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Media Summary

Israel recovers 5th century baptismal font

The Telegraph, Independent and The Guardian report that Israel’s coronavirus cases topped 60,000 infections over the weekend as thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest the government’s handling of the pandemic and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Independent say the protests are emerging as among the biggest challenges to Netanyahu’s lengthy rule since demonstrations over the cost of living in 2011 drew hundreds of thousands to the streets. The Guardian quotes Einav Schiff, a commentator for Israel’s top-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, who said it was not clear whether the anti-Netanyahu movement was “a full-fledged earthquake” or “merely a tremor that will ultimately pass”. While the protests are visually striking, Likud retains significant support across the country, albeit damaged. The Telegraph notes that Israel’s economy has been battered by the pandemic, with unemployment figures rising to beyond 20 per cent, up from 3.9 per cent before the initial lockdown imposed in early May when the virus first hit Israel.

The Times reports on an Israeli military operation to recover the baptismal font of the fifth-century church of Tel Tekoa from nearby the Palestinian village of Khirbet Tuqu’ in the West Bank. “The civil administration has returned a rare archaeological relic that was stolen approximately 20 years ago,” said the Israeli authorities. For the Palestinian Authority, it was the Israelis that had engaged in an act of theft. Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi said that the Israelis had illegally seized the font from the care of the local administration. She said the removal was “an abominable act of thuggery and cultural appropriation”. The font stayed at Tel Tekoa until 2000 when, as both sides also agree, it was stolen. The Israelis say that their detective work led to the discovery of the font’s whereabouts and its rescue last week. They say the font belongs naturally to the Tel Tekoa site, and have implied, though not confirmed, that it will be returned there.

The Independent reports that animal rescue volunteers in Gaza have launched the first spay-and-neuter scheme in the costal enclave. The programme goes against taboos in the conservative Palestinian territory, where feral dogs and cats are widely seen as pests and many view spaying and neutering as forbidden by Islam. However, recently Hamas has issued a fatwa (religious ruling) a stating that it is more humane to spay and neuter animals than to consign an ever-growing population to misery and abuse.

Stephanie Williams, acting UN envoy to Libya, has told The Financial Times of the huge risk of a miscalculation triggering direct confrontation between rival foreign powers in Libya as weapons and mercenaries continue to pour into the north African state. Williams says an “alphabet soup” of foreign states were violating an international arms embargo as forces mobilised around the strategic city of Sirte. The Mediterranean port holds Libya’s mail oil facilities and is the latest frontline in a 15-month civil conflict between a UN-backed government in Tripoli and fighters loyal to renegade general Khalifa Haftar.

The Telegraph and the Associated Press report on new satellite images released today which shows that Iran has moved a mock aircraft carrier to the strategic Strait of Hormuz, likely ahead of plans to use it for live-fire drills soon. Iranian state media and officials have yet to acknowledge bringing the replica out to the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 per cent of the world’s oil passes. In 2015 Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard carried out a similar mock-sinking military exercise called “Great Prophet 9.” During that drill, Iran swarmed the fake aircraft carrier with speedboats firing machine guns and rockets. Surface-to-sea missiles later targeted and destroyed the fake carrier.

In the Israeli media, Ma’ariv reports that the Likud will hold a faction meeting today in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has requested the presence of every Likud MK. Likud officials say that the faction’s conduct over the last few weeks will be on the agenda, including the absences from the votes over the conversion law and bill to investigate the judges. The report further notes that the main topic pre-occupying the political establishment is the budget. The legal deadline for passing the budget is 25 August and there has been no progress in talks between Likud and Blue and White, leading to growing speculation that Netanyahu is leaning toward early elections. Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee Chairman Zvi Hauser (Derech Eretz), will submit a bill today to postpone the deadline for filing the state budget to this coming November. Within the Likud, the feeling is that in this case Netanyahu would propose to Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett that he join the narrow government in return for positions for him and others in his faction. In such a case, the votes of two other MKs would be necessary.

Writing in Yediot Ahronot, Sever Plocker says Israel should pass a budget until the end of 2021 so that the government can properly prepare for a variety of scenarios and make them known to the public, which would serve as a road map for the economy. “For two years it has not had a budget that was passed by the Knesset — and chaos is rampant … in view of the high budgetary commitments that were passed and those in the pipeline as emergency ordinances, obviously Netanyahu and the Likud’s proposal to make do now by passing a quarter-year mini- budget until the end of 2020 lacks any economic sense or managerial benefit. Economists in and outside of the government who in the past supported such short-lived budgets have changed their approach and utterly negate it. The only way to avert chaos in public sector expenditures, they say, is to relate to the months from October 2020 to December 2021 as one budgetary timeframe.”

New data from the Central Bureau of Statistics in Ma’ariv show that 42 per cent of Israeli citizens 21 and older feel stress and anxiety during the period of the coronavirus crisis. Fifty-five percent are afraid they won’t be able to cover their monthly expenses. Twenty-one percent have reduced the amount of food that they consume. Forty-one percent report a deterioration in their financial situation as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Forty-seven percent have confidence in the government’s handling of the coronavirus, and 77 per cent answered that they have confidence in the health system.

Kan Radio News reports on the leaked recording between Jerusalem District Police Commander Yaron Yedid and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana that appears to indicate the Police have tried to quell demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Residence by giving fines to demonstrators for not wearing masks. Yedid is heard in the recording saying that on Saturday 160 fines had been handed out to demonstrators for not wearing masks and saying that this was unusual since usually, in demonstrations, they refrained from handing out such fines. Ohana said the demonstrations on Balfour Street could not continue. In response to the report, the Israel Police issued a statement saying that it enforces the instruction to wear masks also in demonstrations, unrelated to who the demonstrators are or the reason for the demonstration.

Ma’ariv speculates on what sort of plan Prof. Ronni Gamzu will adopt to help combat the spread of the coronavirus. Even though the entire plan has not yet been formulated, and everything needs to be approved by the Health Ministry and the Prime Minister, the report says it is already clear that a national lockdown will be the last resort. Instead, Gamzu will aim to improve the management of epidemiological investigations in order to enable them to be conducted at the appropriate speed so that it will be possible to rapidly inform those who have taken ill and are still freely moving about. This requires employing the most advanced technologies available. Close associates to Gamzu say that creative alternatives were examined with regard to the conduct of the economy and the public, and that enforcement would probably be a key factor.

All the newspapers comment on the Channel 13 TV report last night that revealed the Shin Bet security service has secretly tracked Israelis’ mobile phones for over two and a half years in a clandestine programme to fight the Islamic State. The programme was reportedly approved by a team of senior Justice Ministry officials, headed by then-state attorney Shai Nitzan as well as Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, but was not subject to parliamentary oversight, legislation, or any regulations. The Shin Bet is suspected of tapping into databases held by mobile phone companies to harvest information — apparently without the companies’ knowledge.

Army Radio reports that Hamas Political Bureau Director Ismail Haniyah rejected a proposal to receive $15bn for projects in Gaza in exchange for disarming Hamas. In an interview to a Qatari newspaper, he said that the proposal had been made to Hamas two months ago as part of the deal of the century and also included the construction of an airport and a seaport in Gaza. In exchange, Hamas would disarm and its members would be incorporated into the police. He also said that Palestinian Authority Chairman Abbas was due to visit the Gaza Strip soon, for the first time in 14 years.