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Israel media review

Mutating worries: What the press is saying (now) about Omicron, kid shots and Iran

After following officials into panic mode over the Omicron variant, Tehran’s nuclear program and the slow pace of kid vaccinations, news outlets pull back to a less frenzied view

Travelers wearing protective face masks arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, Nov. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Travelers wearing protective face masks arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, Nov. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

1. Turning down the variant volume: The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is making waves around in the world, and the press here has dutifully followed along like a bloodhound, as the government first went into crisis mode and then pulled back to a less panicky wait-and-see approach.

  • On Sunday, the front pages of Israel’s three largest dailies all led big with Omicron “worries,” a word used by all three, including Yedioth Ahronoth, which devoted almost its whole front page to the new strain.
  • By Wednesday, the press appears to have moved on to some degree. Only Israel Hayom runs a lead story directly related to the variant threat, though it mostly zeroes in on a new drive to get kids vaccinated before the “fifth wave” hits. Haaretz’s lead story is tangentially related, in that it dives into criticism of the Shin Bet’s phone tracking program, which was okayed to be re-instituted Sunday to respond to the variant. And Yedioth fills almost its whole front page with stories about possible new abortion policies and an interview with Haredi musician-actor Shuli Rand.
  • “In the last few days there have been all kinds of assumptions in the press. Loud headlines and calculations based on guesses, logical as they were, are not real info. Everyone has an issue dealing with uncertainty, but after two years of a pandemic that has been characterized by a lack of certainty, it would be wise to have some patience,” writes Nadav Eyal for Yedioth on Wednesday, three days after prophesying that “it would be a severe mistake to not immediately put in place broad steps to stop the new variant.”
  • Online, most news sites Wednesday morning have other top stories, from yet more testimony from Nir Hefetz in the trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to new developments in the prison pimping scandal to Tel Aviv being named the world’s most expensive city.
  • That’s not to say Omicron is not in the news. Kan reports that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid went on vacation over the weekend, leaving Israel only a few hours before new rules went into effect regarding travel. Tsk tsk.
  • And Army Radio takes a walk down memory lane with former public health head Sigal Sedetsky, to mark two years since the first case of the coronavirus was found. “We were the first country to quickly close its borders and it’s a good thing, since at the end of the day we saw how the first wave was just a little hill, with 700 sick maximum,” she recalls wistfully.

2. Vaccinate, or else: The major coronavirus conversation Wednesday morning revolves around comments by coronavirus czar Salman Zarka to Radio FM103 that Israel should weigh introducing a national vaccine mandate compelling all citizens to get themselves inoculated against the coronavirus.

  • “There are 680,000 people in Israel who have not been vaccinated at all. We are constantly trying to reach them,” Zarka says. “It is quite clear to me that they are not vaccine refusers, but looking at what happened to us in the fourth wave of the epidemic, which hit the unvaccinated more than others, one has to consider how such people will be vaccinated.”
  • Zarka notes that he knows of no such legislation being considered, but just in case, Energy Minister Karine Elharrar tells Kan that she is against forcing vaccinations on people.
  • “I don’t know how that will work. I don’t see how we can require people to put a substance into their bodies,” she says.
  • “The only countries I know of that do that are dictatorships,” Minister Ze’ev Elkin tells Army Radio.
  • Israel Hayom focuses on just telling people to get the shot on pain of, ya know, getting COVID-19.
  • “As of yesterday, there were 8,195 Israeli who were tragically victims of the coronavirus. The vaccine doesn’t just protect you from serious illness and death, but it protects you from being infected with the disease, which even in its mild form can cause long-lasting effects,” warns Ran Reznik in Israel Hayom under the headline “Run to vaccinate!” as if this time the refusers will finally get it.
  • Just as the press eased off the fire alarm on Omicron to some degree, it is easing off the handwringing over the slow start to the kiddie vaccination campaign.
  • “The campaign just started last week and is already showing encouraging signs,” reports Channel 12, adding that some 90,000 kids, or 9% of eligible youngsters from the 5-11 set, have gotten the shot or are planning to.
  • “We planned for the slow start,” says Health Ministry director Nachman Ash. “It’s clear this is a sensitive area and parents would worry and take their time. It also started slow among the adolescents and at the end came to 60% vaccinated. I assume it will be the same for children’s vaccinations.”
  • Walla notes that only 3% have actually gotten the shot, but says that even that response rate is much better than it was during the first week of the 12- to 15-year-olds campaign, both in pure numbers and in percentages. “The numbers are surprisingly good, but given the new Omicron variant, the Health Ministry wants to be sure there’s a high vaccination among kids, and so according to estimations will next week begin vaccinating kids in school and not just at clinics,” it reports.

3. Nuked talks: The restart of Iran talks also gets the attention of the press, which mostly joins in the government’s lack of trust that anything will come of the agreement.

  • “To the Americans, Europeans and Israel too, it’s clear what brought the Iranians and to table, and it’s probably not goodwill: They wanted to keep from having the IAEA pass a decision against them, which could have led to wide sanctions being passed against them,” posits Kan’s Amichai Stein.
  • “Iran wants to appear interested in negotiation and agreement,” Eytan Gilboa of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security tells ToI’s Lazar Berman. “But it’s not clear at all they are willing to make the concessions necessary to achieve an agreement.”
  • Berman, however, warns that any Plan B is likely not much of a plan at all. “[Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett’s ideologically unwieldy coalition would likely be torn apart by a [military] strike,” he writes. “If a military strike is not Plan B, the other options aren’t likely to change Iranian behavior. The US could try to add more sanctions with Chinese and Russian support, and it could try to increase pressure through UN Security Council resolutions. It could also agree to a limited ‘less-for-less’ deal with Iran that only deals with specific aspects of Tehran’s nuclear program.”
  • Speaking to Army Radio, former Mossad head Efraim Halevy warns watchers to overlook China at their own risk: “China is a significant player in the talks. It’s not ready for a confrontation over the nukes and so has an interest in the Iranians coming away with something. It will be interesting to see how they act, no less than the US.”
  • In Israel Hayom, Doron Matza also says that Israel’s threats of military action don’t have much teeth: “Let us lay our cards on the table: Israel is unable to launch a campaign in Iran to take out the country’s nuclear program. This option exists primarily in TV studios,” he writes. “Not only is an open war with Iran operationally too much for regional powers to take on but it is doubtful stability- and economic prosperity-seeking Israel would be able to deal with the outcome of such a war and the need to contend the day after with a never-ending ‘trickle’ of long-range missiles and drones on its cities in particular. Israeli citizens would likely show the same ability to deal with the situation as they did with coronavirus restrictions.”
  • Alon Pinkas calls in Haaretz for a dose of reality regarding what’s at stake in the nuclear talks and what Israel can reasonably do about it.
  • “The idea that Iran can only be effectively dealt with and deterred by the application of further pressure through heavier sanctions and by introducing a credible military threat seems and sounds like a sensible policy. After all, according to this logic, Iran is empowered and emboldened by a favorable cost-effective matrix. It simply was never made to pay for its actions and policies with regard to its nuclear program and regional ambitions,” he writes.
  • “Once Iran was faced with genuinely ‘crippling sanctions’ that would exact a hefty economic price and once it realized the ominous specter of a military strike against it, it would become amenable to a new, improved JCPOA deal and its military nuclear program would be severely debilitated. Furthermore, according to this approach, such pressure would likely set in motion a regime-changing dynamic. This is the comfort food of foreign policy. Where and when did this happen last? Right. It didn’t. Wishful thinking is a very natural and human concept. However, it is neither a strategy nor a coherent policy,” Pinkas adds.

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