JERUSALEM – August is known in the Israeli journalism trade as the cucumber season (onat mlafefonim). Similar to the ‘silly season’ in the UK, it denotes the sultry days of summer when it’s too hot to even make news, and media organizations are forced to dredge up all kinds of color stories and features to fill the space.
Usually, in Israel, half the country is abroad in August and the other half is stuck inside trying to stay cool and recuperating from the rest of the year’s onslaught of cataclysmic events that constantly one up each other in the frantic news cycle.
This August appeared to be no different. We had:
• A relatively stable government in place after two years and four elections;
• the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to be under control, with much of the country vaccinated, numbers way down and the battered economy opened up;
• our seemingly annual conflict with Hamas in Gaza had already taken place in May;
• and despite a gallant effort, the Israel baseball team in the Olympics (manned by mostly American Jews) failed to win a medal (even though Israel did revel in winning two golds for the first time!).
Suddenly, though, the dog days of summer turned on us with a vengeance bordering on rabies.
First of all, COVID came roaring back, with cases multiplying weekly, the number of serious patients in hospitals also spiking, a third booster shot being rolled out and the dreaded “lockdown” word being bandied about for the month-long holiday period beginning with Rosh Hashanah. Most parents were aghast at the specter of the school year opening being delayed until October, having scrambled all summer to find day care and activities for their home bound kids.
Then, out of nowhere, a huge series of fires engulfed the forests around the Jerusalem hills for three days, destroying hundreds of acres of trees, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents of towns and moshavs in the area and threatening to reach homes. Throughout Jerusalem, clouds of black smoke blocked out the sun and an acrid smell filled the air, thick with ash. Thankfully, there was no loss of life and minimal damage to property.
Another silver lining was the cooperation between Israeli firefighters and their counterparts in the Palestinian Authority, which sent four contingents to help battle the blazes. ‘Better neighbors through disaster’ was a headline that was unexpected, but welcome.
In the middle of that tumult, the dreaded alert sirens signifying a rocket fired from Gaza were sounded – the first time since the IDF’s Operation Guardian of the Walls in May. The rocket didn’t cause any damage, but according to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s directive, any provocation from the terror groups in Gaza would be met with a military reaction. Would we see an escalation into another full-blown conflict?
That question became even more relevant when an IDF soldier, Barel Shmueli, 21, from Be’er Yaakov near Rishon Lezion was shot in the head at point-blank range during clashes with Palestinians who gathered in a Hamas-led protest along the Gaza border on Saturday. In addition to worrying every Israeli parent with children in the army, the incident only sharpened the point that 16 years after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Gaza hasn’t withdrawn from Israel.
Also, this month, the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan. Although not directly affecting Israel, we were riveted to the images on the TV screens just like everyone else.
And of course, the sites and front pages were full of the “Israel angle.” We have a wealth of experience with withdrawals, whether it be from the Sinai to make way for peace with Egypt, from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005. Not all of them worked out so well, and pundits weren’t shy about explaining why the U.S. and Biden were right, or wrong, in their move.
And the other angle was, of course, how the withdrawal and reactions to it would affect the Biden-Bennett summit. Would Biden be reluctant about summoning a peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians and keep foreign policy on the slow burner? Or would he try to deflect the criticism of his decisions by shifting the focus to a new initiative, despite the knowledge that Bennett’s tenuous coalition has no consensus on forwarding a two-state solution at present.
All at once, the slow news season had become an exhausting and stressful period of crises and catastrophes amid the coronavirus. Luckily, there’s another week left in August. Maybe just enough for a short cucumber season before we have to start cutting up salad for our holiday meals?
David Brinn grew up in Maine and is the managing editor of The Jerusalem Post.