1. Floating in the fourth: After days in which the Beirut port disaster dominated headlines, the attention of the Israeli press has shifted to an oldie but (not so) goodie, namely rampant speculation over new elections amid political wrangling and the coronavirus pandemic.
- News that the government has yet to set an agenda for a cabinet meeting, or even officially call one, is seen as the latest in a number of signs that elections are on the horizon, despite everybody and their mother saying that the last thing Israel needs is to go back to the polls.
- The agenda for the weekly cabinet meeting — held Sundays — is normally published on Thursdays, though it can be published on Friday and some items can even be added on Saturday morning in exceptional cases, as happened several weeks ago.
- However, not since the current unity government was formed in May — and probably not for years — has no item been put on the agenda this late in the week, according to reports, as the sides squabble over whether to pass a budget for the rest of 2020 only, as Likud prefers, or one through 2021, which Blue and White wants and which their coalition agreement stipulates.
- “The crisis between Blue and White and Likud is on the cusp of exploding. For the first time in years, and maybe ever, there is no agenda,” frets Channel 12 analyst Amit Segal, noting that the lack of agenda is due to the fact that each party has veto power over agenda items.
- “Blue and White is demanding to bring up a rule change that would give it an equal voice in any vote. The Likud has refused, despite the coalition agreement, and seems to be preparing the ground for passing the budget.”
- “Galloping toward elections,” reads the top front-page headline in Yedioth.
- An unnamed “senior” Likud member tells Army Radio that “From our view that there won’t be a cabinet meeting, it’s quite clear that we are headed to more elections.”
- Named Likud MK Ram Shefa tells Kan that elections are not a given, but even he doesn’t seem convinced: “We are involved in talks with them. It’s possible to prevent more elections, but it will take a lot of courage.”
- Ynet journalist Atilla Somfalvi tweets a picture of what he says is a message from a Likud minister close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that “this evening it’s 70-30 in favor of elections.”
- And yet another sign comes from Globes reporter Tal Schneider, who tweets what she says a screenshot from someone interacting with Netanyahu’s Facebook chatbot on Thursday. “I need your help more than ever for the upcoming elections,” says the Netanyahu-bot.
- Topaz Luk, a member of Netanyahu’s communications team, tweets back that it’s simply an old message that they never removed.
2. Bibi’s real crime: The idea of new elections is met with widespread dread and seen as a sign of the government’s dysfunction.
- In Walla, Tal Shalev notes that the Netanyahu and Blue and White head Benny Gantz have taken to publicly jousting for credit over a number of things — for instance aid offers to Lebanon and the development of a coronavirus vaccine — which she sees as another sign of the coalition’s imminent collapse.
- “Fights over credit in the Knesset and government are standard and acceptable in normal times, and usually just elicit chuckles. But in the case of Netanyahu and Gantz, they point to the total lack of synchronization between the two these days, which is not only not funny, but an omen of a sad future,” she writes.
- With polls showing Likud slipping to 29 or 30 seats — still the largest party by far — pundits/critics begin trotting out rote columns/rants about how this time the public understands how terrible Netanyahu is.
- “The coronavirus has popped the balloon. More and more people understand that he is no genius or magician. Just a simple criminal defendant, who is trying with all his might to save himself from the district court where he is being made to answer for the severe charges against him,” writes former Shin Bet chief and frequent Netanyahu critic Yuval Diskin in Yedioth. “Since he is no real leader and since he only cares about himself, he’s managed to bring the country to its most severe socio-economic crisis.
- Haaretz’s Yossi Verter bashes Netanyahu over a speech he gave at the Knesset at which he attacked his critics — and maybe tried out some campaign slogans — apparently offended at the fact that Netanyahu dared to try to push back at a special session literally called to give the opposition a chance to rip into him in person.
- “If we find ourselves facing a fourth election after the August 24 deadline for passing a state budget goes unmet, Netanyahu’s address in the Knesset Wednesday will go down as the campaign’s opening volley. The obtuseness and the disconnectedness of the man who will be responsible for this crime against the people and the country – and there is no other word for it – couldn’t be clearer,” he writes, heaping on hyperbole like it’s going out of style.
3. Only good little countries get to avoid lockdowns: Israel Hayom’s top headline reads “Last chance,” but it’s not referring to elections. Rather it tops a column by coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, who has joined Netanyahu in endlessly threatening renewed lockdowns if Israel doesn’t somehow defeat the virus over the next several weeks, as if the country has been actively harboring and encouraging the virus and needs to be threatened with punishment like a child.
- “We’ve managed by keeping the rules to bring about a stabilization of around 1,500 to 2,000 cases a day, but in order to bring the number down to hundreds of daily cases it will take much more effort. Unless we all make this effort, it won’t happen,” Gamzu writes, without detailing what people need to do differently beyond “keeping the rules.”
- “The process of bringing down the number of infections will take a few weeks and avoid a lockdown, but demands a coronavirus routine of everyone keeping the rules. I’m paddling against all the odds in order to bring it down without a closure, by encouraging cooperation and enhancing the level of public trust.”
- In the same paper, Hagai Levine, head of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, writes that shutdowns should not be the last resort, but taken off the table as an option completely, claiming that they don’t work and end up killing more people than they help.
- “Reinstating a full shutdown now will do enormous damage to Israel, which should be assessed before a step like this is taken. We learned about the harm shutdowns do, and their questionable effectiveness, in the first wave. Especially an extreme, disproportionate shutdown like the one Israel declared, which limited people’s freedom of movement to a 100-meter [110-yard] radius from their homes. A shutdown of this type would certainly lead to hundreds of people dying because they did not seek medical treatment for chronic or emergency conditions, and indirect deaths resulting from the huge social and economic harm that especially afflict the weaker and poorer sectors of society,” Levine writes.
- News that Israel is starting to develop its own vaccine, and will start human trials in a few months, engenders excitement, pride and some confusion over when the vaccine will actually be ready, though few seems to entertain the possibility that the vaccine might not work.
- Speaking to Army Radio, Health Ministry chief Chezy Levy tries to calm some of the excitement: “We are not at a stage where the Israeli vaccine is close to mass development … we’re talking at least months. I don’t see how in the first quarter of 2021 there will be vaccines as a mass solution.”
- The station notes that opposition leader Yair Lapid used the Levy interview to go after Gantz, writing on Twitter that “Gantz announced excitedly yesterday that we are close to a vaccine and a Health Ministry head said this morning that it is far off. Who to believe?”
- Not Lapid, since he should actually be aiming his fire at Netanyahu, who is the one that claimed the vaccine would be available by the first quarter of 2021.
- While Israelis are busy squabbling over lockdowns and timelines, ToI’s Aaron Boxerman reports on East Jerusalem, where there appears to be a large, and largely unnoticed, untracked and untreated outbreak among Palestinians.
- Local officials and others tell Boxerman that the city really reached out to the largely underserved population during the first wave of the virus, but that has now stopped.
- “There’s no coordination anymore, nothing. I keep asking myself why no one’s working with us… I feel like East Jerusalem residents have nowhere left to turn,” says Silwan community activist Hani Ghaith.
4. Hezbollah unmoored? East Jerusalem, especially areas beyond the West Bank security barrier, may be being ignored, but Israelis are seemingly chomping at the bit to help out Beirut.
- Prof. Elhanan Bar-On, director of the Sheba-based Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response tells ToI’s Nathan Jeffay that he is in talks about sending an ‘ad hoc hospital’ in his words, or even just doctors, to a third country where Israelis can treat Lebanese, since Beirut is unlikely to accept their help directly.
- “We are ready to go within hours,” he says.
- Yedioth Ahronoth is helping out, meanwhile, by trying to connect the dots between the blast and Hezbollah, reporting that Wafiq Safa, the group’s security chief, had a senior position at the port.
- “He is responsible for ‘special deliveries’ at the Beirut Port. He was in the know about the secret of the Rhosus docking, and knew it had 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. Safa hid the information from the Lebanese authorities,” the paper reports, without citing a source.
- The report runs counter to almost all reporting about the ship, which was not docked in secret, and the fact that documents show customs officials in recent years made up to six requests to judicial officials asking that the ammonium nitrate be moved, citing port safety.
- While Hezbollah’s exact role in the storage of the ammonium nitrate remains unclear, Haaretz’s Amos Harel writes that the group does have a thing for placing Lebanese civilians in harm’s way.
- “The Shi’ite organization is basing its strategy – more intensively since the end of the last war – on dispersing its headquarters and weaponry in the heart of the civilian population, in the hope that the inhabitants will serve as human shields,” he writes. “Even though Israel had nothing to do with this week’s explosion, that threat [of Israeli attack] will now sound louder, with the devastated port being a warning sign.”
- Those threats (and history of actual violence) are a big reason why many Lebanese rejected Tel Aviv’s display of solidarity. But Kan reports that some in Lebanon actually appreciated city hall lighting up with their flag: “The Foreign Ministry says it got messages and responses from Lebanese who thanked Israel for the move, on their Arab-language pages on social media.”
5. Mourning a modern Rashi: Rabbi and scholar Adin Steinsaltz, most well-known for publishing a compendium of the Talmud meant to be widely accessible, is widely mourned and remembered in the press after news of his death on Friday morning.
- “The passing of Rabbi Steinsaltz is a huge loss for the world of Torah and the world of culture. He is the modern Rashi. A man who believed with all his heart in the democratization of knowledge. Everyone has the right to learn,” tweets Yedioth columnist Chen Artzi Srour.
- Walla news notes that “the rabbi’s activities won him recognition in Israel and throughout the world. TIME magazine called him a ‘once-in-a-millenium scholar,’ and in Jewish communities around the world they study his exegeses every day.”
- That quote comes from a 2001 profile in which historian Zeev Katz compared him to not just Rashi but also Maimonides.
- But Army Radio’s Shachar Glick pays tribute to the rabbi by recalling that he himself tried to avoid being placed in a box, quoting from an interview in which he said that “the biggest thing for me is to try hard not to be boxed in. I think I succeeded. If you want to put me in some classification I say, I’m either too big for it, or it’s too crowded for me, or that I don’t want to sit in their cages.”
- ToI’s Marissa Newman writes that “A longtime educator, prolific author of over 60 books, and Israel Prize laureate, Steinsaltz … was also a physicist and chemist, a biting social critic, and a beloved public figure in Israel — revered for his encyclopedic mind, and admired for his down-to-earth and kindly bearing.”
- She also elucidates through his own words, recalling his final interview, in 2016 to the Ben Gurion University periodical “Israelis,” before he lost the ability to speak.
- “I never thought about what will be written on my tombstone, it doesn’t really preoccupy me,” he said then. “But I am concerned by what will be remembered. I did something, but I didn’t do enough, I didn’t even do a fraction of the things I wanted to do. I wrote such-and-such books — very nice. I gave such-and-such lectures — very nice. I wrote articles like sand on the seashore; it’s not enough. What would I have wanted to do? I would want to leave [behind] a small tree that will grow.”