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Israel media review

Tightened this ain’t: What the press is saying on December 7

The media reports on the government’s plans to close everything down, or some things down, or someone down. If they keep throwing out ideas, one of them will be correct eventually

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man covers his eyes with a face mask in Jerusalem, November 18, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man covers his eyes with a face mask in Jerusalem, November 18, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

1. Great expectations: For months, pundits, policy makers and a chattering cohort of medical professionals have pounded the importance of transparency in the battle against COVID-19 and getting the public to follow health guidelines. But if Sunday’s ultimately fruitless meeting of the coronavirus cabinet is any guide, they have yet to take the advice to heart.

  • From the start of the meeting to its inconclusive end, the only information to come out was in the form of leaks to a few journalists apparently allowed to listen in on the supposedly closed-door meeting, as well as occasional official releases, albeit only from one side of the political aisle, a sign of how politicized even the fairly straightforward process of mulling official figures has become. The result was a dog’s breakfast of reports, many of them contradictory, leaving the public no wiser about whether Israel is headed to a lockdown or to the full reopening of its commercial sector, and whether infection rates are truly on the rise or just surfing the ever-undulating waves of spread and repression. And a news consumer was more likely to see unicorns prancing through TV studios than any mention of a source for any of the information.
  • Take, for instance, the reports that suddenly became ubiquitous about halfway through the evening meeting, of the possibility of “tightened restraint.” If the words make no sense in English, it’s because they also make little sense in Hebrew. But that did not stop newspeople from rushing to report on it, as if those very words had Great Significance.
  • To Channel 13, the tightened restraint, a concept last pulled out of the government’s tush in September (though at that time it meant something completely different), is at first a suggestion thrown out by coronavirus czar Nachman Ash as an alternative to a closure.
  • But the channel also calls the suggestion “preliminary and extreme,” describing it as an opening shot in negotiations over the shape of whatever restrictions come into play, which only points to the “general trend.”
  • From there, the channel jumps to reporting that cabinet ministers are pointing to a “broad closure” being on the table, and finally, analyst Nadav Eyal, browbeating the government for allowing Israel to get back to this point, chides that “they may want to call it tightened restraint, but it’s a lockdown.” And all of this occurs in fewer than four minutes of airtime.
  • Channel 12, meanwhile, at first describes “tightened restraint” as an alternative to a Rosh Hashanah-style lockdown, though its description of the scheme doesn’t seem so far off of the holey New Year’s closure that was deemed a resounding failure.
  • Nonetheless, the channel describes the steps — shutting stores, minimizing bus traffic and closing whatever grades are open in high-infection areas, etc. — as “significant.”
  • And despite the fact that Health Ministry officials have been screaming that a lockdown is already all but set in stone for weeks now, the channel places Great Significance on the fact that Health Minister Yuli Edelstein supposedly told underlings that if things continue, “a third lockdown will be a fact, not a suggestion.”
  • Kan sheds a little more light on the decision-makers’ thinking, with the channel’s Moav Vardi describing Ash’s proposal as a simple math equation. A “tightened restraint” will require twice as long to work as a closure, and the longer they wait on a decision, the longer it will take to drop down to 1,000 new daily infections again. The idea of the restrictions falling short, or what happens when they are lifted and numbers invariably shoot up again, is not addressed.
  • As Vardi spoke in the studio, fellow reporter Michael Shemesh could be seen fiddling with his phone — a pretty major no-no when it comes to live TV, at least where I come from. But with so many context-less leaks to report, who can blame him? For instance, Shemesh reports that Education Minister Yoav Gallant insisted that “the numbers presented here are not correct and not transparent,” and Science Minister Izhar Shay added that “we need to throw away this slide — you can’t use these numbers.”
  • What numbers? What slide? What about the fact that Gallant has insisted that there are no infections in schools despite official stats showing the contrary, and Shay is about one step away from waving a “hail Whitmer” flag outside the Michigan statehouse? I’m sure the prancing unicorns will be along any moment to fill us in.

2. Where the wild virus is: In Israel Hayom, which plays up comments from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is often seen a clue to the government’s thinking, physician Doron Gazit, a member of the staff advising the government on the pandemic, pens a column saying that a third lockdown can still be avoided.

  • “The situation is still not as bad as it was before the declaration of a second lockdown,” he writes, noting that there are only 40 towns or cities where there have been more than five new cases per 10,000 residents.
  • Channel 12 reports that ministers were “surprised” to find out that infection is not only limited to Arab towns, an increasingly old and unhelpful saw.
  • “We didn’t see it coming,” it reports a chorus of ministers saying, almost certainly either making up the quote, or quoting a single minister and pretending that more said it because they expressed similar thoughts, since facts don’t matter anyway.
  • It’s only a surprise if you only rely on Channel 12 and other outlets that have been slavishly transcribing what they are being told as fact rather than doing actual reporting. In fact official reports from state bodies (reported by ToI, but ignored by most others) have for several days now pointed to the fact that infection rates in the general population have leapfrogged those of Arab towns.
  • “Morbidity is not just the domain of towns in the Arab community, it’s spread to the whole country,” Health Ministry director Chezy Levy tells Army Radio. “We’re asking to take preventative steps that will be easier now before the horse has left the barn. We don’t need to expand commercial activity now.”
  • Haaretz’s Amos Harel continues to push the idea that most of the new infections come from Arab areas, and blames the government for not dealing with the virus correctly and moving toward a lockdown rather than some other policy he thinks would be better, but which he does not lay out beyond increased fines and increased testing.
  • “Apathy and hesitancy over the last few weeks are bringing us closer to a third lockdown, which seems difficult to justify despite the steady rise in infections,” he writes. “Over and over it has become clear that senior ministry officials see a total lockdown as the default option, without first trying to exhaust other measures. When you have a five-kilogram hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
  • Dr. Arnon Afek, deputy head of Sheba Medical Center, tells Army Radio that “enforcement in Israel is somewhere between minimal and nonexistent. This is one of our main problems in dealing with the pandemic.”

3. It’ll cost you: Yedioth Ahronoth reports on its front page that the cost of a lockdown will be NIS 27 billion, which is a shockingly massive number with some shockingly massive questions.

  • The estimation comes from a single macroeconomist, one Roby Nathanson, who the paper notes “correctly predicted the heavy damage of the second lockdown,” despite the fact that a. You don’t need to be a macroeconomist to predict that a lockdown will damage the economy and b. The cost of the second lockdown, which is still partially in place, is yet to be known. (This is not a criticism of Nathanson, who is a respected economist, but of the paper’s irresponsible reporting.)
  • The story does not say what length of lockdown the estimate is based on, what level of lockdown it’s based on, or any of a number of other details that would affect it. But NIS 27 billion (actually 26.8 billion) is a nice scary number to blast across a front page.
  • Malls meanwhile are remaining in pilot purgatory, and operators and store owners are not pleased about the lack of consistency and the threats that the pilot will be shut down.
  • In an illustration of that, Channel 12 first reports that the head of the National Security Council told ministers at the coronavirus cabinet that his body’s recommendation was to shut down all malls. A couple of hours later, the same station reports that the NSC’s recommendation to the cabinet is to open all malls. No attempt is made by the channel to square the two.
  • “We’re not a yo-yo,” one store owner tells the channel.
  • “They are opening and closing us like an accordion. You can’t manage a business like this,” a Jerusalem shopkeeper in a mall tells Ynet, using the actual word employed by Netanyahu and other policymakers in the past to describe the necessary flexibility and reactionary measures demanded by the pandemic.
  • The part-owner of a mall in Hod Hasharon tells Walla that “it cost us hundreds of thousands of shekels to prepare for this pilot. Beyond that, we have hundreds of workers, just with us at the mall, who were brought back from furlough and now we need to put them back on furlough. It’s crazy.”

4. It’s terminal: The plight of some Israeli passengers at an airport in Dubai, where authorities briefly refused to let them in due to some sort of visa issue, allows media outlets to add a geopolitical element to the ever-present “sad Israelis on vacation whose flight is delayed and it’s pretty much the worst thing since the Holocaust”-type story, a genre loved by Israeli news consumers who get to spend their not-vacation hearing all about it (or so editors at some of these places must think.)

  • Channels and news sites fill their airtime and real estate — during an admittedly slow period during the early morning — with pictures of poor people crammed into a spacious arrival hall at an airport consistently ranked as among the nicest in the world. Channel 12 news adds the fact that these people have not a morsel of food to fill their malnourished bellies. And they have been there for a few hours!
  • “What you are looking at here is a total disgrace,” flyer Kobi Tzur tells any media outlet willing to listen (all of them). “We have been here at the airport for over two hours. There are children here, babies, people after a sleepless night and this after all the hundreds of shekels and dollars they laid out and assured us that everything will be all right.”
  • Another passenger tells Channel 13 that “there’s no food or drink, babies without a stroller, no formula powder.”
  • Another passenger tells the station that he and other passengers are planning to file a class-action suit against airline FlyDubai for even letting them fly there, given reports that the visa issue was known from the night before.
  • Israel Hayom runs a video of another passenger: “We took off at 1 a.m. in Israel, got here at 6 a.m. It’s now 9:45 a.m. and as you can see, there’s over 100 Israelis stuck… if somebody hears this, somebody can aid us, maybe from the Foreign Ministry, it would really help.”

5. An officer and an officer: Israel Hayom splashes a report on its front page claiming that perhaps Netanyahu does not want early elections after all.

  • The report is a bit strange considering that Netanyahu has claimed all along that he does not want elections, hoisting that petard onto Benny Gantz. But the Israel Hayom story jumps off the assumption that he has in fact wanted an early vote, as pretty much everybody else has assumed/reported, but now actually he does not.
  • “Sources close to the prime minister say he has not yet made a decision to go to elections,” it reports, noting that infection numbers aren’t great for a campaign right now.
  • It adds that according to a senior source, talks are ongoing to reach a deal with Blue and White.
  • Netanyahu may not have a choice, with a committee meeting on Monday deciding that the bill to dissolve the Knesset won’t go through a Netanyahu-friendly committee, which would have given him influence over the eventual date of the return to the ballot — perhaps the reason he is now rethinking the whole thing.
  • If he does run, he’ll face a center-left in something of shambles, as described by Zman Yisrael’s Shalom Yerushalmi, who writes about the possibility of former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot throwing his hat in the ring, and perhaps running with former IDF chief Moshe Ya’alon, since former IDF chief Gantz and former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi aren’t really options, not to mention former IDF reporter Yair Lapid.
  • “The other bloc has no leader after the fiasco of Gantz, and Lapid’s inability to rise up. Gantz has also burned Gabi Ashkenazi along the way. They once looked at Gantz and Ashkenazi like they look at Eisenkot today, with huge expectations, almost holy reverence,” he writes.
  • “It’s not clear that Eisenkot will enter politics, but if he does, he likely won’t join Likud, Yamina, Blue and White, Yesh Atid or Yisrael Beytenu and he won’t make his own party. Ya’alon is counting on that.”
  • Yedioth’s Nahum Barnea sings Eisenkot’s praises, but notes that “he won’t make a difference in a campaign that is about one thing only — yes or no to Netanyahu. The same is for the rest — Lapid, Gantz, [Ron] Huldai and Ya’alon.”
  • Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer takes the opposite tack, noting Eisenkot’s various drawbacks as yet another general come to save the day, but describing him as the perfect mix to draw support from across the political spectrum.
  • “On paper, he is the perfect candidate to attract voters from across the political spectrum, including the crucial ‘soft right,’ traditional and Mizrahi voters necessary to tilt the balance against the Netanyahu camp. On a personal level, he is also more down-to-earth and totally lacking in the vainglorious hubris that tends to afflict most generals,” he writes. “It largely depends on whether he actually wants the job badly enough, or in his case, believes the personal sacrifices he will inevitably have to make are worth it to try and replace Netanyahu.”
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