Hebrew media review

Is it the second cold war yet?

Increasing US-Russia tensions raise the specter in Israeli papers of a new cold war over Syria, and an even hotter war in the actual country

Joshua Davidovich is The Times of Israel's Deputy Editor

US Secretary of States John Kerry, right, gestures beside Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a news conference in Munich, southern Germany, on February 12, 2016. (AFP/Christof Stache)
US Secretary of States John Kerry, right, gestures beside Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a news conference in Munich, southern Germany, on February 12, 2016. (AFP/Christof Stache)

After five years of civil war and hundreds of thousands of deaths, the re-emergence of Syria into the top of the Israeli news cycle can mean only a few things: matters are really taking a turn – for the better or worse – up there, or there just isn’t that much happening down Israel way.

On Sunday morning, the answer appears to be all three.

On Syria, coverage is dominated not by mounting death and destruction, which is old hat by now, but by diplomatic squabbles between Moscow and Washington. The media, whose favorite game to play is normally “are we in an intifada yet,” seems to tackle the specter of a new cold war with the same zeal.

“Between ceasefire and cold war,” reads the front-page headline of Israel Hayom, which reports that the violence is only increasing even with a potential ceasefire on the table.

“A new page in Syria? Depends who you ask. The Munich Security Conference put wind at the back of a ‘cessation of hostile activities’ in Syria, but on the ground the fighting is continuing, and there’s been no calming of the tensions between the US and Russia,” the paper writes.

Yedioth Ahronoth lays out the issue so even a 3-year-old could understand, with side by side headlines reading “US: Ceasefire in Syria this week,” and “Russia: The chances it will happen are slim.”
Yedioth analyst Ronen Bergman, himself covering the goings on in Munich, sniffs more than a hint of a new cold war in the Bavarian air, especially after Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said as much himself. Just like the previous Cold War, Bergman foresees a lot of blabbing and not much else, but unlike the last go-round, he thinks Moscow will be the one to come out victorious this time.

“The agreement is in practice the final ending of the complete diplomatic failures of the US in Syria. It allows the Russians to continue to meddle in the country’s affairs and in practice recognizes Putin’s army as a force with the right to fight on Syrian soil,” he writes. “At the same time, it doesn’t set forth what the US would do if Russia doesn’t keep to the agreement. And the end of this week, when the US accuses Russia again, rightly, for the umpteenth time, of breaking the deal, the same thing will happen as has happened in the infinite times before – nothing.”

Haaretz’s Zvi Bar’el isn’t so much concerned with the cold war brewing between the US and Russia over Syria as with the increasingly hot one actually taking place in the war-sundered country. Bar’el takes a look at the Saudi-Turkish alliance forming to send planes and ground troops into the war, and he doesn’t have high hopes for the likely upshot of such a maneuver.

“A Turkish-Saudi ground operation against the Islamic State will require coordination with the militias in the area, in particular with the Kurdish militias considered the most stable force against Syria. Turkey definitely won’t see these militias as a possible partner against the Islamic State, and also Saudis won’t as a partner of Turkey,” he writes. “But even if the Kurds aren’t partners – against the stance of the US which is actually backing them in its own military bosom – the main problem with a ground war is the expected confrontation with Syrian army and the chance for being embroiled with the Russians or Iranian forces.”

The focus on Syria doesn’t mean there’s no news at all in Israel, and the papers fill their pages with tributes to Avigdor Ben-Gal, a military hero with a storied history who died Saturday at age 79. Eitan Haber in Yedioth remembers Yanush, as he was known almost universally, as a lovable wild man. “He was a rebellious son,” Haber writes, borrowing a biblical term for a real hell-raiser.

Avigdor "Yanush" Ben-Gal in a Channel 1 interview in 2014 (YouTube screen grab)
Avigdor “Yanush” Ben-Gal in a Channel 1 interview in 2014 (YouTube screen grab)

“A wild man, he never walked the line and always did what he thought correct… His mouth and heart were also always in sync, and he would say what everyone [only] thought. He didn’t have standards. A normal country and army can’t hold a man like that for long,” he adds, before going on to explain that he actually means it all lovingly.

Ben-Gal may not have listened to anyone, but others certainly listened to him, writes Avigdor Kahalani in Israel Hayom.

“I remember Yanush in the many times we were under fire in the Yom Kippur War. We felt like we had a father who knew what to do and we would place our trust in him. His ability to lead washed over us and he caused us to stop the Syrians with forces that seemed unreasonable,” he writes. “He who informed me about the death of my brother and hugged me, crying, after we were stopped in the valley of tears. Yanush was a commander who turned into a friend with the years.”

The IDF may be worse off without its commander for the ages, but it’s still trying to improve its position where it comes to its bank account, which Haaretz reporting that large gaps remain between Israel and the US over a 10-year military aid package being negotiated.

The paper calls the figure “significant,” which is one way to describe a gap of possibly over $1.5 billion annually. While the US is prepared to up the current $3 billion figure by $400 million, Israel is looking for a $1 billion to $2 billion boost from Uncle Sam, according to the report.

Reporter Barak Ravid also notes that Netanyahu’s statement a week ago that he might hold off on agreeing to a new aid package until US President Barack Obama leaves office “enraged” the White House.

“Netanyahu and his people understood from the sharp American reaction that they had made a mistake. The official said Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, advised Netanyahu last week that despite the differences, it was in Israel’s interest to sign the agreement during Obama’s term and not to wait for the next president,” Ravid reports. “Netanyahu last week conveyed to the White House both in public statements and in back channels that he was interested in reaching an agreement, but would like a bigger aid deal.”

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