Missed the train
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Hebrew media review

Missed the train

A coalition crisis (or commuting nightmare) looms over railwork on Shabbat, and Russia forges ahead with carving up Syria, with or without Jerusalem’s or Damascus’s okay

Travelers at central Tel Aviv's central Savidor station checking a schedule, where no trains northbound are listed, on September 3, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Travelers at central Tel Aviv's central Savidor station checking a schedule, where no trains northbound are listed, on September 3, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

As the sun rose on a soggy Israel Thursday morning, a Vanity Fair story was breaking that provides new details into a daring raid by Israeli commandos into the heart of Syria that US President Donald Trump shockingly blabbed to the Russians about.

While Israeli news sites played up the theatrical details of the raid, Americans (at least on Twitter) seemed to latch onto a fact buried in the story, that American spies had apparently warned their Israeli counterparts that Trump may have been “leveraged” by Moscow and couldn’t be trusted.

As the story notes though, that was reported in Israeli media months ago, meaning the Americans missed it by not reading the Israeli press or a daily translated roundup (ahem).

But if American NatSec pundits do decide to start reading the Israeli press, Thursday may not seem like the right day for it, with a story as domestic as they come dominating the news landscape: a looming crisis over whether railway work will be allowed on Shabbat.

But while the story may seem like something no outsider would care about, papers make it clear that what makes the story so important is the fact that a coalition crisis is threatening to form around whether the trains run on time, or at all, meaning it could imperil the continued rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Both Yedioth Ahronoth and Haaretz use the words “Shabbat crisis” on their front pages, but their headlines diverge when it comes to deciding what part of the crisis to highlight. To Haaretz, the crisis is that there may be no trains, with Israel Rail threatening that unless work is allowed to go forward over the weekend, “they will suspend service next week.”

In Yedioth’s headline, the crisis is that the coalition could fall apart over the issue, with the ultra-Orthodox threatening to bolt over the issue. Yet the paper also notes that by ultra-Orthodox they mean only the United Torah Judaism Party — and not even all its members, with UTJ MK Moshe Gafni refusing to stand by UTJ head Yaakov Litzman and Aryeh Deri, head of other ultra-Orthodox Knesset faction, Shas, opposing the threat as well.

“Deri and Gafni understand that if Litzman brings down the government over Shabbat work, he’ll just help [Yesh Atid head] Yair Lapid in the election,” a source close to the two renegades explains in the paper.

In the same paper, columnist Chen Artzi-Srour calls the whole hubbub “small ball politics instead of a real discussion.”

“Shabbat is important to me. I believe it’s important to most Israelis. That’s why we need as a society to have a deep discussion over how we want the public sphere to look on this holy day, instead of turning it into a farce,” she writes. “That’s exactly the role of leadership, to remove these roadblocks and sketch out legislative borders via thoughtful dialogue with all citizens and not with a powerful, inflexible minority. But when the only thing that’s important is political survival, the public’s needs are thrown out.”

Israel Hayom also puts the train crisis on its front page, accompanying it with a picture of a crowded station meant to telegraph the chaos that will ensue if the trains are shut down, though a more appropriate (and nearly as relevant) picture might have been an LA freeway right before Thanksgiving.

But while the tabloid only devotes a few piddly paragraphs to the story, it gives prime double-truck real estate to what it calls a “new Syrian order,” after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Iranian and Turkish counterparts on ending the war there. The paper plays the meeting as a sort of modern-day Sykes-Picot, with an absent Assad playing the role of the Arab regional leader whose fate is decided by the great powers, which is exactly what he is.

“Assad’s absence at the summit speaks to his standing there,” the paper notes. “The Russian, Turks and Iranians are dividing up Syria into areas of influence without asking permission, since Assad knows the future of his regime depends on them.”

Columnist Eyal Zisser writes in the paper that though it has no part in the workings of this anti-American trio, Israel is being dragged into the matter anyway, and seems to hint that Jerusalem may be willing to go along with it.

“Israel is being asked not to mess with and even to make peace with Iran’s continued presence in Syria. In exchange, the Russians will make sure to keep Iran away from the Golan border and one would think it would turn a blind eye to Israeli actions against threats on the northern front,” he writes. “This is what Putin called Netanyahu for, since he does see an Israeli role, even under protest, if the deal to to follow the Russian way.”

In Haaretz, Zvi Bar’el notes that another player left out of the equation, rebel-backing Saudi Arabia, is actually making some shrewd moves of its own to try and get Iran out of Syria, though it does not seem to be totally working.

“Saudi Arabia has sponsored a large group of rebel organizations in the ‘rebel coalition’ and is straining to advance its own demand that Iran be blocked from continuing to take control over Syria. Pursuant to this endeavor, Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of forcing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign, in order to pull the rug from under the feet of Iran and Hezbollah by paralyzing Lebanon politically and economically,” he writes. “But there was no plan for the eventuality that Iran and Hezbollah would dig in their heels and give up on Hariri, who had given Hezbollah diplomatic and military legitimacy to do whatever it pleased in Lebanon.”

Bar’el also notes that the Russians will apparently let Assad stay on, at least until elections are held, at which point he may be forced to skedaddle. The changing of the guard in Syria may be painful, but in Israel’s Likud party, it has apparently been pretty seamless, with Yedioth Ahronoth reporting that the switchover from the Menachem Begin-style old guard to the fightin’ Netanyahus is now complete with the booting of — who else — Benny Begin, from a powerful Knesset committee, in favor of outspoken Netanyahu ally David Bitan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Likud MK Benny Begin during a plenum session in the Knesset, August 1, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Columnist Sima Kadmon bemoans the fact that Begin was kicked out for not supporting a law meant to protect Netanyahu from prosecution, running out words to express her displeasure.

“It’s already impossible to use phrases like ‘they have no shame,’ or ‘where is their shame,’” she writes, possibly recognizing her own cliches. “For a while now ‘shame’ has left the lexicon of the Knesset. This is a place that challenges the word disgusting.”

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