Hawkish Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s comments against annexation of the West Bank leave the Hebrew press flabbergasted and confused. Can this be the same right-wing ultra-nationalist leader whom we know and love? At the same time, the Yisrael Beytenu leader’s remarks split the main headlines with the funny thing that happened to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he was being interrogated by police. What high jinks!
The headlines in Tuesday’s papers would likely have been about Netanyahu being questioned by police as part of two investigations — into horse-trading with a media tycoon and accepting gifts from a foreign businessman — if US President Donald Trump didn’t unexpectedly come to the rescue. The interrupted interrogation makes the front page in Yedioth Ahronoth and Israel Hayom, while Haaretz curiously makes almost no mention of the episode. It informs its readers that Netanyahu left for a half-hour during his questioning, and that Israel Police chief Roni Alsheich said Monday that the investigation into the prime minister was reaching its conclusion.
Although the front page headline in Israel Hayom describes Trump butting into the police questioning, the paper reports it as an aside. “By the way,” Israel Hayom’s reporters say in their report on the two leaders speaking by phone. “Trump called Netanyahu in the midst of his investigation.” More than that doesn’t appear in the venerable paper’s informative report.
According to Yedioth Ahronoth, in the middle of the investigation the phone rang “by surprise” in the Prime Minister’s Residence, and on the other end of the line was Trump, asking for Netanyahu.
“The prime minister apologized to the investigators and exited for a break. The two spoke for several minutes about the threats posed by the nuclear deal with Iran and by Iranian aggression in the region, while they dealt in particular with Iran’s ballistic missile test that took place last week and the incident between the Revolutionary Guards’ shop and the American fleet in the Persian Gulf,” the paper reports in exhaustive detail.
It goes on to cite sources close to Netanyahu saying that the phone call wasn’t prearranged, but the paper itself is skeptical. “Although past experience teaches that usually conversations of this kind don’t come by surprise, and there were those that were taken aback by the precise timing of the call,” Yedioth Ahronoth reports.
Liberman’s remarks that the White House gave Israel a direct message not to annex any territory in the West Bank is the top story in Israel Hayom, but Haaretz goes a step further. The liberal broadsheet quotes an American official saying that Trump expects Israel to behave rationally and give the new administration time to formulate its strategy concerning Israeli-Palestinian peace plans.
The senior US official didn’t deny Liberman’s comments and said that “we don’t intend to publicly comment on private conversations that we have with other governments.” He confirmed, however, that the US government is not interested in Israel or the Palestinians making unilateral steps that could damage American efforts to get peace talks going once again.
Liberman’s argument is laid out in full in Israel Hayom in case any of its readers thought he went soft: “We must separate from the Palestinians and not absorb them into our territory.” Such a move — even if it didn’t entail giving them the vote, and not even taking into account the international blowback — would require Israel to pay NIS 20 billion ($5.4 billion) in national insurance, unemployment, and healthcare for the 2.7 million Palestinians annexed into the country, he said.
While Netanyahu and Liberman grab the big headlines, Haaretz’s front page photo shows the mass protests in South Korea. Why, you might ask? The caption alongside it reveals how the paper sees events in the Far East through the lens of the Near East: “The connection between business and government endangers the success story of South Korea.” The paper could have easily substituted Israel for South Korea and stuck to its agenda.
Yedioth Ahronoth doesn’t cast its eye so far abroad to find dire issues to report on. This is the fourth consecutive year of drought in northern Israel, and the Sea of Galilee is 16 centimeters (six inches) beneath the lower red line after a winter with barely any rain. The black line — that of no return for Israel’s sole body of fresh water — looms just a few feet away from the lake’s current level. On average the lake’s water level rises 60 centimeters (23 inches) in February, but this past month it went up by just 22. The lake hasn’t been this low in over a decade, and unless there’s seriously heavy rainfall in March, the last month of the rainy season, the whole country will be in the lurch.