Israel media review

Biden of the Levant: What the press is saying on November 18

The US president-elect’s presence is felt in a fresh run-in between Israel and Iran, nuke deal worries, Palestinian resumption of security cooperation and maybe more

Joe Biden pauses while speaking to supporters in front of an Arizona state flag, at the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America's training center, on October 8, 2020, in Phoenix. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)
Joe Biden pauses while speaking to supporters in front of an Arizona state flag, at the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America's training center, on October 8, 2020, in Phoenix. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

1. Heard of email? An Israeli bombing raid in Syria in the predawn hours of Wednesday dominates Hebrew headlines Wednesday morning and everyone sees the conflict as a great way to send messages and keep in touch.

  • While Israeli sorties against Iranian targets in Syria were once so common as to be nearly ho-hum, they have become more rare, as is Israel’s decision to take responsibility for Wednesday strike, which came in response to the planting of land mines along the Syria-Israel buffer zone.
  • ToI’s Judah Ari Gross reports that according to IDF spokesman Hidai Zilberman, the strikes were meant to send a message to Iran and Syria both.
  • “The spokesman said that Israel tried to send a similar message to Iran and Syria in August after a previous attempt to plant bombs along the border, but it evidently ‘wasn’t received,’” he writes.
  • Amos Yadlin, head of the INSS think tank, tells Kan that “the Iranians have been trying to create a front against Israel in the Syrian Golan for a while. [Qassem] Soleimani’s plans are at 5-7% completion. Israel hasn’t attacked for two months, and now the message is that despite the changing of the guard in the US, Israel will continue to act.”
  • Channel 12 news reports that, according to the army, the landmines were placed by locals, which shows how deeply the Iranians are entrenched in the Syrian Golan.
  • Zvi Hauser, head of the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, tells Army Radio that Israel is also learning lessons about the DMZ between Israel and Syria. “The placement of mines in the demilitarized zone is a violation of the separation of forces agreement of 1974. Given the repeated violation of the agreement, Israel should rethink the relevance of its continued existence,” he warns cryptically.
  • Writing before the bomb attack, Israel Hayom’s Oded Granot calls the placement of the landmines and Israel’s warning of a response “a wake-up call to anyone who thought the war between wars in the north had ended, or had at least taken a break until the end of the war between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.”

2. Put your nukes up: Former general Kobi Marom tells Army Radio that “the Israeli message is important, but the challenge is still ahead of us, and it’s what a Joe Biden administration will do and if the Iran nuke deal will include something about Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Incidents like this may accompany the talks.”

  • Indeed, Israel Hayom reports that Israel is girding for the resumption of talks by drawing up a list of demands for the Americans to consider, chiefly “a deal with no holes.” While the report doesn’t mention Syria specifically, it does say Israel wants the deal to include an Iranian commitment to end aggressive activities in the region.
  • ToI’s Jacob Magid notes that despite strong feelings, Israeli officials had mostly remained mum in public about the deal and what Biden might or might do, until ambassador Ron Dermer’s speech to the Economic Club in Washington Monday.
  • “The first thing I would say to the incoming administration [is], ‘Sit with your allies in the region. Listen to us. We have the most skin in the game. We have the most to lose. Speak to us. Try to work out a common position, which I think is possible, not only to do with nuclear issues but also to deal with the regional aggression of Iran,’” Dermer was quoted saying.
  • Using the Syria tensions, Israel Hayom, which has insinuated that both Defense Minister Benny Gantz and US President-elect Joe Biden are somehow pro-Iran or being controlled by Tehran, now also finds a way to accuse both of them together. Former general Ronen Itzik, writing a column for the paper, claims that Gantz’s complaints about the situation on the Golan frontier being “insufferable” are empty.
  • “It’s impossible not to ask — how insufferable? The reality is that it is definitely sufferable. Fact — we are living with it, and truthfully, the defense echelon has broadcast a certain frustration with the arsenal of responses we have given to this ‘insufferable situation,’ The trend we see is quite clear and in lines up one to one with what is happening in the US,” he writes.
  • “The Iranians understand that the electoral chaos in the US is a great time for them to escalate tensions,” he adds, referring to what would normally be a workaday presidential transition but not actually addressing the source of the supposed chaos. “Given the election of Joe Biden to the presidency, the Iranian understand that Barack Obama’s flaccid approach is back on the table, including the defeatist nuclear deal. They see the weakness of the Trump administration and are sharpening their swords.”
  • The New York Times, however, reports that Trump is not twiddling his thumbs: “President Trump, even as a lame duck, is moving quickly to increase American sanctions against Iran and sell advanced weapons to its regional enemies, policies that would be difficult for a new president to reverse.”
  • The piece, though, notes that Biden’s return to the nuke deal may be harder than it seems. “Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, has tried to pass on to Mr. Biden’s advisers through intermediaries Tehran’s insistence that the United States return to the Iran deal unconditionally before any talks resume, according to Iranian diplomats. The diplomats say that Iran is not interested in a temporary freeze and will not stop enriching uranium or reduce its large stockpile in the meantime. They said that Iran would return to full compliance with the deal when the United States does.”

3. Say my name: Tuesday saw a different kind of mine defused (or armed), as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin held their first talks with Biden since the election.

  • My ToI colleagues Raphael Ahren and Jacob Magid note, “Both men referred to the former US vice president as the president-elect — a first for Netanyahu — ending a long saga in which Israel was seen as unwilling to take a position on the election outcome.”
  • That simple title is also highlighted in other reports, a testament to Israeli journalists closely watching Netanyahu for whether he’ll bend the knee to Biden, mirroring US journalists closely watching Trump for the same thing.
  • Haaretz notes that just a few hours before the conversation, Netanyahu would not call Biden president-elect. “In a radio interview on Tuesday, Netanyahu avoided directly answering the question of who he thinks won the United States presidential election, saying: ‘Why should I have an opinion?’ Without directly mentioning Biden’s victory, Netanyahu said, ‘I think everyone pretty much understands what needs to be understood and what is probably going to happen officially.’”
  • Kan reports, citing sourcing close to the issue, that the timing was nothing more than a coincidence, amid concerns that Biden had been blackballing Netanyahu over his overt support for Donald Trump. “The president-elect has been having conversations with world leaders by geographic region, and today it was Israel’s turn.”
  • Israel Hayom, apparently still in Trump’s corner, devotes little space to the call (as do most outlets). But in English, at least, it reports on “surprising” results of a survey that shows that most Israelis, 91% to be exact — think Biden supports Israel.
  • Actually somewhat surprising is another survey finding showing that 71% of Israelis were satisfied with the election results, which goes against the accepted (and supposedly polled) wisdom that most Israelis back Trump.
  • The paper quotes former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer saying that Israelis should beware the Democrat: “Even if President Biden on some of the major issues does have a history of being a friend of Israel, I don’t think it is going to translate throughout the [other echelons of the US] government. We saw that in the Obama years.”

4. Coordination ends its vacation: Haaretz leads off with the news that the Palestinian Authority has announced it is resuming security cooperation with Israel, offering two competing takes on the move, several months after the coordination mechanism was frozen due to Israeli annexation plans.

  • In one, the paper’s Jacky Khoury writes that the decision testifies to the failure of the Palestinian gambit: “This is another message to the Palestinian public and international community that the Palestinian leadership is working without a clearly formulated strategy.”
  • ToI’s Aaron Boxerman writes that PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh nonetheless “attempted to spin the return to coordination with Israel as ‘a victory for our great nation,’” in an interview with Palestine TV.
  • Haaretz’s Amos Harel, meanwhile, calls it the first fruits in the Middle East of Biden’s election victory, which he says gives the Palestinians cover to justify the move, noting that Israeli security officials had expressed frustration during the freeze period. But he’s not hopeful there will be many more fruits.
  • “Biden’s advent will probably be felt in the coming months in the Palestinian arena, as the Palestinians cease their self-righteous entrenchment and their refusal of any ties with Israel or the United States. Still, there will be no constructive negotiations in the near future, even after Trump consents or is compelled to leave the White House,” he predicts.
  • While Harel writes that Israeli security officials described the lack of security coordination as a “bone in the throat,” Walla’s Amir Buchbut notes that the period was not marked by an uptick in violence or instability.
  • “More than that, it was once again proven that the effective force against terror on the Palestinian terror side is the Preventative Force, together with high-quality, accurate intel from the Shin Bet and unending arrests by the IDF,” he writes.
  • Ynet’s report also contradicts Harel, saying that Israeli security officials, who were surprised by the Palestinian move, “are not discounting the possibility that the Palestinians will now ask to restart talks with Israel. … Senior PA officials, it seems, want to take advantage of the momentum following Joe Biden’s election as president and are trying to present achievements given the rising despair among Palestinians.”
  • Channel 12 news calls the move by the Palestinians a “tribute to the future Biden administration — in the hopes that it will lead to an improvement in ties between Ramallah and Washington.”
  • It also belies Yedioth’s reporting on Israelis’ surprise, reporting that the move was actually the result of backchannel talks led by Defense Minister Gantz.
  • Several outlets note that the move will likely sink any hope of reconciliation between the PA and Hamas, but one doesn’t even need to go as far as the terror group in Gaza to find criticism of the decision: “The return to security coordination is more than a sin, it’s a serious error that the Palestinian people will pay a hefty price for,” former MK Jamal Zahalka tells Army Radio.

5. Right and righter: Meanwhile, Israel’s own government is finding it hard to coordinate. Kan reports that sources close to Netanyahu say the chances of Gantz becoming prime minister as part of their rotation deal are near zero.

  • A source is quoted saying that there is a “negligible chance that Gantz will serve as prime minister,” adding that “he has lost legitimacy.”
  • Gantz too can read the tea leaves, and told a presser Tuesday that “we’ll see,” when asked if Netanyahu will honor the deal.
  • In Yedioth, Sima Kadmon notes that the comments come exactly a year before said rotation is supposedly going to take place. But she smells elections instead: “Half a year since the formation of this government and we are galloping toward its dissolution. Nothing has changed. Just another week with no agreements on the budget. But as the days pass and nothing happens, it gets us closer to elections.”
  • And when it comes to a vote, it’s not Gantz Netanyahu is chiefly worried about but Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, a once-again rising star as right-wingers seemingly seek shelter from a tainted Netanyahu.
  • A poll published Tuesday by Channel 13 shows Likud actually opening up a lead over Yamina 29-22, where previous polls had showed them only a few seats apart.
  • A separate poll from I24, though, shows Yamina with 25 seats, nipping at the heels of Likud with 28.
  • Speaking to right-wing radio station Galey Yisrael, Netanyahu goes on the attack against Bennett, saying that “I don’t know if Bennett is left or right. It depends which day you ask.”
  • Hitting back, Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked tells Army Radio: “Netanyahu is the last person who should be doubting the rightiness of Bennett and me. He’s the one who gave up on annexation, dismantled the right-wing bloc and threw Yamina into the opposition.”
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