1. Secret annex: An Israeli woman from the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modiin Ilit has been returned to Israeli hands after somehow winding up in Syrian custody, the culmination of a strange tale that has reached the Israeli public in the last few days via drips and drabs.
- Axios has most of the details of the affair, or at least what is known so far, including the various items that had been holding up prisoner swap talks for some two weeks.
- According to the site, the two shepherds Israel released as part of the deal had been captured by IDF soldiers sent to the Golan buffer zone with the intent of using them as bargaining chips, after a Syrian in an Israeli prison refused to be part of the deal.
- Axios also reports that the Russians initially tried to broaden the discussions, asking Israel to restrain its airstrikes in Syria on the grounds that they make it more difficult to transport humanitarian aid.
- While the Axios report (which goes further than other Hebrew-language reports, including from the same reporter, likely due to censorship issues) makes it seem as if that part fell out of the deal, it’s not quite so clear.
- Channel 12 says the deal included something nobody is being told about, and says it is also restrained by censorship issues, but does the best hint, hint, wink, wink, it can. “The deal included another element, which is controversial, and which there has never been anything like it before. Israel is paying with currency it has never offered before in any prisoner swap.”
- Former general Kobi Marom also tells Army Radio there’s probably more to the deal that the public is not being told about. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. I have a hard time believing Putin threw his weight around for a couple of shepherds. I assume there are understandings that were not published — specifically regarding Israeli military activities in Syria.”
2. Stump and rescue: Marom adds: “There was overblown drama in the media. I assume there were political actors who were interested in that.”
- If it’s not clear what he’s getting at, Amos Harel in Haaretz spells it out, comparing the incident to the “rescue” of Naama Issachar, which also happened to come with a media circus and just before an election, and the return of the remains of Zachary Baumel, a soldier killed in 1982, also via Russia.
- “In both cases, the achievements – worthy as they might be in their own right – were leveraged to promote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party campaign for the election that was held soon after. Only Netanyahu, the campaign stressed, was capable of bringing Israeli citizens and the bodies of fallen soldiers back home thanks to his close ties with world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin,” he writes.
- Interestingly, while the story leads off the other major dailies and many news websites, it’s buried by Yedioth Ahronoth, which may be loath to give Netanyahu any good press. (The paper’s publisher is on trial, along with Netanyahu, for a deal in which it would have given him better coverage for hobbling a rival paper, the subtext being that the rag does not hand out laudatory or even honest coverage without getting paid.)
- Israel Hayom, on the other hand, has only positive coverage of Netanyahu and devotes its first three pages to the swap.
- The paper’s story mentions Netanyahu’s close ties with Putin and Israel’s success in securing the release of both Issachar and Baumel. Naturally, the item is packaged with a large picture capture of Netanyahu vowing to leave no soldier behind.
- At the same time, the paper’s columnist Yoav Limor chides others trying to make electoral hay out of the affair: “The chatter from many of the ministers – which led to a wave of baseless rumors – is bewildering and disconcerting every time anew. With all due respect to election season and the desire to boast to friends, some things are more important.”
- It’s not just Netanyahu. Kan reports that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is trying to “blur” the fact that all he got was two shepherds (and maybe something else), by trying to conflate them with the two Syrian prisoners serving actual time who did want to be deported to Syria.
- “He needs to present this as a victory because it’s an affair in which Syria had an asset of sorts and should have an achievement,” analyst Roi Kais says.
3. Green acres, green fakers: Israeli ministers are set to give final approval to a green pass scheme in which certain places of business will be able to open, though only to those who have been vaccinated with both doses of the coronavirus shot for at least a week.
- Yedioth Ahronoth gives prominent placement to a Q&A with some basic facts about the green pass, including what businesses can open and how to get a pass. It notes that children, who cannot be vaccinated, cannot get a pass, but doesn’t say what that means practically (will children just be forced to be left alone on the street while mommy goes shopping?).
- You can read ToI’s own coverage here.
- No shot? No problem. Haaretz reports that despite warnings of strict punishments for trying to counterfeit a green pass, it’s super easy to do so. The paper even includes (some might say irresponsibly) instruction on how to fake your very own.
- “Though this may seem technical and complex, any person with even a rudimentary knowledge of code will immediately see how easy it is to forge the certificate this way. All a hacker needs to do is to create an object with their own personal information, to encode it in Base64, generate the text into a QR code and then graft it onto the certificate using a program like Photoshop, or even something simpler,” the paper says.
4. Some children left behind: There is also plenty of coverage of parents complaining that they can open their shops, but school will still be closed for grades 7-10. (As in, kids old enough to get the virus badly, but too young to get vaccinated or to need matriculation exam prep study).
- “My daughter in 7th grade is still studying by Zoom. Why? Because the country doesn’t count kids in middle school. It’s leaving them behind,” one dad pouts to Yedioth.
- He’s not alone. “My middle school daughter has been in school physically for a total of 10 days this year,” the head of the Gezer Regional Council tells Army Radio. “It’s about priorities. They are bringing back commerce, but what about our kids?”
- Health Ministry director Chezy Levy tells Kan that if infection numbers continue to drop, they’ll be able to open up all schools in two weeks.
- “90 percent of the infections are from the British variant, we’re in control and know where the South African variant is,” he says. But he adds that “even after we are vaccinated, we won’t be able to lift all restrictions on gatherings and on mask-wearing.”
5. Cholent for the soul: Channel 13 reports that the infection rate is the lowest it’s been since December, with a reproductive value of just 0.68 among the ultra-Orthodox. “However, among the Arab community, the rate of spread is over 1, which means the virus is still spreading in that community.”
- Not mentioned is the fact that vaccination rates in that community happen to be among the lowest nationwide.
- A screenshot tweeted out by Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and shared by some news outlets shows 10 new patients in their coronavirus ward. All but one are either in serious or critical condition, while the other one is listed as in “light condition.” Can you guess which one it is?
10 חולים חדשים התאשפזו היום באיכילוב. 9 מתוכם לא התחסנו. pic.twitter.com/kzWlCYMHYr
— בית חולים איכילוב (@tasmc1) February 19, 2021
- Yedioth reports on a survey from the Leumit HMO that found that 11% of Israeli respondents who have not been vaccinated said they would rather get the virus than the vaccine. The paper reports that most respondents said they would not change their mind no matter what green pass goodie is offered them.
- Perhaps they are holding out for a free pizza, or knafeh, or cholent, or any of the other foods being offered by cities to get their citizens to roll up their sleeves. ToI’s Haviv Rettig Gur dives into the steaming stew of what these munchables mean to the vaccination drive on a deeper level, with an ode to the Shabbat stew only matched by Country Yossi (and thankfully without the singer’s racism).
- “The decision of many of the cities to offer not only free food, but free comfort food, could be said to tap into something larger: A sense of familiarity and of community that has been decimated by the virus, and which the vaccine promises to bring back,” he writes. “A year of isolation — or of guilt-ridden, widely excoriated socializing — is ending with a promise. Cholent isn’t just food, it’s Sabbath food, comfort food, social food. It is the restoration of all that has been lost.”