Israel media review

Patriarch of the cave: What the press is saying on October 18

Netanyahu is accused of ceding to ultra-Orthodox pressure and dooming Israel to Lockdown 3 by okaying red zones’ preschools, and barely peeping as regular schools open there too

Young children at a kindergarten in Yashresh, Israel, on October18, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)
Young children at a kindergarten in Yashresh, Israel, on October 18, 2020. Also, perhaps a metaphor for the country's leadership.(Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

1. Spelunking with the Haredim: There are a few ways to look at Israel’s opening gambol out of a month-long nationwide lockdown, and specifically the last-minute decision to allow cities in high infection zones to open their preschools along with the rest of the country.

  • You can look at the decision like most of the mainstream press does, as a case of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu giving in to political pressure from his ultra-Orthodox allies. That’s how Yedioth Ahronoth sees it, with an unequivocal single word headline across its front page: Caving.
  • The same word is used on Haaretz’s top headline, and both papers, among other news outlets, see Israel heading right back to where it was, thanks to the political pressures and a general lack of preparedness.
  • “The decision to open preschools without capsules cancels, in effect, the closure on red cities by opening their preschool system,” writes Sarit Rosenbloom in Yedioth. “The decision proves again what we have seen endless times over the last months: We have nobody to rely on.”
  • “Like the last time, there are signs of an ill-considered and uncontrolled exit that could mean a new lockdown in a month or two,” writes Amos Harel in Haaretz.
  • He adds that opening preschools in red cities, almost all of which are majority ultra-Orthodox, “is a dangerous gamble because these cities and neighborhoods are suffering a ratio of carriers five to 10 times higher than the rest of the population. Also, it turns out that in many ultra-Orthodox locales, the intent is to open all the boys’ schools without restrictions, against government directives.”
  • Former education minister Shai Piron tells Army Radio that “the prime minister has no way to prevent factional hatred other than opening schools a certain way.”
  • Officials insisted ad nauseum over the weekend that the decision to open preschools in the red cities is based on solid health data, which is how Israel Hayom apparently chooses to look at it.
  • The pro-government paper plays down the decision, which gets barely any mention in its main news story. A column from former Health Ministry director Shuki Shamir focuses on the importance of the general population keeping the directives.
  • “The big fear is that announcing the end of the lockdown will be seen as a pass to discard all of the most basic things demanded of us to keep infections low — as a sort of victory shout. It can’t be this way,” he writes.

2. School of no locks: Or you can celebrate the decision and demand more, like ultra-Orthodox leaders who have decided to open schools in their communities, where infections are highest, while everyone else continues to distance learn.

  • A headline in Israel Hayom — “Rabbi Kanievsky: Open yeshivas; Netanyahu and Gantz: No, don’t” — gives a pretty good idea of the power dynamic at play and how committed authorities are to actually stop the defiance.
  • The ultra-Orthodox Yated Neeman newspaper plays up a Channel 12 report that police said they cannot enforce the ban on Haredim opening schools, basically taunting the rest of the country by running it as their top story.
  • “We can’t enforce the closure of Talmud Torah [schools]; we’ll be dealing with civil unrest,” reads the headline/threat.
  • “You can say that the anarchists on the Haredi street won,” says Kan’s Akiva Novick. “Those who caused the ultra-Orthodox cities to lead the roster of red zones — there won’t be any significant enforcement on them.”
  • Senior police official Ziv Sagiv confirms to Army Radio the lack of enforcement planned. “There won’t be any pictures of police commandos dispersing kids from a school entrance. It’s not smart to put cops on the front lines. We will enforce in the ultra-Orthodox community in line with government policies.”
  • Channel 12’s Amit Segal, who has clearly never seen “The Wire,” asks what the big problem is enforcing the rules among ultra-Orthodox: “Policeman Moishe should pick up the phone and call the Education Ministry and get a list of addresses [of Talmud Torah schools], and call up Zehava from operations and send two cops in the morning to every Talmud Torah that opens.”
  • “Netanyahu’s weak calls yesterday are infuriating, especially the VIP discounts certain sectors get for being cherished or feared by those in power,” he adds. “I would expect Netanyahu and his ministers … to take an iron fist to those calling for civil unrest.”
  • Ynet reports that in Beitar Illit, despite there being almost no police presence, locals are rioting anyway “against the symbolic enforcement.”

3. The dog ate my exit plan: There are also plenty of tales of woe outside the ultra-Orthodox community, with authorities accused of being totally unprepared as preschools get back on track, including by parents excited to finally be free of the rugrats for a couple hours.

  • “I believe they’ll keep the guidelines well enough and it will be fine. I’m not afraid of that,” one mother dropping her kid off tells Walla news. “I’m more afraid about the way the country is being run. I’m trying to be optimistic and think they won’t open the economy too quickly or allow red cities to open.”
  • Shani Kalfon, who owns a daycare, tells Kan that “the preschools are opening in a totally irresponsible way that characterizes all the behavior since the start of the outbreak. On Friday they told us they are opening, on Sunday we open — no preparations, and nobody in the country cares about these ages. Shambles, with no capsules.”
  • Former Education Ministry director Shmuel Abuav tells Army Radio that the school system was not prepared for splitting kids into smaller classes to keep infection rates lower. “It was not prepared, not ready and unable to disperse first and second grades and preschools. Dispersion like this would have required enlisting 30,000 more teachers and daycare providers, and would require finding nearly 10,000 alternate physical spaces, and more than two months of organizational work.”
  • Channel 13 reports that a union of teachers and daycare workers is already threatening to strike over what they say is the Education Ministry refusing to implement necessary health precautions.

4. 3 fast, 3 furious? Taken all together, pundits are almost united in fearing a repeat of the bad old days, and blaming the government.

  • “The conduct of the Netanyahu government raises the fear that the lessons that would preclude a third lockdown have not been learned. This is true for the resumption of early childhood education and also in regard to cooperation among government organizations, with the piratical declaration of many Haredi communities that they will in any event reopen educational institutions in ‘red’ towns, those with high coronavirus infection rates,” reads the lead editorial in Haaretz.
  • Channel 12’s Dana Weiss writes that coverage of the reopening of schools is a waste of time: “We could just copy and paste the stories from the first opening. The same fears, the same warnings from caretakers and parents that the plan is impractical and unsafe. The same unorganized circus,” she writes.
  • She also accuses the cabinet of acting “in a disproportionate way, certainly not equitably and not matter-of-factly, but through giving in to political considerations.”
  • “Before our eyes we are seeing a creeping deja vu, as if the tragic memory of the first march of folly has been completely forgotten. Memory that should have been seared into the minds of decision-makers and not burnt to ash,” writes Sever Plotzker in Yedioth.

5. Making (interim) history: There’s also deja vu of another kind, with another historic flight from Israel to the Gulf, this time to Bahrain, though excitement is somewhat more muted, to a point that even official announcements and fanfare can’t cover up.

  • “For the Bahrainis, this is a historic day. They see it as an important event and are very moved [by] it,” ToI’s Raphael Ahren quotes a senior Israeli official saying ahead of the trip. “The potential here is huge, from a diplomatic perspective, but also economically. And they see it exactly the same way.”
  • Ahren notes that “officials in the tiny Gulf kingdom see the short trip — Israelis will be on the ground for about seven hours — as the Bahraini counterpart to the historic US-Israel delegation to Abu Dhabi on August 31, during which officials laid the groundwork for the UAE-Israel treaty signed two weeks later at the White House.”
  • However, Walla news reports that there are some key differences: “Walla has learned that the Bahrainis requested that the agreement be an interim deal in the guise of a joint statement and not a full ‘peace treaty.’ The reason is because of internal criticism over normalization with Israel inside the kingdom and a desire for a more gradual process than the UAE used.”
  • According to Haaretz: “Israeli Foreign Ministry officials call the agreements that will be signed in Manama the ‘joint declaration on establishing diplomatic relations and peace,’ as opposed to the ‘Declaration of Peace’ that was signed in September. An Israeli diplomat said that even though these documents do not have the same legal force as an official peace agreement – and for that reason will not be submitted to the United Nations, as the accord with the UAE was – ‘it will be a de facto peace treaty in every way, and after it is signed full diplomatic relations will obtain between the states.’”
  • Israel Hayom quotes a Bahraini diplomat saying that “we are aware of the criticism in Bahrain and Arab countries over brokering ties with Israel and have taken them into account, but that will not stop the advancement of ties between the countries before a full peace agreement.”
  • Army Radio surmises that the lack of excitement over the deal is the reason behind the extremely short visit to Bahrain, a suggestion rejected by Foreign Ministry director Alon Ushpiz: “There’s no attempt to raise or lower the profile, the only consideration is the coronavirus.”
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