One step ahead: 7 things to know for May 4
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One step ahead: 7 things to know for May 4

Netanyahu’s handling of sensitive information obtained from Iran has strengthened his position in Israel, and frustrated his political opponents

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the press at the Kirya government headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the press at the Kirya government headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

1. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public presentation of information acquired as a result of the Mossad’s frankly awe-inspiring capture of Iran’s nuclear program archives is still making headlines at the end of the week, after politicians and pundits alike have had time to process the move, and as they attempt to decipher the Israeli leader’s motives.

  • On Monday the prime minister made a televised presentation, live, in English and broadcast around the world, unveiling a massive intelligence trove that showed what he said was a vast archive of Iran’s own documentation, which demonstrated that Tehran worked to develop a nuclear weapons arsenal and brazenly lied to the international community about it — facts which, the prime minister claimed, totally undermined the legitimacy of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers.
  • But while there seems to generally be no doubt as to the success of the Mossad’s mission, nor any dispute regarding the alarming facts proved by Netanyahu, some Israeli politicians have criticized the prime minister for his antics during the presentation of the files, his conduct in the hours leading up to the televised appearance, and his clear aim of influencing US President Donald Trump to pull out of the agreement with Tehran,

2. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, the only candidate to possess even a sliver of a chance of challenging Netanyahu’s rule in future elections, claimed that the prime minister made a serious error of judgment by publicly presenting the information smuggled out of Iran. “Had I been prime minister, I would sit with European leaders in closed forums and present the material to them,” he said.

  • Lapid also accused Netanyahu of pressuring Trump to exit the accord without coordinating the move with Europe. Beforehand, the Yesh Atid leader came out against a United States withdrawal from the Iran nuclear, arguing that Trump should stay in the accord for six more months to negotiate changes to the agreement. “Netanyahu has been saying for a year that the deal has to be fixed or nixed, now is the time to find out which of those he supports,” the opposition figure said, adding that Washington “doesn’t fully understand” what the Israeli government’s position is on the matter.

3. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter points out that the attacks on Netanyahu stem from a deep frustration by opposition members, as they had been outmaneuvered by the prime minister and his keen political senses.

  • “In hindsight, there is no trick that Netanyahu didn’t pull out of the gimmick hat to create tension,” Verter writes “He could have shared the information with the cabinet ministers days before, at a routine meeting.” Instead, Verter explains, the prime minister chose to give the impression ahead of the presentation that he was about to declare war with Iran. “[Netanyahu] estimated that without the beating of war drums, foreign networks would not interrupt their broadcasts and focus on the Kirya in Tel Aviv. That’s what he was looking for. That is why he also presented in English, the language in which [Netanyahu] feels most at home in the world… and the interviews he chose to give were to the American media the next day.”
  • Lapid and Zionist Union head Avi Gabbay, who hours before the prime minister’s presentation pulled their no-confidence bills from the Knesset plenum due to the sense of urgency provided by Netanyahu, felt cheated and fooled. “It is clear that in retrospect it was a mistake to drop the no-confidence motion,” Gabbay said Wednesday, “but under the same circumstances I would make a similar decision.” In other words, Netanyahu managed to reduce his opponents appearance among the Israeli public, while at the same time strengthening his appearance as a strong leader successfully navigating the country through stormy waters.

4. The prime minister’s aim of discrediting Tehran was further enhanced after an Israeli satellite imaging company released images showing what it described as “unusual” movement around the Iranian Fordo nuclear facility, a one-time uranium enrichment plant buried deep underground that was converted to a research center as part of the 2015 nuclear deal.

  • The photographs, which show large numbers of vehicles at the entrance to the facility and other signs of increased activity there, do not in themselves indicate any violation of the nuclear accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
  • The underground site, which has been protected by the powerful S-300 air defense system since 2016, was not shuttered as part of the accord, but the types of activities allowed there were heavily curtailed.
  • Barring a massive, heretofore undetected effort by Iran to bring Fordo back online in violation of the JCPOA, the increased activity could likely be attributed to an attempt by the Islamic Republic to imply that it is prepared to begin enriching uranium at the site if the US pulls out of the agreement.

5. With all of Netanyahu’s successful strategics this week, a significant post deletion on his Facebook page almost went unnoticed.

  • The false post by the prime minister alleged that supporters of the Sakhnin soccer club disrupted a minute of silence in memory of the 10 teenagers on a hike organized by a pre-military academy who died in a flash flood last week in a desert canyon. League officials and members of the opposing team, Hapoel Ra’anana, all maintained that there was no disruption by fans of the Bnei Sakhnin club during the memorial at Sakhnin’s home stadium.
  • Netanyahu’s claims were based on a report in the right-wing online news outlet Israel National News, whose story about the alleged disruption was still online on Thursday. The story appears to be based on a letter by activist Itamar Ben-Gvir, an attorney for extremist Jewish activists and a former member of the radical Kach organization, who made the assertion in a complaint to the Israel Football Association after the Saturday game.
  • In his post, which included a link to the Israel National News story, Netanyahu called the purported disruption “an utter disgrace,” adding, “I expect all public leaders, Jews and non-Jews, to forcefully condemn this embarrassing behavior.” As of yet, and even after removing the post, Netanyahu has not apologized or otherwise responded to criticism over his false claims.

6. In the government, a new coalition crisis appears to be in the making between the ruling Likud party and its rightist coalition partner Jewish Home, after Netanyahu asked for another week’s delay to a key ministerial debate over a Jewish Home bill that would curtail the powers of the High Court of Justice.

  • The legislation – three separate bills that would be merged later in the legislative process – seeks to severely limit the court’s ability to strike down Knesset legislation as “unconstitutional.” In the short term, it would enable lawmakers to change the law in ways that would allow Israel to deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers, a step the court has prevented. More generally, the Israeli right has long criticized the High Court for its sweeping powers, and sought to make the Knesset more powerful in its stead.
  • Two weeks ago, Likud agreed to a Jewish Home demand to allow the so-called “supercession” “override bill” to be debated at the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation, a group of ministers that votes on granting government support to legislation. Likud’s top member in the committee, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, asked to push off the debate by a week. Likud officials explained that the prime minister was too busy over the past week with international discussions on Iran and Syria to deal with the bill.

7. Jewish Home officials, suspicious that Netanyahu may be seeking to quietly torpedo the initiative, turned down the demand. Bennett last Tuesday threatened to hold up all coalition-sponsored legislation if the initiative didn’t come up for a vote.

  • The legislation comes amid efforts by right-wing lawmakers to limit the court’s power after judges have repeatedly stymied the government’s efforts to imprison and deport African asylum seekers from the country without examining their asylum requests or, according to the court, sufficiently ascertaining the safety of the countries to which they were to be deported, as Israel is required to do under international treaties and Israeli law.
  • The clash led right-wing politicians to renew efforts to push legislation limiting the court’s ability to overturn Knesset legislation, and thus allow the coalition to pass a law that would legalize the deportations. The bill proposed by the Jewish Home would allow the Knesset to re-vote on a law disqualified by the High Court, and thereby to pass the law despite the court’s ruling against its constitutionality.
  • During a meeting on Sunday with Netanyahu, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut warned against setting a bar for such a vote at a majority of parliament — 61 votes in the 120-seat Knesset — as demanded by Jewish Home. Any ruling coalition in Israel’s parliamentary system is almost certain to be able to muster such a majority. Such a low bar was a “danger to democracy and to the court,” she warned, according to reports.
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