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Israel media review

Killer moves: What the press is saying on November 29

Israel’s reported assassination of the ‘father’ of Iran’s nuke program brings the world of skullduggery to the surface as pundits weigh the possible ramifications from Tehran to DC

This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020 (Fars News Agency via AP)
This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020 (Fars News Agency via AP)

1. Qom at me bro: The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh continues to lead the news agenda in Israel on Sunday, as it has all weekend.

  • The killing is not only played up for its importance in terms of setting back Iran’s nuclear program, but also for the fact that Israel is widely understood to be the culprit, even if it is keeping its mouth officially shut.
  • Not so the press, which covers the killing closely and spills a Gulf’s worth of ink speculating and trying to figure out what the killing means and what the future may hold.
  • Haaretz’s top headline calls Fakhrizadeh the “father of Iran’s nuclear program,” and says the assassination has been attributed to Israel.
  • Israel Hayom also calls him a father, but father of “the bomb.” The tabloid’s front page juxtaposes a picture of the scene of the attack with a picture of people in Tehran carrying Israeli and American flags (ostensibly for burning), which it calls “frustration in Iran.”
  • The paper devotes nine pages to the affair, though you’ll have to get all the way to pages eight and nine to find the actual news story, the rest of the package being made up of analysis, speculation and various sidebars.
  • The paper’s lead story is mostly made up of quotes from an unnamed “Western intelligence source” who speculates that Iran will not hit back and calls it a “moral and professional blow to Iran.”
  • “The sequence of events that took place since taking over the Iranian nuclear archives shows that Israel has a deep presence in the Iranian system. It can reach many places. The Iranians can’t feel safe anywhere,” writes Amnon Lord in Israel Hayom.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth puts Fakhrizadeh on its front page with a gun sight around his head, though twice inside he is referred to as “The Iranian Dr. Strangelove,” rather than a father of anything. But despite having one of the country’s most well-sourced spycraft reporters on its payroll, Yedioth also dispenses with any straight news, instead couching bits and pieces within Ronen Bergman’s commentary.
  • Thus the paper’s lead story starts off with several paragraphs not about the assassination, which it assumes all Israelis are already up on, but rather about a trip Bergman took over two years ago to a secret Israeli facility together with New York Times reporter David Sanger. The facility, a recreation of the secret Iranian nuclear archive and the surrounding streets made for Israeli spies to drill their raid there, is described as the key to understanding the hit on Fakhrizadeh, whose imprint is all over the documents.

2. An Absard situation: In fact it is the New York Times that does much of the heavy lifting, perhaps thanks to the censor forcing Bergman to divert his reporting to a “foreign source,” or perhaps for some other reasons.

  • The Times is the first to report Friday that the assassination near the town of Absard was carried out by Israel: “One American official — along with two other intelligence officials — said that Israel was behind the attack on the scientist.”
  • It adds, “It was unclear how much the United States may have known about the operation in advance.”
  • A second New York Times report late Saturday (or Sunday in Israel) also makes major headlines, with coverage highlighting a passage in which an unnamed Israeli official involved in tracking Fakhrizadeh pats Israel on the back, saying that the scientist’s work “posed such a menace that the world should thank Israel,” in the New York Times’s telling.
  • The article is described in Ynet as “praising the Israeli covert services in a rare way for a paper known for its critical approach to Israel.”
  • The source also says the killings will continue, and the story details some of the ways Israel keeps tabs on Iran, according to former spy and current wonk Bruce Riedel, including via a network of neighbors, like Azerbaijan.
  • “Now, Mr. Riedel argued, the attack on Mr. Fakhrizadeh may be an indication that Israel intends to exploit that network again for similar missions. After an eight-year ‘hiatus’ since the wave of killing from 2010 to 2012, he said, ‘I think it is a signal that the game is afoot, or coming,’” it reports.
  • Israeli outlets also try to keep up with the flurry. An unnamed Western intelligence source tells Channel 12 the killing of the nuclear physicist was the “pinnacle” of Israel’s long-term plans.
  • Kan cites an Israeli official saying that “there’s a straight line between Fakhrizadeh and the assassination of Qassem Soleimani at the start of the year by the US, both from the perspective of its regional activities and from the perspective of its nuclear program.”
  • According to Channel 13 news, Fakhrizadeh had been a target of several Israeli prime ministers as well as several recent directors of the Mossad spy agency.
  • And perhaps there is more coming. Intelligence minister Eli Cohen tells Army Radio that the assassination was a good thing: “Anyone involved in creating a nuclear bomb — is a dead man walking.”

3. Loose lips win elections? Several news outlets note that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had noted Fakhrizadeh’s name in revealing the nuclear archive two years ago.

  • In Israel Hayom, Lilach Shoval points out another clue from the prime minister, the fact that “he released a video that opened with the sentence, ‘I would like to share with you the list of things I’ve done this week. A part of the list, as I can’t reveal everything.’”
  • Yedioth’s Yossi Yehoshua calls the comments “Irresponsible,” and warns of more brazen credit-taking.
  • “A reasonable assessment is that as elections grow nearer, he will increase pressure on Iran, and that must be stopped ahead of time in order not to inflame the region,” he warns.
  • Opposition MK Ram Ben Barak, a former deputy Shin Bet head, tells Army Radio that he is “very disturbed with what they are doing with each operation. The great thing about this campaign is its secrecy, but there are intentional leaks, as also happened with the flight to Saudi Arabia. I’m losing sleep over the fact that we have a prime minister who only consults with those closely attached to him.”
  • Haaretz’s Yossi Melman, whose tweets on the assassination in Hebrew and English were shared by US President Donald Trump, writes, “The messages from Netanyahu and Trump could be interpreted as warmongering against the backdrop of Trump losing the presidential election this month, and as a deliberate attempt to exacerbate the situation, which is already extremely tense amid reports that Trump has considered bombing Iran as a parting gesture before he leaves the White House.”

4. The (eventual) avengers: Now that he’s been taken out, attention is turning to how Iran will respond, or won’t.

  • My colleagues at ToI note: “The matter of how Tehran might react remained up for debate, with pundits suggesting various scenarios: ramping up its nuclear program and enrichment work while abandoning international treaties; launching a major attack on Israel using missiles or other means; attacks on Israeli embassies or Israeli and Jewish targets around the world; attacks on Israeli ships; or attacks via its proxies along Israel’s borders in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.”
  • Channel 12, without citing a source, reports that Israel “knows” a retaliation is coming. However, pundit Ehud Yaari writes that one response would be to up enrichment, which would be fitting given Fakhrizadeh’s role.
  • Kan surmises that Iran will want to hit Israelis abroad but notes, “It will take Tehran time to plan it, and together with coronavirus restrictions, could be pushed off for a while.”
  • Yedioth’s Alex Fishman notes that Israeli blabbering is “practically forcing,” the Iranians to respond, though an attack probably won’t come from the northern border.
  • “Bashar Assad has made a great effort to prevent Iran from responding to Israel from within Syria’s borders. For two years he has been broadcasting to the Iranians that his regime is having a hard time coping with the cost of Israeli-Iranian confrontations on its soil.”
  • And in Lebanon, he writes, Iran may not want to mess up the balance between Israel and Hezbollah.
  • In the same paper, expert Raz Zimmt writes that “experience shows that many times there is a long period between Iranian vows of reprisal and them actually taking place.”
  • Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer writes that Israelis are banking on the assumption that the Iranians will wait to respond until they know what is going on with the incoming Joe Biden administration, but that it is a dangerous game to play.
  • “Is this assassination (or any other operation in Netanyahu’s repertoire) worth the risk that the more cautious members in Iran’s leadership may lose the argument and decide to retaliate after all? And once the window of opportunity closes on January 20, will Joe Biden and his staff shut Israel out of consultations, having had enough of Netanyahu dictating U.S policy?” he asks.

5. Biden their time: Overshadowing everything, from the assassination to the timing to the possible Iranian response and where that may lead, is the US presidential transition.

  • “Fakhrizadeh’s assassination comes as part of what appears to be an Israeli-American attempt to exploit the time left until Joe Biden enters the White House,” writes Walla’s Barak Ravid. “The Trump administration is trying to tie the hands of the next administration and make it hard for it to renew talks with Iran and a return to the nuke deal of 2015.”
  • Ynet’s Ron Ben Yishai writes that “as long as there is the slightest chance that the incoming administration will lift sanctions, Iranians will refrain from a response that would deteriorate the bilateral relations any further.” He also surmises that if they do attack, it may be via Houthi rebels in Yemen shooting a missile or drone at Eilat.
  • Kan’s Moav Vardi guesses that “the decision to assassinate Mohsen Fakhrizadeh may have come from a desire to kill off [renewed nuclear deal] negotiations, with them thinking that after a strike like this, the Iranians will not agree to return to the table at all.”
  • “A major concern for Iran is that even a limited military response on its part would be seized by the US and Israel as an opportunity to unleash a wide-scale response against it,” writes Oded Granot in Israel Hayom. “It is these questions that have reportedly prompted senior advisers to the ayatollah to urge him to bide his time, despite this crushing blow, and to hold off on any retribution until after US President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January.”
  • Haaretz’s lead editorial notes that Israel may also face difficulties in moving forward: “This intoxication with power may well lead not only to a dangerous military conflict with Iran, but also to Israel’s first diplomatic crisis with the Biden administration even before it enters office. Even without this, Israel was facing a difficult job of repairing its relationship with Washington under a Democratic administration. Now it seems that instead of striving to preserve this strategic alliance, which is vital also for the struggle against Iran, Israel is only widening the rift.”
  • The paper’s Zvi Bar’el calls the timing a “clear message to Biden,” but thinks it may boomerang.
  • “Israel’s room to maneuver could shrink if Biden decides as president that any Israeli action against Iran could hurt his efforts to get back to a nuclear agreement, which he would consider a proper basis to stop Iran’s nuclear program and block its ability to develop nuclear weapons,” he writes. “In a moderate scenario, Iran could demand that its willingness to negotiate with the United States over an agreement be linked to Israel stopping its attacks. In a more extreme scenario, Iran might renew its attacks, or those by its proxies in Iraq and Yemen, against American targets to prove that Israel is putting US policy and its position in the region at risk, and undermining the claim that Israel is acting independently without connection to or backing by the United States.”
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