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Media Summary

Gantz and Netanyahu clash over protest’s legitimacy

The Times and The Guardian report on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday accusing the large crowds of protesters who gather outside his official residence of trying to “trample on democracy” and claimed that they could be “incubating” coronavirus. An estimated 10,000 people attended a march in central Jerusalem on Saturday night, which resulted in some demonstrators having to be dragged away by riot police and dispersed with water cannon. Netanyahu also accused the media of inflaming the protests: “Never have so few received such huge coverage … there is a distortion of all the rules.”

Writing in The Guardian over the weekend, Jerusalem Correspondent Oliver Holmes says that whilst the pandemic has brought in a wildly new set of circumstances, and polls show Netanyahu’s approval ratings have steeply declined, the Likud party and its nationalist allies remain extremely popular.

A Telegraph investigation reveals a fake news training camp run by Hezbollah in the heart of Beirut, which has trained thousands of Iran-backed social media activists, helping create so-called “electronic armies” to spread fear and division around the Middle East. The report says that since at least 2012, Hezbollah has been flying individuals into Lebanon for courses teaching participants how to digitally manipulate photographs, manage large numbers of fake social media accounts, make videos, avoid Facebook censorship, and effectively spread disinformation online. Students have come from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria, according to interviewees that spoke to The Telegraph on the condition of anonymity.

The BBC Persian Service reports this morning that the number of deaths from coronavirus in Iran is nearly triple what Iran’s government claims. The government’s own records appear to show almost 42,000 people died with COVID-19 symptoms up to 20 July, versus 14,405 reported by its Health Ministry. The data was sent to the BBC by an anonymous source. The number of people known to be infected is also almost double official figures: 451,024 as opposed to 278,827. Doctors with direct knowledge of the matter have told the BBC that the Iranian Health Ministry has been under pressure from security and intelligence bodies inside Iran.

The Guardian leads with the economic crisis in Lebanon. According to the report, the Lebanese economy is in freefall, plunging much of the country’s population into poverty. Chronic mismanagement by consecutive governments, complex patronage systems that formed after the end of the civil war and so-called creative engineering on behalf of the Lebanese Central Bank are at the heart of the implosion.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of Iran’s army, is believed to be behind the opening of a superstore in Venezuela in the latest attempt to defy American-led sanctions, according to The Times. The Caracas branch of Megasis was officially opened last week by the Iranian ambassador and the Venezuelan vice-president. The Iranian chain store sells a range of products from canned chickpeas to tractors. Officials in Washington condemned the growing alliance between the Islamic Republic and the regime of President Nicolás Maduro, as it emerged that Megasis and associated companies had links to the Iranian military and the IRGC, designated as a terrorist organisation by President Donald Trump last year.

The Independent notes that Iran has detained a leader of a little-known California-based opposition group for allegedly planning a 2008 attack on a mosque that killed 14 people and wounded over 200 others. Iran’s Intelligence Ministry also alleged Jamshid Sharmahd of the Kingdom Assembly of Iran planned other attacks around the Islamic Republic amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the US over its collapsing 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

The BBC and Independent report on the Arab world’s first nuclear power plant in the UAE on the Gulf coast just east of Qatar. Nuclear fission has begun in one of four reactors at the Barakah plant, which uses South Korean technology and will supply 25 per cent of the UAE’s electricity once fully operational. The plant was due to open in 2017 but start-up was delayed for what officials said were safety requirements. The oil-rich UAE wants Barakah to meet a quarter of its energy needs, as it adopts more sustainable energy sources. Last year Qatar called the Barakah plant a “flagrant threat to regional peace and environment”.

All the Israeli media focus on the coalition clash between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz during the cabinet meeting yesterday over the protests around the country. Gantz touched on the matter in his opening remarks: “As a government, we are obliged to be attentive to the people. As the regime, we bear the responsibility of facilitating holding the demonstrations and to protect the demonstrators who, regrettably, were attacked yesterday once again at several locations. The right to protest is the life’s breath of democracy, and violence erodes the foundation of democracy.” Netanyahu quickly replied: “I condemn all violence of any kind from any side, but what we have here is an attempt in the name of democracy to trample democracy. No one is restricting the demonstrations. To the contrary, they are coronavirus incubators. The former president of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, was fervently opposed to blocking roads, and this is what he wrote: ‘The freedom to demonstrate doesn’t defend the freedom to stop the country.’ Back then the issue was demonstrators who were opposed to the disengagement plan, but when there are left wing demonstrators—everything disappears.”

Israel Hayom’s front-page headline and lead article this morning is an attack by Amnon Lord on the demonstrators, the media and more generally the “left,” which he accuses of plotting to overthrow the government, through various nefarious means, including staging a “provocation in the form of a right wing lunatic who murders a left wing ‘demonstrator.’” Lord goes on to write: “The result thus far has been that the revolution in the streets has been a success. Its inherent threat to the police is patently clear. There are signs of capitulation. Pressure from the street, coupled with the attorney general and Blue and White’s Knesset faction, have succeeded in neutralising the government’s ability to function. They talk about the ‘danger to democracy.’ This is no longer just a danger, but a grim reality that has evolved into being. The tyranny of the left, the media and the justice system has turned into a palpable reality before our very eyes.”

Ben-Dror Yemini writes in Yediot Ahronot that there is one sector that is still missing from the protest movement, even though it ought to be and needs to be part of the protest and even to be among its leaders, for Zionist, patriotic and ethical reasons: The national-religious sector. Members of that sector haven’t joined the protests because, among other reasons, the protests are perceived as being left wing, according to Yemini.

Ma’ariv reports on the likely battle between Netanyahu and Gantz over passing the budget before the 25 August deadline. Netanyahu said last night: “We don’t know what the economic picture will look like in the longer term. We need to pass a budget quickly and to put money into the economy, and later make a budget for the coming year. There’s no reason for this not to be done, we don’t need to condition passing the budget on political considerations. There is no need for the government to fall. We can pass the budget as early as tomorrow, there is no need for elections.” Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn responded on Channel 13 News: “We are insisting on a budget until the end of 2021. This is what the people of Israel need, and this is what all the economists are saying. We don’t want elections, but if that’s the result, then that’s the result.” The paper also notes there is a growing belief in the Likud that Netanyahu is leaning toward new elections, despite the majority in his party not wanting them.

Kan Radio News reports that the Health Ministry and the Home Front Command have drawn up uniform criteria that will be used in deciding the scope of restrictions on public gatherings. The permitted size of any public gathering will be determined on the basis of the location of the venue, whether it is indoors or outdoors, and the morbidity rate. For example, during periods of low morbidity public gatherings of up to 250 people will be permitted indoors and up to 500 people outdoors. The Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee is expected to vote today in favour of imposing restrictions on cities, towns and villages that have high morbidity. The Health Ministry announced that at least seven people died yesterday of COVID-19 in Israel, bringing the death toll up to 536. The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalised in serious condition currently stands at 342.

Ma’ariv notes that MK Ayelet Shaked’s override clause bill, which will be put to a vote in the Knesset on Wednesday, has no chance of passing due to the ultra-Orthodox parties deciding not to vote for it. Representatives of the Haredi factions announced that they were committed to “the integrity of the coalition, to averting elections, to passing the state budget and fighting the coronavirus”. Instead, Yesh Atid-Telem will try to challenge the coalition on Wednesday by holding a vote on a bill to form a commission of inquiry to examine the submarines affair.