Israel media review

The little strain that could: What the press is saying to worry about now

From a new Delta subvariant to an old consulate being made new to an even older gate in Jerusalem that is the center of old tensions, there is plenty to fret over in the media

Benny Luna, gets a COVID-19 test from Roberto Gomez, Thursday, July 15, 2021, in Miami. Florida's COVID-19 hospitalization numbers are again increasing, ending months of steady decline that began when widespread vaccinations became available and creating a trend that has epidemiologists worried as the more infectious Delta variant spreads. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Benny Luna, gets a COVID-19 test from Roberto Gomez, Thursday, July 15, 2021, in Miami. Florida's COVID-19 hospitalization numbers are again increasing, ending months of steady decline that began when widespread vaccinations became available and creating a trend that has epidemiologists worried as the more infectious Delta variant spreads. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

1. Ay(4.2) vey: Experts say there’s no proof that a new subvariant of the coronavirus — the pithily named AY4.2, dubbed by some Delta Plus — is any more dangerous than its parent mutation, but Israel isn’t letting that stop it from getting ready to get worked up over it.

  • A day after the Health Ministry said a single case had been identified in a child returning from Moldova, a statement from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office following an “emergency” meeting on the strain reveals that there are a “few isolated cases.” According to the PMO press release, Bennett told health officials to keep a close eye on it and ring up other countries where it’s been found, just in case.
  • “We’re following the new variant with caution and suspicion,” blasts the top headline in Yedioth Ahronoth, quoting from an interview with coronavirus czar Salman Zarka.
  • Zarka also ventures — cautiously — that the variant is not spreading in Israel. But that doesn’t stop Yedioth’s online sister Ynet from laying the groundwork for a smidgen of panic. “The fourth wave is indeed waning, but the new variant could be the sign of a fifth wave and is already spreading in Europe, and like the rest of the variants is threatening to run rampant here as well.”
  • “The fact that it’s reached 10 percent should raise red flags,” health expert Cyril Cohen tells the site, though the same article quotes from Hadassah’s Dror Mevorach saying that sure it’s reached 8% of cases in Britain, but is not in the US, “which means it may be competing with classic Delta, but isn’t any more deadly,” in Ynet’s paraphrase.
  • The PMO statement also noted that there could be a need to make some changes to a plan to reopen tourism, which is enough for Channel 13’s news website to run a headline saying that the plan will be updated. (The story itself adds in the all-important caveat “if needed.”)
  • Prof. Ran Balicer tells Army Radio that damn skippy the tourism plan may need to be reworked, AY4.2 or not: “What should worry us about the tourism proposal is not this specific strain, which is really just Delta with a few small changes, but the strain we don’t know about and which could show up tomorrow, the day after or in a year. We always need to be taking this into account and direct the tourism plan accordingly.”
  • Channel 12 news reports that “Health Ministry [officials] said yesterday that we don’t need to become hysterical, but we do need to follow what’s happening in Britain. On one hand there’s cause for worry because Britain is relatively immunized, and we see the strain spreading there. On the other hand, there are differences between Britain and Israel — we vaccinated kids 12-15 and are giving out boosters.”
  • Credit Haaretz with the most sober view: “Experience has taught Israel that the infiltration of new variants into the country is most often meaningless. Even if the variant in question is dangerous or has several mutations, it should not necessarily cause concern. The most important question is whether it is capable of becoming dominant. Since the beginning of the pandemic, over a dozen variants, associated with several strains of the virus, have been discovered in Israel, most of which have ended after only a handful of infections.”

2. Mission creep: What we should really be worried about, say some politicians and others, are the chances that a variant of the US diplomatic corps in the country will worm its way into Jerusalem, in the guise of consular representation for Palestinians.

  • The reopening of the US consulate in Jerusalem appears to be a fait accompli, but Israel’s leaders are still tilting against windmills to thwart the evil decree, having already gotten the US to push it off until after Israel passes a budget.
  • Axios reports that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told US counterpart Antony Blinken that allowing the consulate to reopen would sink his government coalition and inspire other countries to also open consulates in the city to serve non-Israelis, damaging the perception of Israel’s hold on the city.
  • The solution, according to the report: a joint task force made up of Lapid, Blinken and an aide or two each, which sounds like a fancy way of just continuing the talks they were already having. Lapid said sure, but even the talks will have to wait until after the budget passes, which almost sounds like he’s taking a page out of the Iranian nuke talks playbook on foot-dragging.
  • Israel Hayom leads off its print edition with even more bad news. “Not just a consulate, the US is also exploring another mission to the Palestinians,” reads the paper’s top headline.
  • According to the paper, the US plans to not only change the former consulate building in West Jerusalem back into a consulate for the Palestinians, but will also open a consulate branch in East Jerusalem where a consulate used to be located on Nablus Road, presumably referring to a building next to the American Colony hotel.
  • JNS’s Jonathan Tobin writes that with the US committed to opening the consulate, Israel can still stop it, if Bennett is up to the task. “In his first few months of office, Bennett has faced some challenges, but none as difficult or as crucial to Israel’s vital interests or his own political future as this one. Yet if he learned anything during his years serving with Netanyahu, it ought to have been that Israel can say ‘no’ to the Americans when necessary,” he writes. “Dragging Lapid and his left-wing partners along with him in resisting the consulate reopening will be difficult. But what we will now learn about Bennett is whether he is the sort of leader who can make other people do things they don’t want to, or if he is the type who lets others make him act against his principles.”
  • In ToI sister site Zman Yisrael Tal Schneider has some shocking news: There already is a separate US mission in Jerusalem and it’s named for none other than former US Ambassador David Friedman.
  • “US political experts see the creation of the Friedman Center as a sort of ‘shadow embassy,’” she writes of the newly opened conservative bastion. “At the end of the day, this is a center for Republicans in Jerusalem, which party brass will stop at on their way to the next electoral campaign.”

3. One, two, three what are we fighting for? Even without the consulate in the fray, tensions in Jerusalem rocketed this week, with riots called the worst in months breaking out near Damascus Gate on Tuesday, after weeks of low-level clashes in the same area. What sparked the fighting? Depends who you ask.

  • The Associated Press reports that Tuesday’s clashes broke out after Palestinians who hold an annual event for the prophet Muhammad’s birthday were forbidden from doing so by police.
  • But Channel 12 news reports that the clashes broke out because kids were given the day off school for the birthday holiday, got bored and started riling each other up online until they went down to the Damascus Gate to start some stuff.
  • Haaretz reports that Palestinians claim the clashes indeed started over a birthday, but rather than Muhammad, the birthday boy was a teenage settler activist named Yedidya Epstein, who always seems to be around anytime tensions are on the rise or fighting is going down in East Jerusalem.
  • “Two weeks ago, he celebrated his birthday with several friends at the Damascus Gate plaza with Israeli flags. It wasn’t long before the Jewish teens and young Palestinians were cursing and shoving each other,” the paper reports. “Police ordered Epstein to steer clear of the area for 15 days. But almost every evening after that, Jewish young people have come to the scene to taunt Palestinians there. Palestinians issued repeated calls on social media for people to come to defend the plaza against the Jews, and every evening, dozens and even hundreds of Palestinians have shown up.”
  • Kan’s Gal Berger notes that every reporter covering Palestinian affairs seems to have their own theory as to what started the clashes. In an effort to get to the bottom of it, he decided to go through dozens of Palestinian Telegram groups to see if an answer could be found there (the app is used widely by Palestinians). While he didn’t get answer per se, he did find something else: Palestinians are “obsessed” with Damascus Gate.
  • Every arrest, every citation handed out or fine given, every movement of police or placement of barricades or even large group of Jews passing through the heavily trafficked gate (which includes a large stepped plaza) is considered breaking news on Palestinian Telegram, Berger writes, and from there it’s easy to see how things build up until they explode.
  • “Damascus Gate has a life of its own, it seems, and the reality there is what determines how things go. It’s no secret and should not be a surprise that every video showing police using force against East Jerusalemites, whether it comes with an explanation or not, enflames Palestinian Telegram and turns into reality on the ground. Even routine police activity like checking ID cards or questioning passersby is interpreted as an act of discrimination and intimidation,” he writes.
  • “Damascus Gate has become, somehow, a barometer for the [Palestinian] national mood and the state of the whole nation. … The labeling of the place and its transformation into a national symbol are expressions of the long struggle for sovereignty and control. Who will have the last word on Damascus Gate, who will have say over what happens there? Will it be the police and the sovereign State of Israel, or perhaps the East Jerusalemites? Whose gate is it, ours or theirs? This is the essence of this field of battle, with the aim of turning Damascus Gate into an extraterritoriality that the ‘occupation’ cannot dare approach.”

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