Israel media review

Love in a time of assassination: What the press is saying on November 15

Journalists read many messages into the killing of al-Qaeda’s No. 2 in Tehran, including proof of close US-Israel intel cooperation, and Iran getting into bed with the enemy

A member of Iran's Revolutionary Guards walks past a new mural painted on the walls of the former US embassy in the capital Tehran on November 2, 2019. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
A member of Iran's Revolutionary Guards walks past a new mural painted on the walls of the former US embassy in the capital Tehran on November 2, 2019. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

1. Number 2, with a bullet: A bombshell weekend report from the New York Times details a daring Israeli operation to assassinate al-Qaeda number 2 Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri.

  • According to The Times account of the assassination, al-Masri was driving his sedan close to his home when two Israeli agents on a motorcycle pulled up alongside his vehicle and fired five shots from a silenced pistol, killing him and his daughter, Miriam, who was married to Osama bin Laden’s late son Hamza bin Laden.
  • The story says that Israeli agents carried out the assassination at the behest of the US, leading Israel Hayom to run the somewhat strange headline “ US requests, Israel assassinates,” as if Israel is Washington’s hit man.
  • Israel’s Channel 12 claims that both Israel and the US wanted al-Masri dead, since he had been preparing to attack Jewish and Israeli targets.
  • The channel attributes the information, which is not backed up anywhere, to “Western intelligence sources,” and claims that that is why both Israel and the US had a shared interested in taking him out, rather than the widely assumed revenge for a series of bombings in Africa against US and Israeli/Jewish targets over 20 years ago.
  • The Channel 12 report also specifies that the gunmen were Mossad agents, while Channel 13 claims the gunmen were likely “foreign agents activated by Israel,” though its correspondent also calls Israel the “contractor” for the killing, noting that Israel’s score to settle was nothing like the US’s.
  • Haaretz’s Yossi Melman also writes that Israel likely didn’t care that much about al-Masri, and that it didn’t put its own operatives in harm’s way.
  • “It’s hard to believe that the Mossad would allocate precious resources and manpower to chase down and eliminate Abdullah for his marginal involvement in the Mombasa attacks,” he writes, referring to the bombing of a hotel in Kenya that killed three Israelis and many others. “It’s also reasonable to assume that because he was a minor target for Israel, the Mossad would not have risked its own staff combatants to kill Abdullah. Most probably, the Israeli foreign service activated foreigners who had worked on similar operations in the past. In this context, it’s important to note that Iran and some foreign media outlets have accused Israel of previously working with Iranian opposition groups or mercenaries.”

2. Nothing to fear but Israeli assassins: Yedioth Ahronoth, which also employs Ronen Bergman, one of four reporters on the NY Times report, splashes the story across its front page, though it leads off not with the news but with Bergman’s thoughts on the news.

  • Bergman does not mention any hint of al-Masri having been planning attacks on Israeli targets. Rather, he says the operation is a sign of the close cooperation between Israel and the US and their willingness to help each other out.
  • “The fact that Israel was the one to settle accounts on behalf of the most powerful nation on earth is proof of its might. On the other hand, Israel could not have carried out many of the activities attributed to it against Iran — in Lebanon, Syria and Iran itself — without the large US umbrella over it,” he writes, adding that Iran should be expecting more such actions.
  • Despite the shadowy circumstances around the report and lack of clarity on many matters, including from the New York Times, Channel 13 purports to have an inside line on the thinking of Iran’s leadership, reporting that Tehran is “very worried” about more operations against wanted terror suspects while US President Donald Trump remains in office. Not helping its credibility is the fact that no hint of a source for the information, which it claims is not speculative, is offered.
  • Channel 12’s Nir Dvori writes in a commentary that even if Iran is not scared, it should be. “The assassination of a senior figure in such a pinpoint way in the heart of Iran undermines Tehran’s sense of security and sends a sharp and clear message regarding regional ties. The assassination shows the Iranian regime how penetrable it is, how Israel is capable of taking dramatic action under the nose of the regime without it knowing.”
  • In Israel Hayom, Yoav Limor writes that at the same time, it also shows that US operational capabilities in Iran are lacking: “It seems the Americans gave the intel, and the Israeli Mossad carried it out. This testifies to the US not have good enough operational infrastructure in Iran: Even the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani was done in Iraq.”

3. Rise and report later: Several pundits see the timing of the report as a message to the incoming US administration and the rest of the world on what Israel plans to do about Iran once Trump leaves office.

  • Yedioth’s Yossi Yehoshua writes, “The wide assumption in Israel is that Trump will not attack Iranian nuclear sites before he leaves office, but it’s safe to assume that we will hear more and more about secret activities in Tehran that are attributed to Israel. Like those that will hurt the project itself and signal to the Iranian regime and the Americans that Israel is not prepared to change its policies and will prevent advancement toward a nuclear bomb.”
  • Speaking to Army Radio, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen gives a Glomar response when asked if Israel was behind the assassination, but says it should give the new administration pause when attempting to restart nuke deal negotiations: “The new administration needs to ask itself if the Iranian regime is capable of negotiating. The solution needs to be the continuation of sanctions, the embargo and the nullification of the nuke deal.”
  • In Israel Hayom, former envoy Danny Danon writes that Biden needs to keep sanctions going and be wary of dealing with Iran. “Appeasement of one of the most dangerous countries in the Middle East – one that routinely calls for the destruction of Israel and America – can only lead to disaster,” he writes.
  • “President-Elect Biden’s intentions are upstanding,” he adds. “He believes that he can correct and contain Iran’s violations through diplomacy. It is paramount for him, however, to take note of the highly unusual unified voice emanating from the region, from Israel and from the Middle East’s moderate Arab nations, all of which are in the line of fire.”

4. Transitive terror: While Israelis may claim to know what Iran is thinking or fearing, or should be, the mystery of why Iran was willing to harbor al-Masri, whose al-Qaeda was supposedly an enemy of Tehran, remains.

  • Kan’s Roi Kais writes that it appears to be a case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
  • “You can fight each other in Iraq and Syria, but if it’s possible to attack the US without leaving an Iranian fingerprint, why not?” he writes.
  • Both he and Walla’s Guy Elster surmise that that it was also a sort of insurance policy for Iran. “Despite the strife between the Shiite country and Sunni organization, the presence of senior al-Qaeda figures prevents attack on its soil, and they can also act against shared targets like the US and Israel,” writes Elster
  • Bergman in Yedioth says much the same, writing that the Iranians “have no God,” reporting that they are harboring several senior al-Qaeda figures. Now, he surmises, they have a bit of a PR problem on their hands.
  • “What do they tell al-Masri’s neighbors who suddenly discover that the nice Lebanese historian next door was actually the al-Qaeda No. 2,” he asks. “The stormy response in Iran to the report proves just how right they were to cover up the affair.”

5. Where there’s lightning, there’s fire: Tensions are rising in the south following a Gazan rocket attack early Sunday morning, though in this case Israel may be using an actual storm as cover for the attacks.

  • Unsourced reports from several outlets say that Israeli defense officials believe the rocket fire may have been the result of a lightning strike setting it off by accident.
  • Pictures published by AFP indeed appear to show a lightning strike inside Gaza with the trail of a rocket seen in the sky nearby.
  • Palestinian media in Gaza similarly report that the rockets, which had been pre-aimed and armed, were triggered by the storm.
  • Channel 13 news, which includes a screenshot of doppler radar showing a thunderstorm over Gaza at the time of the launches, reports that the IDF is still looking into whether the rockets belonged to Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
  • According to Kan, neither Hamas or Islamic Jihad are interested in a larger confrontation, and are investigating the rocket fire themselves.
  • ToI’s Judah Ari Gross notes that this is not the first time the IDF has made like Milli Vanilli and blamed Gaza rocket fire on the rain… er, lightning.

  • “This was not the first time that lightning has been blamed for rocket launches from the Gaza Strip,” he writes. “In October 2018, a rocket destroyed a home in the city of Beersheba and another landed off the coast of central Israel; and in March 2019, a rocket struck a home in central Israel, injuring seven and causing massive damage to the structure. In both of these cases, which came amid periods of heightened tensions, lightning was alleged to be the trigger for the launch, setting off rockets that had been preemptively aimed and primed at central Israel.”
  • At least one person is not buying it: “We don’t accept these ‘terror excuses’ and won’t allow any fire into Israel,” Finance Minister Israel Katz tells Army Radio. “Hamas is responsible for any fire out of the Strip.”
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