Israel media review

Voyage to the bottom of the coalition: What the press is saying on November 23

The government is seen as drowning after Gantz announces he is launching a probe of the submarine affair, one derided as toothless but that can still embarrass Netanyahu

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (C) looks on as he sits next to other MKs while the Knesset debates its dissolution late on December 11, 2019. (Gali TIBBON / AFP)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (C) looks on as he sits next to other MKs while the Knesset debates its dissolution late on December 11, 2019. (Gali TIBBON / AFP)

1. The hunt for red hands: The decision by Defense Minister Benny Gantz to set up a government committee to investigate the irregular purchase process of naval vessels dominates the news agenda Sunday night and Monday morning, until news breaks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s secret trip to Saudi Arabia (which will be the subject of tomorrow’s media roundup).

  • Gantz’s move lands on the front pages of all of Israel’s major dailies and news websites, with most of them focusing on the role of Netanyahu, who was not actually a suspect in the criminal case the probe is based on, though it embroiled many of his associates.
  • “The committee, to be led by retired judge Amnon Straschnov, will be specifically tasked with exploring the role of the Prime Minister’s Office in the purchase of the naval vessels, as well as that of the National Security Agency and the Defense Ministry,” reports ToI, based on a statement from Gantz’s office.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth snags an exclusive interview with Gantz and takes up much of its front page with a quote from him that says,  “The state has been put on the backburner because Netanyahu is busy with other issues. Netanyahu thinks first and foremost about his trial.”
  • In the interview, he insists he is raring for a fight and not backing down: “I suggest you follow me for the next two weeks, and do not go to bed at night before you check what Benny Gantz has done,” he said. “I am always a man of peace, but if there is no choice and I have to fight — then I will fight.”
  • Pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom also puts the affair on its front page (though it does not lead with it), but slants it with a headline declaring that “A probe into strategic issues has been opened for political reasons.”
  • The headline goes to an Amnon Lord column that also supersedes the news on page 9, where the paper buries the story. In it, he accuses Gantz of trying to “put a target on the head of the prime minister.”
  • He then accuses “former senior defense figures” of wanting the probe because they hate submarines. “They oppose the growth of the submarine corps, which is a vital corps for Israel for now.”
  • Channel 13 speculates that among the questions that the panel may tackle are: “Did Netanyahu truly demand that Israel have nine submarines at the same time, and why? How did it come about that the process of purchasing the submarines was missing serious due diligence work and managed from outside the IDF? Why did we buy double the number of vessels from Germany that the IDF requested from the start and without a tender?”

2. Itty bitty authority committee: Several reports focus on the powers the committee will or won’t have and the areas it can actually explore.

  • Haaretz’s six-column top headline manages to squeeze in the formation of the probe and the fact that it can invite but not compel Netanyahu to testify.
  • The paper’s Amos Harel warns, though, that not showing up will make it look like Netanyahu has something to hide: “The very fact of inviting Netanyahu to appear would embarrass him. Assuming he refuses, he would look like someone who seeks to avoid getting to the truth. And the same is true if he forbids members of his staff to appear.”
  • Channel 12 news notes that the fact that it is a government probe and not a state one means that its remit is limited to “systemic failures,” but cannot look into failures of individuals involved in the case
  • Had it been a state committee of inquiry, the channel notes, it would have had an advantage in “the breadth and depth it is given to investigate, as well as the entrenched custom by which the committee will make recommendations of both a personal and systemic nature, and the government usually does not shy from its recommendations, especially the personal ones.”
  • “Governments are generally reluctant to take such a step, unless they see the commission as a way to soothe public anger during times of crisis, for example, after the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, or after the Yom Kippur War,” notes a ToI explainer.
  • Kan reports that Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn can still ask the government to approve witness subpoenas, but in any case, anybody can refuse to answer questions on the grounds of the right to not self-incriminate.
  • Plus it notes that a government committee can only investigate issues within the purview of the minister who sets it up. So if the committee veers into matters of international diplomacy “Netanyahu will claim: Gantz has no authority, it’s out of his responsibility.”
  • In Yedioth, Matan Gutman complains that the panel has no teeth, but notes that Gantz does have a way to give it some. “Paragraph 537 of the military justice law says that ‘the defense minister and the IDF chief of staff are authorized to appoint an investigatory panel to probe any subject touching on the army, and it is allowed to invite witnesses and take testimony under oath or not under oath.”

3. Coalition depth charge: Beyond the legal issues, the formation of the panel is widely viewed as a shot across Netanyahu’s bow or worse.

  • “The significance of the setting up of the committee is the launching of the election campaign season,” writes Channel 12’s Amit Segal.
  • His colleague Yaron Avraham advises news consumers to open up their planners “because if there is no dramatic change or another cave from Gantz, the next elections will take place in March 2021, in the most logical scenario, or in April-May 2021, if we are witness to him folding again.”
  • Walla’s Tal Shalev, noting as others do that the committee will release its results just before those possible March elections, writes, “On a political level, Gantz’s decision to order the panel to look into the submarine affair is a serious show of defiance in Netanyahu’s face, and it is seen as the opening shot of the next elections.”
  • But she also does not discount the possibility of Gantz pulling back before a budget deadline on December 23, noting that some in Blue and White support holding on for “a few more months to avoid unnecessary elections.”
  • Haaretz’s Harel speculates that criticism Gantz received from his own base regarding a secret deal with Netanyahu on appointing ministry officials “may have left him no choice but to move ahead on the submarine inquiry.”
  • But to ToI’s Haviv Rettig Gur, the timing shows there’s no question about Gantz’s true motivations: “The timing indicates that the committee is a political maneuver, not an effort to bolster good governance and law enforcement by examining alleged past misdeeds. Even if the committee’s members are experienced, honest and worthy individuals … the timing of its establishment and the late-March deadline for publicizing its report, close to the likeliest date of the next election, make clear that its existence is tailored to the political needs of the interminable Netanyahu-Gantz rivalry.”

4. Cut loose: With Jonathan Pollard cutting off his ankle bracelet and being released from parole, Israelis are somewhat expectantly awaiting his return, though there are indications he may not be the cause celebre he once was.

  • Pollard’s lawyer Eliot Lauer tells ToI’s Jacob Magid that his client was sure to be freed anyway, but he’s pretty sure the White House helped by putting its finger on the scales of justice.
  • “Given the way Washington works, I have to assume that there’s a reasonable possibility that the Department of Justice received a wink-and-a-nod and a go-ahead from the administration at the highest levels, whether it’s [White House chief of staff] Mark Meadows or above,” he says.
  • In Haaretz, Yossi Verter goes through all the blunders Israel made in recruiting and dealing with Pollard, including after the spycraft blew up in everyone’s face: “The decision by the U.S. administration – though President Donald Trump himself wasn’t involved – not to extend Pollard’s restrictions, and as a result allowing him to immigrate to Israel, was the correct decision. It’s true that Pollard betrayed his homeland. But he paid a sufficiently high price for his love for Israel, his adventurousness, his willingness to receive money for it – and he also paid a sufficiently high price for Israel’s betrayal of him.”
  • Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren tells Army Radio Pollard shouldn’t expect a parade when he gets here: “Pollard knows we’ll embrace him when he gets to Israel. If there are celebrations around him, it will create bad headlines for us in the US: Here he is seen as a hero, there he is seen as a traitor, even among Jewish leaders, even conservative ones, who did not want him to be freed.”
  • Not everyone is excited to see him. Ehud Olmert, who himself reportedly lobbied for Pollard’s release over a decade ago and knows a bit about the inside of a prison cell, goes around telling any media outlet that will listen that Israel should close its gates to the former spy.
  • “He worked for money, for a lot of money,” he tells Channel 12. “He wasn’t a Zionist volunteer who sacrificed his life. His coming to Israel will deepen the damage this episode has done to us.”
  • Makor Rishon’s Elhanan Shpizer, redefining first world problems, complains that with things going so great for the right wing, they now have no cause celebre to rally around or against.
  • “The [Gaza] disengagement was already a while ago, and definitely the Oslo Accords. Maybe there’s a Palestinian state in theory, but the number of people who say publicly it will happen is shrinking. The Golan is recognized as part of Israel, and even in the last few years it barely made headlines. And now Jonathan Pollard, one of the last consensus subjects that remains for the Israeli right, has been taken away from us,” he writes.

5. Hey, Blinken: Reports that Joe Biden intends to name Antony Blinken as secretary of state are also widely carried in the Israeli press.

  • Many Hebrew-language news sites play up the fact that Blinken is Jewish, but they look beyond his religious orientation when trying to parse what kind of diplomat he’ll be toward Israel.
  • “Blinken is thought of as one of Biden’s closest advisers, and as someone who is involved in forming his policies,” reports Kan. “During the campaign he said that Biden would not return to the US embassy to Tel Aviv, but will open a consulate to the Palestinians.”
  • Ynet, which makes sure to note that Blinken’s stepfather is a Holocaust survivor, reports that just last month Blinken “expressed support for returning to the nuclear deal with Iran and for the two-state solution, and claimed that under the Donald Trump administration, which a large majority of Israelis saw as especially good for them, caused Israel serious damage, due to the sharp pullback of US influence from the world stage.”
  • Haaretz reports that Blinken “also highlighted Biden’s support for Israel, stating categorically that Biden ‘would not tie military assistance to Israel to any political decisions Israel makes’ during a call organized in May by the Democratic Majority for Israel, an organization that seeks to increase support for Israel within the Democratic Party.”
  • And ToI’s Magid quips on Twitter that Blinken isn’t likely to follow any of Mike Pompeo’s precedents.
  • In fact, as the New York Times’s writeup makes clear, Israel probably won’t be the first thing on his mind, or the second: “ Chief among his new priorities will be to re-establish the United States as a trusted ally that is ready to rejoin global agreements and institutions — including the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and the World Health Organization — that were jettisoned by Mr. Trump.”
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