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With PM flying to US on private plane, Israeli TV set to keep reporters home

Denied briefings by Netanyahu en route and confined to hotel, three main networks plan to rely on their US-based journalists to cover Tuesday’s signing of Israel-UAE deal

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boards a plane to go on an official state visit to Poland on June 12, 2013. (Kobi Gideon / GPO /Flash 90
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boards a plane to go on an official state visit to Poland on June 12, 2013. (Kobi Gideon / GPO /Flash 90

Israel’s three major television networks have reportedly decided not to send special teams to cover next week’s signing of the Israel-UAE normalization deal in Washington, following the announcement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and possibly their two sons, will be traveling on a private plane, separately from the rest of the delegation, due to fears of coronavirus infection.

The Kan broadcaster and Channels 12 and 13 will skip the trip, relying on their US-based reporters to cover the September 15 White House event, according to Hebrew media reports.

The prime minister usually briefs reporters on the flights to and from the destination, an opportunity that will be denied them this time with the premier on a separate plane.

Additionally, reporters on the delegation will be relegated to their hotels except during the official events. Israeli press traveling to Washington to cover the story will be required to present a negative coronavirus test before getting on the plane for the trip and will also likely be required to take a second test upon landing in the US. Any member of the Israeli press who comes into contact with someone from outside of their “capsule” will be removed from the delegation, Israeli officials said.

According to the Globes daily, in light of these restrictions, networks did not see a reason to send journalists to cover the signing.

Netanyahu’s decision to fly separately was condemned Friday morning by opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid- Telem.

“A private jet?! Now? Why in the world a private jet?” Lapid tweeted. “People don’t have food to eat. There’s no limit to this man’s disconnect and obtuseness.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a school in Jerusalem ahead of the opening of the school year, August 25, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar tweeted Thursday night: “At this very moment Netanyahu is arranging a lockdown on Israelis, and then will immediately fly (on a private plane, separately from the delegation) to a cocktail party on the White House lawn. All in all, top level leadership.”

Israel has been experiencing a serious outbreak of the virus, with some 4,000 cases daily, prompting ministers late Thursday to approve serious restrictions over the upcoming fall holiday season.

The stark contrast of the prime minister flying out on a private plane to Washington, as Israelis are about to be brought under lockdown and businesses crumbled amid the pandemic, drew sharp criticism from many.

The head of Israel’s National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat (2nd-R), wearing a protective mask, makes his way to board the plane as he prepares to leave Abu Dhabi on September 1, 2020, at the end of an unprecedented visit on normalizing Israel-UAE relations. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)

MK Bezalel Smotrich, of the right-wing / modern Orthodox Yamina opposition party, however, was supportive. Though he noted that he was not a fan either of the deal — due to its hinging on the government freezing its plans to annex West Bank land — or of Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic, he said “Netanyahu is flying in service of the state and keeping him healthy as the prime minister is in our interest.”

Likud on Thursday rebuffed criticism of the decision to fly Netanyahu and his wife out separately.

“The left and the media are looking for any excuse to minimize the historic achievement of Prime Minister Netanyahu and even to endanger his health, only because they can’t stand that he brought peace for peace and not peace for land,” the party said.

Explaining the decision, the Prime Minister’s Office said: “Due to fears that the prime minister could be infected with the coronavirus on a flight with more than 70 people, professional sources instructed the prime minister to fly in a separate plane that the State of Israel uses from time to time.”

El Al had been preparing a plane for the flight for the past week, Channel 13 reported, as it regularly handles official government flights. This included the installation of a bed for the premier and his wife. However, since the prime minister will no longer be on the plane, a new tender was launched and it was won by Israir, which will now carry the rest of the Israeli delegation.

The prime minister’s sons, Yair and Avner, may join their parents on the private jet. Officials at the Prime Minister’s Office said that if they do, they will cover the costs of their flight in accordance with rates stipulated by PMO regulations.

The PMO has claimed the total cost of two planes flying to Washington will be half the amount that was spent to send a single plane for the prime minister on his last trip to Washington, citing the need for less security on the flight carrying the delegation.

The two planes will leave Israel on Sunday evening and head home from Washington on Tuesday afternoon.

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