Cameras out, Iran in: 6 things to know for September 10
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Israel media review

Cameras out, Iran in: 6 things to know for September 10

Hours after Knesset panel blocks a Likud bill to allow operatives to film in polling stations, Netanyahu exposes Iranian nuclear facility, leading most of media to ask ‘why now?’

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on September 9, 2019. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on September 9, 2019. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

1. What camera bill? Like clockwork, Israeli media has moved on from its nonstop coverage of legislation that sought to allow party operatives to film in polling stations — à la Likud officials at Arab ballot booths during the last election — after the bill didn’t make it out of committee. The new news is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s exposure of a secret nuclear facility in central Iran in which he says Tehran conducted experiments in the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

  • The reveal, Netanyahu says, was made possible by Israel’s raid on a warehouse in Tehran last year housing Iran’s secret nuclear weapons archives.
  • Once Iran detected that Israel had learned about the secret nuclear site, located in Abadeh, south of Isfahan, the regime quickly destroyed it, Netanyahu says. Showing before and after photos of the site captioned June and July of this year, the premier does not specify the nature of the experiments conducted there.
  • Analyst Ehud Ya’ari of Israel’s Channel 12 news says that the site was near one of the largest air defense facilities Iran has built in the past seven years, and not far from Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility and a yellowcake production facility at Isfahan.
  • In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accuses Netanyahu of seeking a war with his country, tweeting that “the possessor of REAL nukes cries wolf—on an ALLEGED ‘demolished’ site in Iran.”

2. Sick timing bro: As if rival parties weren’t already going to go after Netanyahu for apparently attempting to change the political narrative after suffering the defeat of his camera bill, the premier gave opponents an extra reason to assume the revelation had been politically motivated.

  • As Netanyahu was leaving the room in Jerusalem’s Foreign Ministry, refusing to take reporters’ questions, he pointed to the photographs of the Iranian weapons site that appeared next to him, and quipped that “it’s important that there be cameras everywhere.”
  • Responding to criticism that he had revealed the existence of the third nuclear facility in Iran one week before the elections for political reasons, a “diplomatic source” (read: Netanyahu spokesman) says officials at professional levels recommended that he reveal the information immediately, following Monday’s press conference by the head of the IAEA.
  • But the premier’s rivals, like Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, weren’t buying it: “Netanyahu’s use of sensitive security information for [election] propaganda showcases his flawed judgment. Even in his final days as prime minister, Netanyahu cares only about Netanyahu.”
  • Delving into whether the presser was merely another election ploy or not, The Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren focuses on Netanyahu’s vague statement about experiments at the Abadeh site “to develop nuclear weapons.”
  • “But what kind of experiments? Netanyahu did not specify. Did the site, which the Iranians destroyed once they discovered that Israel detected it, host actual nuclear tests? Unlikely, but again not specified. Did scientists simulate nuclear chain reactions on computers? Did they handle enriched uranium or plutonium? We simply do not know,” Ahren writes.
  • He also points out that Netanyahu’s statement was broadcast live on his various social media accounts, with the logo of his Likud party appearing in the screen’s upper right corner, further playing into skepticism that the announcement was nothing more than an election stunt.
  • Haaretz’s Amos Harel asserts that “there is a whiff of manipulation” in the way Netanyahu presented the revelation. “Contrary to what one might understand from his remarks, this was an Iranian violation from the period before the nuclear agreement, which went into effect in January 2014.”

3. I thought I was your best friend: The timing of Netanyahu’s presentation may also have to do with an apparently imminent rapprochement between Iran and the United States, as US President Donald Trump appears inclined to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.

  • Haaretz’s Noa Landau speculates that a Trump-Rouhani sit-down is all but a done deal and that all Netanyahu has left to do is change the topic and hope the meeting doesn’t take place before next week’s elections.
  • She argues that Trump’s unpredictable behavior is nothing new to Netanyahu. “The Israel lobby in Washington has long been whispering about the growing fear of [Trump’s] sharp and uncontrollable gestures.” The first example of this was Trump’s off-the-cuff 2017 request of Netanyahu to “hold off” on settlement building for a bit followed by his out-of-nowhere  declaration last year that he likes the two-state solution best.
  • But in Trump’s spontaneous interest in meeting Rouhani, the circumstances are different as other players are involved beyond just Israel and the Palestinians, which the Trump administration ignores for the most part anyways.
  • Trump will eventually do whatever falls in line with his “America first” agenda, Landau argues. “And what he thinks is good for America… contrary to his friend Netanyahu’s view, is direct negotiations. Even with enemies, even without preconditions. He does not see it as a weakness and is not afraid to shake hands. From this danger, no [Iran related] slideshow will save Netanyahu.”

4. Panic at the polls: While opponents of the Netanyahu-led camera legislation can breathe easier after the Knesset narrowly blocked its advancement, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz is not convinced that Likud won’t try and wreak havoc at the ballot in other ways.

  • Speaking an an English-language event co-sponsored by The Times of Israel, Gantz expresses fears that Israel could see violence at ballot stations next week. Urging the audience to “reject violence” on election day, the Blue and White chairman says he’s “afraid” Netanyahu does not think similarly on the matter.
  • While Gantz provided no proof for the accusation, in April, Netanyahu’s party equipped some 1,200 of its polling station representatives in Arab towns with cameras. At several locations, the discovery of the cameras led to skirmishes between Likud officials.
  • The Blue and White chairman calls for showing greater respect for the country’s minorities before going on to claim that Israel’s Arab citizens and Palestinians living in the West Bank under Israeli military occupation were better off than most other Arabs in the region.
  • “If you are not a Saudi who sneezes $200 bills, then the best place to be an Arab in the Middle East is in Israel and the second best place is in the West Bank,” he says, using a common right-wing talking point.
  • Summarizing the camera bill affair, ToI founding editor David Horovitz cautiously lauds Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman for allowing Israeli democracy to chug on for another day.
  • “Though a somewhat unreliable upholder of democratic principles, what Liberman was doing was not an act of either left or right, however. He was, albeit certainly with his own narrow political interests in mind, upholding the integrity of the electoral process, one of the core principles of our democracy. And he was doing so in the face of a prime minister who seems bent on crushing such principles to try to stay in power,” he writes.

5. Kahanists in the Knesset: A Kan poll published a week ahead of the election shows the extremist Otzma Yehudit party crossing the electoral threshold and gaining four seats — the fourth poll in recent days predicting such a result.

  • It’s worth remembering that in the previous election’s final days, polls consistently showed Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party crossing the threshold leading to nonstop coverage of the pot-supporting “surprise of the election.” The libertarian party didn’t end up making it in, but that was so last April and Otzma Yehudit will surely be different, the party’s chairman Itamar Ben Gvir would have you believe.
  • Increasingly convinced of Ben Gvir’s political weight is Netanyahu. The PM’s mouthpiece Israel Hayom reports that the premier is weighing a ceasefire of attacks on Otzma Yehudit in recognition that it could well make it into the Knesset after all despite Likud’s claims that such a scenario is Looney Tunes. Those extra four mandates would surely come in handy to Netanyahu, with just about every poll suggesting he’s going to have a hard time scraping together a right-wing coalition of 61 seats even if he is given the mandate from the president to form the next government.

6. DRAMA: Netanyahu announces that he will be giving a “dramatic” announcement at 5 p.m., giving reporters a whole day to pretend not to speculate in the bubble known as Twitter.

  • Some are declaring that they won’t take the bait as they did in January when the prime minister released a similar statement hours before a lackluster statement in which the the prime minister defended himself amid the ongoing criminal probes against him.
  • Army Radio’s Yanir Cozin initially posts the following reaction to Netanyahu’s announcement
  • But moments later, he announces having just gotten off the phone with a Likud official who told him the reveal would be “diplomatic related with a political angle to it.” Drama indeed.
  • Other political correspondents such as Ynet’s Yuval Karni, Walla’s Tal Shalev and Channel 12’s Amit Segal take to Twitter to announce that they have no idea what the announcement will be and that if their friends could stop texting them asking what it is that would be great.
  • While most of the Hebrew news sites, including Israel Hayom, have thus far refrained from taking up website space reporting on the “dramatic” announcement they know nothing about as they did in January, national religious outlets Israel National News, Srugim and Kipa stray away from the pack, convinced this time things will be different.
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