It’s taken as a point of pride by the organizers of the Olympics that their games are free of politics. Every four years, though, as the main event of the Summer Games rolls around, that point is exposed for the lie that it is, almost always with Israel caught in the middle. And every four years, the Jewish state’s athletes, pundits and citizens alike are shocked into disbelief by the levels of Israel hatred they encounter around the Games.
With the Olympics kicking off Friday (early Saturday Israel time), Rio finds itself front and center on Israeli front pages Sunday morning, but rather than purely celebratory, as it likely is elsewhere, coverage is characterized by the Sturm und drang of both the blue-and-white athletes’ poor reception and performance thus far, and tensions with the Lebanese team during the kick-off event.
“Celebration and disappointment,” reads the main front page headline of Israel Hayom, while inside it takes a more sanguine view with the headline “Olympic embarrassment,” leading off its coverage with a confrontation that nearly came to blows, by some accounts, when the Lebanese team refused to share a bus to the opening ceremony with their Israeli counterparts.
“It’s not clear if the organizing committee tried to cause a confrontation or maybe this was a big unsuccessful joke, but in practice the idea came off as the biggest mistake of the celebratory opening,” writes correspondent Miki Sagi from Rio.
In Haaretz, financial columnist Nehemia Shtrasler, for some reason dispatched to Rio, focuses not on the bus bust-up but another humiliation suffered by Israel at the opening ceremony.
“The only delegation to be treated to boos was the 101st, the Israelis. On the other hand, the Palestinian team was met with loud applause,” he writes.
But Shtrasler at least gives the Brazilians themselves a hand for what he says was a good show pulled off despite low expectations. “After the big opening and a day of competition, one can say quietly: Brazil pulled it off with respect.”
Not so in Yedioth Ahronoth, where the front page is filled with everything bad that happened at the Games, including what columnist Nadav Zenzifer calls “the height of modesty,” describing the “cheap” opening ceremony.
Yet the real disappointment belonged to Israel, according to diplomatic pundit Nahum Barnea, dispatched to Rio as well for some reason, who recounts Israeli athletes inability to get into medal rounds, as well as the bus and boos fiascos.
Barnea chalks up the bus affair to a local who didn’t know better and slams the Israeli team for not putting up a bigger fight and not raising a ruckus afterward. Given Brazil’s distance from the Middle East, though, he reads far more into the boos.
“Anyone who wants could be comforted by the fact that not all 60,000 spectators booed; there were here and there even some claps of support. Brazil has 7-10 million people with Arab heritage. One of those is acting president Michel Temer, who is of Lebanese extraction,” he writes. “But let’s not fool ourselves: Hatred of Israel crosses all boundaries of religion and heritage. The wild cheers received by the tiny Palestinian team are proof: We are labeled. Brazilians who have no clue where Israel is on the map, and who have no reason to know, still know that we are the bad guys.”
Israel Hayom columnist Oded Shalev also lets loose with internal criticism, calling Israeli officials’ decision to go along with a ban on broadcasting the bus-fuffle, and forbidding the delegation to speak to the press about it, “Chelmic,” in reference to the half-mythological shtetl of idiots.
“There was done here a massive injustice toward the Israeli athletes, who were forced to endure one big humiliation, and when they needed their Olympic committee to back them up they were met by a cold shoulder. And that is definitely an especially bad way to start the Rio Olympics,” he writes.
Internecine Israeli fighting is a time-worn tradition, as US President Barack Obama discovered over the weekend, when his claim that Israeli defense officials now support the Iran nuclear deal was met with a wholehearted “nu-uh” from those in the halls of power who do not in fact think the nuke agreement was a good play, another tiff which makes front page news.
Haaretz leads off its coverage with the news that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, almost certainly not among the officials Obama had in mind, went so far as to compare the deal to the 1938 Munich accords.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disavowed the comparison to the deal that didn’t prevent the Holocaust early Sunday, but not before Haaretz’s Amos Harel managed to squeeze in a column noting the allegory seemed Netanyahu-esque and scratching his head over why Jerusalem would seek to butt heads with the US while it has its hand out for defense aid.
“This wrangling with Washington – which happened during a week when National Security Adviser Jacob Nagel was visiting the United States in a very tardy attempt to sign the military aid agreement – probably doesn’t serve defense ties between the two countries,” he writes. “The prime minister and defense minister are fully within their rights to doubt the usefulness of the agreement with Iran. They may turn out to be right, even if many experts in the military and intelligence community currently think the opposite. But it’s hard to fathom the logic in releasing the statement Friday if Israel still seeks to improve its position regarding the aid agreement.”
In Yedioth, Yossi Yehoshua calls the move by Liberman to release the statement from the ministry and not his political office unprecedented, and opines that the real target was IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot and the rest of the IDF brass, who are being told to stop publicly speaking out in favor of the deal. The move puts Eisenkot, returning from a successful trip to the US, in a tough spot and sets up a power struggle with Liberman, he writes.
“Now one needs to ask what Liberman expects of Eisenkot in his next meeting with his American counterpart [Joseph] Dunford: To not give his professional opinion on Iran?”
Liberman likely won’t be issuing any apologies, but if he does it probably won’t be like Unilever, which runs full-page ads in the two tabloids (and a three-fifths page ad in broadsheet Haaretz) saying it’s “sorry” over a screw up which allowed salmonella-infected cornflakes into the Israeli marketplace.
The groveling comes alongside massive coverage of the scandal in all three papers, including in Yedioth, which leads its front page with the headline “Lies and tough questions,” regarding the “cornflakes absurdity.”
Those questions revolve around who knew what when and why Unilever and the Health Ministry didn’t do enough to stop it. Noting Unilever’s previous insistence that it had no obligation to tell anyone anything given that the cereal never reached Israeli bowls, it calls the admission that some boxes did get out an “about face.”
The Health Ministry, meanwhile, is considering taking drastic action against the company, and a special investigations team has been dispatched to the factory, the paper reports.
“The company lied to the public and to the Health Ministry and we view this severely,” the paper quotes a statement from Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s office. “We are considering whether to revoke their manufacturing license as we cannot rely on them.”