search
Analysis

Likud minister’s Iran eco-terror accusations damage Israel’s credibility

Gila Gamliel keeps claiming the oil spill polluting Israel’s beaches was deliberately engineered by Tehran. Offering no proof, she makes Israel look paranoid, conspiratorial

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel walk on Ashdod beach on February 21, 2021, after an offshore oil spill caused damage along Israel's Mediterranean coast (Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel walk on Ashdod beach on February 21, 2021, after an offshore oil spill caused damage along Israel's Mediterranean coast (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

As last month’s oil spill continues to do damage to Israel’s territorial waters and beaches, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel is doing damage to herself, to the prime minister and to Israel’s efforts to contain Iran, with her ongoing accusations that Tehran deliberately engineered the incident.

Pressed Thursday night during an interview with Channel 12 to provide evidence to back up her repeated claims that last month’s spill, which polluted most of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline with hundreds of tons of tar, was an act of “environmental terror” by Iran, Gamliel offered only circumstantial evidence regarding the ship and the damage it caused.

The previous day, on Wednesday afternoon, Gamliel initially explained in an interview why the incident could not have been intentional, but was instead the result of negligence. Hours later, however, based on what she said was new information, she was accusing Iran of carrying out the spill as part of its campaign against Israel — a charge she repeated several times on Thursday.

“We have discovered that this wasn’t merely environmental criminality, but rather environmental terror,” she said at a Wednesday evening press conference. “Now we have found that Iran doesn’t only carry out terror via nuclear weapons or via attempts to establish a presence on our borders. Iran carries out terrorism by damaging the environment.”

Speaking to Army Radio on Thursday morning, Gamliel pushed back at suggestions that the spill was an accident, reiterating, “To say that this isn’t terror is simply inappropriate.”

Asked directly if the spill was deliberate or an accident she said, “If they had fired a missile at an Israeli ship would anyone ask if it was a mistake or deliberate? In my view, it was a deliberate act of terror.”

Gamliel cited the fact that the ship was not properly reported to international authorities and that it turned off its radars in front of Israel’s coast as ostensible evidence of the spill being a terror attack.

The Libyan-owned ship, the Emerald, was smuggling crude oil from Iran to Syria at the time of the spill, the Environmental Protection Ministry said in a statement Thursday, citing satellite images by the TankerTrackers monitoring group. The ship has since returned to Iran and is currently anchored there.

Israeli soldiers wearing protective suits listen to a briefing ahead of cleanup operations to remove tar from a beach after an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea at Sharon Beach Nature Reserve, near Gaash, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“I’m learning this [topic], you know I like to learn, and I know how to learn,” she said during Thursday night’s Channel 12 interview. “Do not make light of this, take it seriously,” she urged.

Challenged repeatedly for proof of the Iranian terror allegation, Gamliel stressed that she was choosing her words carefully when she called the incident Iranian terror.

“From a logical perspective, when you see the chain of circumstances, it shows you… the transfer of oil from Iran to Syria, the axis of evil that we hear a lot about,” she said. She then sought to turn the conversation to Netanyahu’s efforts to convince the US not to sign a nuclear deal with Iran.

Though Israel’s security establishment says it is investigating the alleged Iranian link, statements by anonymous security officials show how little credence they give the claims. Channel 13 news has reported that Israel’s defense establishment “does not share the assessment” of Iranian eco-terror advanced by Gamliel. The network said it was “striking” that neither the Mossad intelligence agency nor other defense bodies were involved in formulating Gamliel’s conclusion.

Channel 12 said the Environmental Protection Ministry had handed over its report on the matter to security bodies, which were reviewing its findings.

On Friday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said there was no evidence to support the allegation of deliberate Iranian eco-terrorism, though he said he could not completely rule out the possibility.

“It’s not plausible,” said Dr. Ori Goldberg of the IDC Lauder School of Government. “It’s certainly not an act of environmental terrorism. This is so far removed from any known Iranian MO [modus operandi] it is ridiculous.”

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel at a press conference regarding an oil spill on Israel’s beaches, at the Ministry of Environmental Protection offices in Jerusalem on March 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Goldberg argued Gamliel’s claims were harmful to Israel’s interests. “The only thing detrimental to our efforts is how dumb this makes us look.”

The environmental group Greenpeace also blasted Gamliel for her claims, saying the assertion of a terror attack “is outrageous and factually baseless at this stage.”

The group said that in making the claim, the minister “is minimizing the well-known and widespread phenomenon of marine pollution by ship oil spills. The minister’s conduct on the matter smells of electioneering and an attempt to score political points over an ecological disaster.”

Gamliel is also putting Netanyahu in an uncomfortable position. With Iran intentionally flouting the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, and the Biden administration looking for a way back into the agreement, the prime minister has to convince voters that he can lead the regional anti-Iran coalition while convincing a Democratic US president that pressure on Tehran will work better than concessions. Unfounded accusations of terror by a Likud minister and Netanyahu ally don’t make his job any easier.

Netanyahu is rarely slow to call attention to credible evidence of Iranian terrorist activity. It is telling, then, that he has said nothing regarding Gamliel’s charges. The Prime Minister’s Office again refused to comment on Gamliel’s assertions on Friday.

Comments by other senior officials in Gamliel’s ministry do not suggest rigorous study of the issue. On Thursday afternoon, the Environmental Protection Ministry’s director-general, David Yahalomi, argued the spill was a form of terrorism, even if not deliberate.

“It doesn’t matter if it was deliberate or not,” Yahalomi asserted to the Kan public broadcaster. “An enemy state that transfers 45 million oil barrels illegally and improperly through Israel’s economic waters is harmful.”

Though many definitions of terrorism exist among scholars, “inadvertent terrorism” is not one of them.

Gamliel’s continued assertions make Israel look conspiratorial, paranoid, and vulnerable. And they could make it harder for credible Israeli accusations of malign Iranian activity to be taken seriously.

read more:
comments