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What Happened: December 21, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Russia cuts gas supplies to Europe over the weekend, causing energy prices on the continent to hit a new record high; Amazon agreed to censor criticism of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping; Israeli Arab politician Mansour Abbas says Israel was born and will remain a Jewish state

The Scroll
December 21, 2021

The Big Story

After almost a month of assessing the evolution and impact of the new Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, it’s time to pause and take note of what we know so far. Three things jump out: It spreads fast; there is no evidence so far that it is more deadly than previous strains and some preliminary evidence that it is less severe; vaccines continue to make infections less severe, but they aren’t stopping the spread.

Omicron has now overtaken the Delta variant as the leading source of new infections in the United States, accounting for some 73% of all new cases nationwide—and up to 90% of new cases in the New York area—according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In South Africa, where the first cases of the Omicron strain were detected, overall cases hit an all-time high, but early reports have shown that both hospitalizations and deaths were lower than they were during the peaks of previous COVID-19 infection waves. In comments to the press last Friday, South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla said that excess deaths were under 2,000 a week, roughly 12.5% of their previous peak. Excess deaths refers to the number of deaths above the historical average and is a key metric for evaluating the severity of COVID-19 waves because, unlike the total number of infections, it only measures the health impacts of the disease and doesn’t vary with the frequency of testing. However, death rates also take longer to measure than other indicators due to the time period—typically weeks—between infection and death. Other indications of Omicron’s relative lethality come from data released Tuesday by the British Office for National Statistics that shows combined virus-related deaths in England and Scotland are at a two-month low this week. Despite an explosion in overall case numbers in England, with infections more than doubling between last Sunday and Friday, hospitalizations stayed flat. It’s too early to say whether the disease will continue along this course of rapid growth coupled with relatively mild infections, let alone whether it will follow the same course in the United States. Finally, when it comes to vaccines, “a growing body of preliminary research suggests the COVID-19 vaccines used in most of the world offer almost no defense against becoming infected by the highly contagious Omicron variant,” as an article in Sunday’s New York Times put it. The article goes on to state that “high levels of previous COVID exposure,” which is the precondition for natural immunity, “might blunt Omicron’s impact.” 

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Today’s Back Pages: Tony Badran Asks: Is Israel Facing Up to Reality on Hamas and Hezbollah?

The Rest

→ Amazon has extensive contracts with the U.S. government that are worth tens of billions of dollars and give the tech giant access to high-level national security secrets. Amazon is also a company that agreed to delete from its site all negative reviews of a book by China’s leader Xi Jinping when it was asked to do so by the Chinese government, according to a new report in Reuters. The censorship happened two years ago in response to a spate of negative reviews left on the anthology of Xi’s speeches, according to sources who Reuters says are familiar with the matter. “I think the issue was anything under five stars,” one of the sources said.
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→Applying its biggest point of geo-economic leverage, Russia cut gas supplies to Europe over the weekend, causing energy prices on the continent to hit a new record high on Tuesday—just as temperatures are expected to drop below zero. The Yamal pipeline that brings natural gas through Belarus and Poland to Germany was operating at only 4% of capacity Monday, according to The Moscow Times. Russia’s control over natural gas supplies is a major source of its power in European affairs and a feature of the country’s negotiating strategy during past conflicts with Ukraine.

→Private emails between Dr. Anthony Fauci and then head of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins show the two top U.S. health officials coordinating a strategy to achieve a “devastating takedown”—Collins’ words—of a paper by a group of epidemiologists challenging the effectiveness of lockdowns. The paper, called “The Great Barrington Declaration,” argued against government-mandated lockdowns and in favor of a herd-immunity approach to the virus focused on protecting the most vulnerable populations. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, mainstream epidemiological authorities, including the World Health Organization, repeatedly advised against enforcing lockdowns, otherwise known as mass quarantines, in the event of a future pandemic—doing so at least twice in published guidance in 2019 alone. The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Phil Magness, an economic historian at the libertarian think tank American Institute for Economic Research, the institution where the declaration was drafted. In the emails, Collins refers to the doctors who published the declaration as “three fringe epidemiologists.” The authors were Martin Kulldorff, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, and Sunetra Gupta a professor of theoretical epidemiology at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford. Despite Collins and Fauci plotting over emails, neither ever substantively refuted the strategy proposed in the declaration.
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→The tech giants—Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Uber—made up roughly 55% of all spending on sponsorships in top newsletters aimed at Washington, D.C., policy makers, such as those published by The Washington Post and Axios, according to a report in Axios that cites new data collected by the public affairs firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. The spending spree is more a general public relations effort aimed at burnishing the tech companies’ reputations rather than an effort to lobby for specific policies.

“Israel was born a Jewish state … It was born this way and it will remain this way,” Israeli Arab politician Mansour Abbas said in an interview Tuesday, an unusual statement in Israeli political culture where the standard for Arab politicians has been to challenge the legitimacy of the state’s Jewish character. For Abbas, who made history early this year by helping to break Israel’s endless gridlock and form a government to oust former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the real question is not the status of the state but “the status of the Arab citizen in the Jewish State of Israel,” a challenge that he said “does not just stand in front of Mansour Abbas, but in front of the Jewish community and the Jewish citizen.” Abbas has earned a reputation in Israeli politics both for his political skills and his unique position as a “proud Arab and Muslim” and head of the Islamist Ra’am party who also calls himself “a citizen of the state of Israel.” Earlier this year, Abbas led efforts to restore synagogues burned down during rioting in the mixed city of Lod after Israel’s war with Hamas.

→More evidence of the trend we’ve noted before of nonwhite voters defecting from the Democrats and reshaping the United States’ party divide along new lines, where factors such as educational level are often better indicators of political support than race is.

A new national PBS / Marist poll finds Joe Biden’s approval rating is significantly LOWER with Hispanics than it is with whites.

Approve: 33%
Disapprove: 65%
Net: -32

Approve: 40%
Disapprove: 56%
Net: -16

These numbers are devastating for Democrats.

— Giancarlo Sopo (@GiancarloSopo) December 20, 2021

→It’s the kind of plan that a bunch of ambitious college-age Grateful Dead followers might come up with if someone put them in charge of U.S. security policy for a day—that, or a side plot in a Thomas Pynchon novel: Slip the Soviets the touchy-feely love drug MDMA, better known as ecstasy, to soften them up ahead of negotiations with U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Improbable as it sounds, Rick Doblin, who founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and Carol Rosin, who founded the Institute for Security and Cooperation in Outer Space, swear they actually pulled it off. As chronicled in a recent article in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “In 1985, Rosin says, she took a suitcase full of MDMA to a friend’s apartment in Moscow. In walked mutual friends with empty medicine bottles, which she proceeded to fill with tablets of Ecstasy.” It’s that classic American story in which you can’t tell if it’s about hippie idealism or a CIA front. Anyway, I’m not sure I believe it, but I’m rooting for it to be true. 
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The Back Pages

backpages Tablet Levantine Correspondent Tony Badran Asks: Is Israel Facing Up to Reality on Hamas and Hezbollah?

On Dec. 10, a large explosion rocked the Palestinian camp Burj al-Shemali outside the southern Lebanon city of Tyre. The site of the explosion was a center belonging to the Palestinian terror group Hamas that includes a mosque and a health clinic. Residents told local media that a fire from the blast spread to the mosque, where it triggered the explosion of weapons stored inside.

On the surface, the explosion served as a reminder of Hamas’ habitual use of civilian structures for military purposes and of the group’s military activity in Lebanon. But, more important, the incident highlighted that Israel may finally be breaking with its shortsighted public posture that Hezbollah bears no responsibility for Hamas’ activity. Shortly before the explosion at Burj al-Shemali, there were long overdue signs of Israel developing a new willingness to acknowledge reality and hold Hezbollah responsible for attacks carried out in the country the group controls.

In 2018, Israel publicized an assessment of Hamas building training camps and weapons facilities in Lebanon with assistance from Hezbollah, but its posture toward Hezbollah in Lebanon mostly impeded its willingness to take any overt action to deter the buildup. Then the issue resurfaced this past May, during the brief war between Israel and Hamas. While the fighting was focused in Gaza and southern Israel, on three separate occasions that month, an unidentified group, which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at the time maintained was a Palestinian faction, fired rockets at Israel from southern Lebanon. Most of them landed in the Mediterranean or failed to make it into Israeli territory. The IDF responded with artillery shelling, and that was the end of it. No second front opened up in the north, and Hezbollah didn’t join the fray.

After the May war ended, there were two more such rocket attacks, in late July and in early August. The last one saw a slight escalation in Israel’s response as the IDF used airstrikes in addition to artillery fire, but struck nothing of value. In turn, Hezbollah decided it needed to respond in order to preserve what it calls the deterrence equation, which says such Israeli strikes inside Lebanese territory cannot be left unanswered. Its response was therefore formulaic: a barrage of 20 rockets deliberately fired into open terrain in the Golan Heights. Once again, Israel and Hezbollah had performed their dance, and it ended there. There were no other rocket attacks by this so-called Palestinian faction. 

While the attack-counterattack sequence was a predictable feature of the status quo, the Israeli response over the past six months was significant for how absurd it was. The messaging that came out of Israel about the power dynamics in Lebanon and what the proper Israeli course of action should be, presumably informed in part by the IDF, pushed two main points. First, that Hamas’ activities, although assisted and supervised by Iran, actually presented a challenge for Hezbollah. That is, Hamas supposedly was looking to operationalize a second front against Israel irrespective of or even against Hezbollah’s preference, which could in turn embroil Hezbollah in a conflict it didn’t necessarily want. Second, that Israel’s response to any provocation from Hamas in the north should be in Gaza, not necessarily in Lebanon, so as not to play into Hamas’ hand.

What this messaging was about, really, was Israel’s posture toward Hezbollah. Israeli officials understood that it was Iran and Hezbollah who allowed Hamas (assuming it was Hamas or even a “Palestinian faction”) to fire those rockets during the last Gaza war, and that by doing so they were engaged in a probing exercise designed to test Israel’s response. Iran and Hezbollah wanted to see if they could extend the rules of engagement that Israel has agreed to in Lebanon—Israel avoids striking in Lebanon, Hezbollah does not activate the Lebanese front—to Hamas (or an “anonymous” party). This would establish a precedent in which Hamas—or, for that matter, any unnamed faction—could harass Israel from Lebanese territory under Hezbollah’s protective umbrella. Israel would be dissuaded from retaliating with serious strikes inside Lebanon by the risk of setting off a broader war with Hezbollah. The gambit was to influence Israel’s operational calculus in Gaza and the West Bank, and even in Jerusalem, as Hezbollah stated explicitly during the May war. More generally, it would allow Iran and Hezbollah to heat things up with Israel, from Lebanon, cost-free.

The IDF’s response to the attacks between May and August on the one hand signaled Israel’s refusal to accept an alteration to the existing rules. On the other hand, it communicated that Israel was not interested in changing them itself. Against that backdrop, all the presumably IDF-informed commentary reinforced this posture: Israel sees Hamas’ operations in Lebanon as independent from — or even intended to embroil — Hezbollah. By endorsing the fiction that Hamas is an independent actor in Lebanon capable of going rogue, Israeli officials justify not countering aggression from Hezbollah. The nominal benefit of that tactic is that it avoids allowing minor incidents to escalate into a larger war—but at the cost of allowing Iran and Hezbollah to manipulate Israel’s self-deterrence and push the envelope.

There are signs, finally, that Israel has potentially reevaluated this approach and is bringing its public messaging closer in line with reality. A week before the Dec. 10 explosion at the Burj al-Shemali camp, an unsourced report in Israel’s Yediot Ahronot laid out the latest, presumably official assessment of Hamas activities and plans in Lebanon and their relation to Hezbollah and Iran. The report retained some of the standard silliness, but significantly, it held Hezbollah responsible for Hamas’ activity. The report stated plainly that Hezbollah oversaw the establishment of whatever capability Hamas is said to be building in Lebanon and added, correctly, that the Shiite group had a veto over any movement by Hamas it did not approve of. It then went on to say that any Hamas attacks from Lebanon will require “a strong Israeli response in Lebanon,” even as it reiterated that neither Hezbollah nor Israel were interested in a major conflict.

Is this a meaningful shift? And, if so, why now? While subtle, this modification is in accord with another message Israel has conveyed: Should Hezbollah press ahead with local production of precision-guided missiles, the IDF would jettison the existing rules and target the assembly facilities in Lebanon. As for timing, it’s not entirely clear why this is happening now except that perhaps Israeli officials recognize that they are running out of time.

After a decade of misreading the United States’ intentions on Iran, the Israelis are now watching in horror as the same Obama administration crew is leading them, once again, toward the endgame of a nuclear Iran. Forced to reckon with the fact that it will be up to Israel to deal with that threat, the Israeli government is now openly talking about plans for a strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

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Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel and Park MacDougald.