'In final days as PM, Netanyahu cares only about Netanyahu'

Opposition raps Netanyahu’s Iran briefing as ‘selling out security’ for politics

Blue and White leaders tear into PM for revealing alleged nuke site eight days before election; PMO officials say move was urged by national security officials

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz attends the Srugim conference in Jerusalem on September 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz attends the Srugim conference in Jerusalem on September 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition parties reacted with disdain Monday night to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling a press conference to announce new revelations about Iran’s nuclear program, saying the proximity of the briefing to next week’s elections was highly suspect.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz accused the premier of misusing sensitive intelligence information for electoral gain.

“A nuclear Iran is a threat to the stability of the region. In the war against it, there is no coalition and no opposition,” said Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff.

“But it’s odd that this new information was made public just hours after the collapse of the cameras law. 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,” he charged.

In his televised announcement, Netanyahu revealed that Israel had learned about a secret nuclear facility in central Iran where the regime is believed to have conducted nuclear weapons research. The finding, made possible by Israel’s raid on a secret nuclear warehouse in Tehran last year, indicates a clear violation of the Islamic Republic’s commitments under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, he said.

But the revelation just eight days before the September 17 election drew accusations from Netanyahu’s opponents that the prime minister was abusing his access to sensitive intelligence and sacrificing Israel’s national security interests for a campaign stunt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press regarding the Iranian nuclear program, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on September 9, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Blue and White No. 2, Yair Lapid, said it revealed “a shocking lack of national responsibility. The Iranian nuclear program can’t be used for campaign shenanigans.”

The party’s No. 3, former army chief Moshe Ya’alon, also slammed the revelation as yet another “spin.”

“The cameras spin fails, so they pull out a new spin, while sacrificing Israel’s national security interests and threatening sources and human lives,” he charged. He described Netanyahu as “a man gripped by insanity and panic with three serious indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust (with more cases on the way).”

On the left, the Democratic Camp party issued a similar strongly-worded statement against Netanyahu, also linking his announcement to the failed bid to film Arab polling stations, which was struck down earlier in the day by a Knesset committee.

“The ink hasn’t dried from the latest failed spin, and already Netanyahu offers us another attempt to sell out the nation’s security for personal gain,” the party said. “It would be better for someone suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust not to deal with security,” it added.

Blue and White leaders Yair Lapid (R) and Moshe Ya’alon at a faction meeting at the Knesset on June 24, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Responding to the criticism, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office said that national-security professionals had urged Netanyahu to reveal the information on Monday evening, immediately after a press conference in Vienna by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) acting chief Cornel Feruta, who returned on Sunday from meetings with Iranian officials in Tehran.

Labor MK Revital Swid rejected the argument. “We’re all united in the fight against nuclear Iran, but it’s not actually clear from Netanyahu’s performance this evening why it was so urgent, strategically and diplomatically, to expose classified intelligence material eight days before an election and a few hours after the collapse of the cameras spin.”

Reporters also noted that Netanyahu’s talk was broadcast live on Likud party social media accounts, with the party’s logo and icons of its ballot slip superimposed on the presentation.

Screen capture of a Likud Facebook page broadcast of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement about a previously unrevealed Iranian nuclear facility, which shows a Likud ballot slip superimposed on the video stream at top right. (Facebook screen capture)

In his announcement, Netanyahu claimed that Iran had destroyed the site, located in Abadeh, south of Isfahan, after concluding that Israel had learned about it. He showed before and after photos of the site from June and July of this year.

“When Iran realized that we uncovered the site, here’s what they did: they destroyed the site,” he said. “They just wiped it out. They wiped out the site… They destroyed the evidence or at least tried to destroy the evidence.”

At last year’s United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu revealed the existence of a warehouse tied to Iran’s nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency earlier this month confirmed it had found residue of enriched uranium at the site and urged Iran to explain it. But the regime in Tehran has so far failed to do so.

“Last year, we exposed Iran’s secret nuclear warehouse in Turquzabad, which Iran used for storing materials and equipment for its secret nuclear program,” Netanyahu noted.

“Even before that, Iran knew that we were on to them, so they cleared the site. They cleared it of these capacities, they cleared them, and then they actually covered up the site. This is a [literal] cover-up. They put gravel on it to try and hide their traces. But they didn’t. The IAEA found traces of uranium that Iran hid in these sites. That’s a direct violation of the NPT, the non-proliferation treaty,” he said.

Netanyahu went on to urge world powers to join sanctions the US has imposed on Iran since Washington unilaterally quit the 2015 nuclear agreement. The other signatories — China, Russia, France, Germany, and the UK — are all steadfastly trying to salvage the deal.

As Netanyahu left 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,” likely a reference to the failed camera bill.

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