1. Still harping over Harpaz: With the novel coronavirus seemingly slain, or at least Israelis hoping it is, the nation is moving on to other battles: political, military and of the more skullduggerish variety.
- Israel Hayom leads off, and then some, with a Likud-led campaign seeking to discredit Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit over his role in an affair so old it involved alternate prime minister-to-be Benny Gantz when he was just a wee candidate for IDF chief of staff.
- The Harpaz affair, which I won’t torture you by recounting, is once again back on the media agenda as right-wingers and Netanyahu backers seek to readjudicate Mandelblit’s role from when he was military advocate general.
- “Mandelblit and Ashkenazi owe the public an explanation,” reads the top headline of Israel Hayom, blasted across almost its whole front page.
- What has sparked the paper’s ire is a claim made during a panel discussion on Channel 13 news Friday night during which presenter Ayala Hasson claimed to have knowledge of concerns that Mandelblit may have helped former IDF Chief Gabi Ashkenazi obfuscate his role in the sordid case. Tapes of their conversations exist, but are under gag order.
- Israel Hayom’s coverage tracks closely with Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s Facebook complaint in which he went after both Mandelblit and former prosecutor Shai Nitzan, after another Channel 13 report in which it alleged he had accessed his work computer after leaving the post (Nitzan says such activity is normal for outgoing public servants).
- “Mandelblit needs to recuse himself,” Israel Hayom columnist Jacob Bardugo writes.
- As for the Nitzan claims, despite Ohana saying he wants State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman to investigate, Channel 13 cites sources close to the watchdog, who has been criticized for defanging himself, saying in this case as well, he likely won’t launch a probe.
2. Raking the muck to one side: Limor Semian Darash, another columnist for the paper, calls Hasson’s claims, which are not backed up by any evidence, an “atomic bomb going off.”
- Other right-wing sites also smell blood, pouncing on what little they have to go off of and transcribing her various interviews given to morning talk shows as she speaks about what she claims is a campaign of intimidation against her by the prosecution and other powerful people with friends in high places.
- “Ashkenazi once told someone, ‘bring her in, we’ll set her straight,’” she tells Galei Israel, in an interview described by by the Srugim website as her being “almost in tears.”
- Speaking to Kan radio, she alleges a conspiracy in which the prosecution et al gags what’s inconvenient to them and goes after those who don’t toe the line.
- “I don’t get their leaks, I don’t eat out of their hands and then sit in the studio all day and cheer. So I dared to criticize them. As far as favorable coverage and all that jazz, listen, the pressure doesn’t always come directly to me, they send their bulldogs and write lies and publish lies and try to scare me.”
- The 0404 website, essentially a far right-wing aggregator, reports that it has filed a lawsuit for tapes of Mandelblit and Ashkenazi to be made public.
- In a sign of how partisan the affair is, Hasson’s words get little play in non right-wing press.
- Yedioth Ahronoth writes that the campaign against Mandelblit is connected to the upcoming start of Netanyahu’s trial.
- “The brass in the prosecution assume that supporters of the prime minister will step up their attacks as the trial gets closer — mainly through social media.”
3. Shuffle kerfuffle: There are also other political fights ramping up as the government’s swearing-in nears.
- Channel 12’s Daphna Liel writes that within Likud there is a scramble for various ministers to be shuffled into better positions or at least not demoted, but everything will have to wait until the issue of who gets the Health Ministry is sorted. “Will it stay with Likud, or go to Gantz, or maybe go to Yamina to bring them into the government. These factors could have a major effect on the map of portfolio distributions,” she writes.
- As of Sunday afternoon, though, Yamina appears to be out, with the party releasing a statement saying it’s heading to the opposition to plan for the day after Netanyahu.
- Kan reports that the statement was not well received within Yamina, with Ayelet Shaked opposing the language and Rafi Peretz not even being aware of it.
- “Senior party sources say that from their point of view, the door is still open to talks with Likud to try to get to an agreement.”
- The party denies that report, but may rethink that, with right-wing news site Israel National News reporting on several prominent right-wing figures urging it to get itself into the government in order to push annexation.
- “Take part in the sovereignty government,” reads a headline on the article, paraphrase Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi’s counsel.
4. Annex and sanction: Annexation will be high on the agenda for the upcoming visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Israel, a trip finally confirmed by the State Department on Friday.
- Pompeo will only be in Israel for a few hours, but will have a whole lot on his plate according to various reports.
- Haaretz leads off its A1 by focusing on Israel’s attempts to push for continued harsh sanctions on Iran, which will be a major topic during the talks.
- “Israel’s diplomatic efforts against Iran include not only a pressure campaign around the world and at international institutions against any easing of the sanctions, as a humanitarian gesture, but also a campaign to outlaw the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, particularly its political wing, as well as attempts to curtail Tehran’s influence and capabilities inside Syria and Lebanon. That’s in addition to the ongoing effort against Iran’s violations of its international nuclear accord, senior Israeli diplomats have told Haaretz in recent weeks,” the paper reports.
- West Bank annexation is also thought to be on the agenda. The AP reports, “The top US diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker, declined to comment on the status of the annexation discussions, noting that a joint U.S.-Israeli mapping committee had not yet completed its work in determining the specific boundaries that might be proposed by Israel or accepted by the United States.”
- In Israel Hayom, which has been pushing annexation, the Pompeo visit barely gets a mention, but on its op-ed page Doron Matza calls annexing part of the West Bank “on a historic scale that will recalibrate Israeli politics’ center of gravity,” calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “the apparent heir of David Ben-Gurion, including in terms of his importance to the country.”
- A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute published Sunday finds that 44 percent of Israelis back annexation, though the IDI, and many outlets, portray it the other way around, since by only counting Jews, 52 percent back annexation.
- In al-Monitor, Ben Caspit writes that one more issue one Pompeo’s agenda will be China, particularly the US’s attempts to pull Israel out of the sinosphere: “The Americans are continuing to warn Israel about the growing Chinese involvement in major infrastructure projects and senior Israeli officials say the issue is overshadowing the flourishing US-Israel ties, especially against the backdrop of increased US-China tensions over the novel coronavirus crisis.”
5. No masks for Mikes: Though Pompeo will be coming from an administration being increasingly sent into quarantine as the virus sweeps through the White House, he will apparently be exempt from Israel’s tight restrictions on the entry of foreigners.
- According to Channel 13 news, US and Israeli teams are coordinating special health checks that will allow Pompeo and his team to bypass Jerusalem’s unevenly enforced rules.
- Dr. William Walters, the US State Department’s deputy chief medical officer, said Friday that everyone flying with Pompeo will be tested for the virus one or two days before the flight, will be checked for symptoms before boarding, and will wear face coverings during the trip.
- The trip comes as new questions have been raised regarding the White House’s apparent allergy to social distancing and hygiene regulations. According to the Intercept, US Vice President Mike Pence’s team actively asked people meeting him publicly to take off their masks.
- At a later meeting with faith leaders, Des Moines Rabbi David Kaufman, who told Pence that synagogues are not ready to begin welcoming congregants back, was the only clergy member to wear a mask.
Des Moines Iowa Rabbi David Kaufman @RavDK remarks to @VP Pence during interfaith #coronavirus meeting.
"Thank you for all of your support for Jewish community and for Israel over years… We are people who like to hug. We like to eat together"
Full video: https://t.co/ajYBfp4mzM pic.twitter.com/9h1Tn5arUA
— Howard Mortman (@HowardMortman) May 9, 2020
- A picture tweeted out by the White House shows Pompeo meeting with Trump and other top officials with barely any social distancing and certainly no masks.
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 9, 2020
- “No masks, no social distancing, no head of Navy, no diversity, and a nice but perhaps not useful map,” chides CNN’s Barbara Starr.
6. Close-knit, maybe too much so: Israel meanwhile is trying to open up while staying socially distanced. It’s not easy.
- Soldiers were given their first normal furlough over the weekend, but the rush to get back to base Sunday leads to reports of heavy crowding and no social distancing during a commute which even under regular circumstances normally entails crowding buses and trains.
- An official from the Transportation Ministry tells Channel 12 news that the military’s decision to allow soldiers back on buses had not been made in coordination with it.
- “Public transportation has not yet returned to full routine and is very busy early in the morning — the bus stations have become a real incubator for the coronavirus, and it is clear who is responsible for it,” the unnamed source says.
- One passenger named Tamir tells the Ynet news site that he had to travel from Jerusalem to Beersheba, but at the central bus station in the capital he was faced with a long wait in crowded conditions.
- “There were young people and soldiers there, and anyone in a group deemed at risk [from the virus] would have been insane to wait there,” he says.
- Israel is not the US, though, where the still-spreading virus has seemingly only exacerbated tensions. Rather, ToI editor David Horovitz finds hope in the Israeli response to the crisis, which he says is marked by a unique sense of cohesion.
- “We’ve shown that we can hang tough, and hang together, throughout our brief modern history. We wouldn’t have survived otherwise. The constant terror onslaught of the Second Intifada would have destroyed less resilient societies,” he writes. “The demands of conscription — to an army that is frequently required to defend this country, with each young generation’s lives all too often put on the line — make for a heavy burden, but Israeli society has shouldered it. Now, we’re rising to a challenge again.”