subject that one needs to make a drama out of,” he tells Army Radio.
  • Oh, but there is drama, all right. Channel 12 news reports that the prime minister himself was unhappy about how his wife taking the trip will look, and that she refused attempts by officials to get her to cancel the jaunt. The result places her in territory that will be familiar to Sara “Lady Macbeth” Netanyahu, who was portrayed as a power-hungry enfant terrible given undue influence over policy matters.
  • In Walla, Tal Shalev writes that “for better or worse, the prime ministership is not a one-man show, and anything she does, says, or yes, wears, is open to public criticism. Her decision to fly, even if there was no official rule against it, shows that she has yet to internalize her new role.”
  • Channel 12’s Natalie Shem Tov concurs, writing that a picture of Bennett finally visiting his official residence, alone, spoke volumes. “The Bennett family is still boycotting the official residence. It’s still saying ‘this is not my thing.’ When you put the picture together with the news about the trip, a vision is created of a family that does not understand it’s not just that Dad has a new job, but dad’s new job has a dignitary aspect to it,” she writes. “The Balfour residence, Mr. Prime Minister, is a symbol … moving there isn’t a privilege, it comes with the job.”
  • In Haaretz, though, Ravit Hecht pushes back against the press making a poorly timed vacation seem like a major news event and a strike against the Bennetts: “I wouldn’t go abroad right now, and I certainly wouldn’t take my young daughter with me. But Gilat Bennett has every right to decide differently, even if it contradicts her husband’s advice to all Israelis. And I’m not watching her or any other public figure, because I’m an adult who recognizes that when a crown of any sort is put on someone’s head, it doesn’t turn that person into a ‘symbol’ whose behavior we must emulate,” she writes. “The media, of course, shouldn’t spare the prime minister its criticism. But what is the point of this lunacy?”

3. Deal with it: Iran is still heavily on the mind of Israel’s press, which faces no less of a labyrinth in trying to untangle the web of interests, statements, accusations and threats surrounding the Iran nuclear talks.

  • Yedioth Ahronoth (and others) view harsh rhetoric from Israeli officials Thursday, especially Mossad chief David Barnea, as a sign of a looming conflict with the US over the deal.
  • “A new nuclear deal with Iran seems closer than ever and Israel is attacking the US,” Yedioth says on its front page, reporting that Barnea will head stateside next week, but he might as well just stay home.
  • “It’s been learned that the Americans have already passed messages to high ranking security officials that they are opposed to being caught by surprise by clandestine activity from the Mossad and the Israeli intelligence branches, while they are involved in talks with the Iranians, in order to not sabotage chances for success,” it reports.
  • On the flip side, Lazar Berman writes in ToI that Israeli leaders dispatched to lobby against the deal with the West appear to be making headway.
  • If they are able to keep Europe and the US interested in Israel’s intelligence and its concerns, it will be a crucial affirmation of the way this government handles its international affairs.
  • Think tanker and Iran expert Trita Parsi tells Haaretz’s Jonathan Harounoff that nobody should be expecting much from the first round of renewed talks: “Expect a lot of public posturing by the Raisi government to signal to its home audience that it is negotiating hard and will not cave in,” Parsi says. “Any real progress will likely come in the next round or, in the best-case scenario, toward the end of this round of talks.”
  • “Who cares,” asks former general Yaakov Amidror to Army Radio.
  • “What will be the results of the talks? It doesn’t matter much to us, we need to be ready in any case for the possibility we will need to act against Tehran’s nuclear program. It could be that a deal would change the timetable, but the IDF needs to be ready,” he says.
  • A report in Walla, however, claims that Israel is nowhere near ready. According to the report which does not cite sources, the military is working on plans of action should a strike become necessary, but training for such a mission has not yet begun and will take several months to complete.
  • Once it is complete, the Israel Defense Forces will be able to provide Israeli leaders with a detailed military option, the report says.
  • Asked in a rare interview with Channel 13 news if Israel can even realistically expect to be able to knock out Iran’s nuclear program with a series of punches from the air, the air force chief refuses to answer, instead comparing Israel to an insurance policy against Iranian nukes, which perhaps sounded reassuring to him.
  • ToI’s Judah Ari Gross writes that military planners must not only plan for a series of strikes on Iran, but also take into account the war that is likely to follow.
  • “Israeli projections for what a war against [Iran proxy] Hezbollah and allied militias in the region would look like are unnerving: thousands of projectiles raining down on Israeli population centers, hundreds killed, severe damage to infrastructure and major utilities knocked out of service,” he writes. “That is not to say that Israel would never conduct a strike on Iran for fear of attack from its proxies, but that any decision to do so would have to be weighed not against the military’s ability to carry out the operation, but against the potentially devastating prospects of what would follow the raid.”

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