Israel media review

The little engine that couldn’t: 5 things to know for July 8

Once a coronavirus success story of the region, Israel is free-falling down the list of countries unable to control pandemic, with few willing to take responsibility

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

1. Things were going so well: After inspiring worldwide praise, Israel’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has now emerged globally as a blueprint for how not to reopen the economy as a second wave of infections, worse than the first, sweeps the nation.

  • “Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu had boasted that ‘Israel is a success model for many countries’ and that ‘many leaders are calling us to know how to act’ — and now Israel is suffering such a deterioration,” writes German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
  • Channel 12’s Yaron Avraham goes through the ten failures that have set Israel on the dangerous path it is now currently treading. From the ineffective testing infrastructure, epidemiological system and Shin Bet virus carrier tracking, to insufficient funds to help struggling businesses that the government ordered shut, and a nonexistent long-term plan to provide some sense of security to businesses even as the virus continues to rage — he does not mince words and leaves little room for sympathy regarding the Netanyahu government’s conduct.
  • “And where’s Gantz,” Avraham wonders, pointing out that the defense minister is in a much better position to assist with the virus response than his predecessor Naftali Bennett was, but seems incapable of putting his political capital to use.
  • Not loving the analysis, Netanyahu’s son Yair tries dunking on Channel 12, pointing out that it has brought in former health ministry director Yoram Lass as a guest on its programs for months where he has ranted how COVID-19 is no different from the seasonal flu.
  • To make matters worse, Channel 13 reports that Netanyahu in April rejected a plan backed by the Mossad aimed at creating conditions in which Israelis could go about their daily routines despite the continued presence of the virus. The plan included an appointment of a “coronavirus czar,” creating a system to detect and “extinguish” virus hotspots; forming a computerized system to centralize data on infections and the number of people in quarantine; and dividing Israel into zones, which would be assigned designations based on their infection rates. But when it was presented to Netanyahu, he “shelved” it in favor of a different proposal from the National Security Council that was never implemented, Channel 13 says.
  • Meanwhile, the Ynet news site reports that the Health Ministry is planning to tighten the criteria for carrying out coronavirus testing in a bid to ease pressure on an overwhelmed system. This would mean starting with removing asymptomatic people from testing lines, just weeks after Health Minister Yuli Edelstein ordered that they be added.
  • Israel Hayom leads its freebie with a fear-stricken headline that even includes the word “fear” in it. In “The fear: The upcoming school year will be delayed,” it quotes parents saying; they tell the paper: “We’re not so sure about sending our kids to school at all.”
  • “The Education Ministry has no idea how it will open the school year or even whether it will open the school year,” a senior municipal leader tells Israel Hayom, refusing to identify himself as he trashes the government.

2. Who’s in charge? In a bizarre development, Netanyahu summons Likud MK Nir Barkat to present to his economic plan for dragging Israel out of the mud. Bizarre because Netanyahu very deliberately chose Israel Katz as finance minister, not Barkat, and the former Likud foreign minister, not the former Jerusalem mayor, is supposed to be the one presenting such plans to the premier.

  • Ynet reports that Katz was invited to the Barkat-Netanyahu meeting, but decided not to attend in order to use the time to work on an economic plan of his own.
  • Ben Caspit, who’s no fan of Netanyahu, writes in the Maariv daily that the premier is looking to turn Katz and the Finance Ministry bureaucrats into the “scapegoats” of the pandemic. But not before first embarrassing Barkat by publicly promising him the position before handing it off to Katz, who enjoys more clout within the Likud party.
  • Reflecting on the Katz-Barkat competition, Middle East analyst Shimrit Meir writes, “In the good old days this might have been funny but in all seriousness, what the hell is this supposed to be? If you think someone’s wrong  for the job, then don’t appoint him. Is now really the time for divide and conquer within Likud and the Finance Ministry? Netanyahu is acting like someone who has not yet realized the seriousness of the situation.”
  • Speaking of scapegoats, some circles of the media appear to have trained their sights on the Health Ministry’s former director of public health Siegal Sadetzki, who described a chaotic and ineffective approach to tackling the crisis as she announced her resignation.
  • The often-sensationalist Yedioth Ahronoth leads the front page of its major daily with a preview of an expose it will publish Friday on how Sadetzki “thwarted the state’s special rescue plan” that was aimed at quickly identifying virus carriers and who they had come in contact with.
  • Separately in Yedioth, columnist Sarit Rosenblum takes Sadetzki to task for allegedly being responsible for the country’s “testing failure” when she refused to allow non-ministry laboratories to perform virus tests, “which severely limited their scope.”
  • Not buying Sadetzki’s criticism, Edelstein tells the Kan public broadcaster, “I understand her feeling, but nobody has lost their way… Her position was right for that time but when the circumstances changed, the decisions changed.”
  • In Israel Hayom, columnist Ron Reznik comes to Sadetzki’s defense, saying that her warnings after the end of the first virus wave that Israel should not reopen too quickly turned out to be right and that those in charge should be obligated to read her resignation-announcing Facebook post as a “flashing warning.”
  • Haaretz’s Noa Landau argues that there is a sexist tinge to the finger-pointing at Sadetzki. “Thank God there was one senior woman in the management of this crisis who can now be blamed for the whole thing. If she wasn’t there, her bosses might have been the ones now taking all of the flak… I too criticized Professor Sadetzki. There is a place for criticism of just about everyone. But from criticizing her to branding her as the scapegoat for the second wave is insane. At the end of the day she is a bureaucrat, not the captain.”
  • But while some might want to blame Sadetzki, Channel 12 publishes a recording of Netanyahu associate and up-skirt picture photographer Natan Eshel declaring that the real one responsible for the spiraling crisis is the Israeli public. “The government wanted to help – but they did not obey the rules. Now we will all pay the economic and personal price,” he laments.

3. Leading by example: Speaking of those under fire, Transportation Minister Miri Regev is taking the heat for attending a fancy ribbon-cutting ceremony that violated the government’s coronavirus guidelines that she herself voted to put in place hours earlier.

  • “We are not exactly within what the Health Ministry has instructed,” Regev said from the podium at the interchange inaugurating event in Ashkelon. “We are in an open area, but there need to be fewer people. Next time I will ensure these things happen.”
  • Political reporter Akiva Novick writes that if Regev was so uncomfortable with the illegal crowd size, she could’ve decided simply not to participate in the event or order organizers to comply with the guidelines if they wanted her to be there. Moreover, he argues that the biggest absurdity of it all was that “the prime minister himself was supposed to be there. To inaugurate a road.”
  • Meir piles on, asking why it is necessary, particularly in times of such economic hardship, that the government is spending so much money on lavish ceremonies.
  • Channel 13 reports that the shindig, which included live music, cost some NIS 200,000 ($58,000), though Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson corrects the seemingly outlandish number that was provided with no sourcing with a more detailed breakdown that adds up to NIS 70,000.
  • While we’re on excess spending, Channel 12 reports that the Prime Minister’s Residence will be getting a new team of cleaners, each with their own security detail, who will keep a close eye to make sure they are only collecting one kind of dirt and aren’t planning on dusting anyone. According to the channel, the residence recently cut ties with a cleaning company due to legal cases involving two workers at the residence being investigated for possible perjury to protect Sara Netanyahu, who is being sued by another former worker over mistreatment.
  • Rather than pick up after themselves, the Netanyahus have had the Prime Minister’s Office hire replacements, though the dirt piling up means there is no time to wait for them to undergo a security vetting. Instead, each of them will be closely tailed by a guard. According to the channel, the extra security will cost taxpayers some NIS 10,000 ($2,900) per day.
  • And also on the topic of excess spending, Hamakom editor Tomer Michezon covers a protest against the government’s economic response to the pandemic in which he runs into activists from the Darkeinu left-leaning grassroots group who admit to having been paid NIS 250 to attend. One of the activists, who refuses to disclose how much he received, responded, “That question is irrelevant. I identify with the values of the protest.”


4. Trouble in Tehran: Amid escalating tensions between Israel and Iran, Israel has asked the US Department of Defense to speed up delivery of its KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling aircraft, Channel 12 reports.

  • In March the DOD announced approval to sell new KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling aircraft to Israel, with delivery expected in four years. However, the network says that Israel has requested that the aircraft be delivered within two years.
  • In Haaretz, defense analyst Amos Harel writes that the explosion last week at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility set back the country’s program by more than a year. He cites veteran researcher Simon Henderson who said, “It looks as though a ‘nuclear war’ of sorts has started in the Middle East.”
  • “If Henderson and others are right, then Israel, obviously with the knowledge and backing of the United States, has found a roundabout solution to the problem in light of Iran’s renewed progress with its nuclear program. Instead of an aerial assault with a low signature, there was a mysterious explosion, and the chain of command behind it is not entirely clear,” Harel writes. “The damage is the same, but the price might be much lower. This is certainly not the end of the nuclear program, which is intentionally spread over many sites, some of which are deep underground. But a main artery may have been hit.”
  • In an interview with ToI’s David Horovitz, former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit argues that Israel cannot practically prevent Iran joining the nuclear weapons club, but that Israel can deter Iran from using the bomb. “Their rationale is not necessarily, ‘I want to have a bomb in order to drop it on Tel Aviv.’ Their prime rationale says, We need to attain immunity, and the moment we have nuclear weapons, we’ve attained immunity. Nobody will mess with us,” Shavit says.

5. Two-state delusion? In a lengthy op-ed in the left-wing Jewish Currents magazine, longtime two-state proponent and liberal Zionist thinker Peter Beinart announces that he no longer favors the largely consensus view for how to end the conflict and instead supports a one-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians enjoy equal rights.

  • “The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed. The traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s current path. It risks becoming, instead, a way of camouflaging and enabling that path. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish–Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality,” Beinart writes.
  • Addressing two-state defenders, he argues, “today, two states and one equal state are both unrealistic. The right question is not which vision is more fanciful at this moment, but which can generate a movement powerful enough to bring fundamental change.”
  • The piece immediately makes waves in two-state circles, with the head of J Street, Jeremy Ben Ami, stopping well short of dismissing it out-of-hand. “I always deeply value the intellectual gravitas that my friend @PeterBeinart brings to any discussion. I welcome his thought-provoking essay in which he articulates a new trajectory in his personal thinking about and relationship to Israel,” he tweets.
  • But in Israel, there’s less excitement. “I don’t understand why I’m supposed to be interested in the opinion of Peter Beinert who is not Israeli, not Palestinian and of course won’t have to live in one, two states or whatever. The fact that there is even an audience in this country for this brazen social engineering from abroad amazes me every time,” writes Shimrit Meir.
  • But JTA’s Ron Kampeas cannot get past the first paragraph of the piece and explains why in the following Twitter thread:
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