1. Here we go again: A New York Times expose has revealed that Israel is once again considering taking military action against Iran’s nuclear program.
- According to the report, Netanyahu sees an opportunity with the more pliable US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, after his predecessor vociferously opposed such action.
- “More than a decade after they first raised the subject with American officials, Israeli officials have been considering the possibility of a unilateral strike against Iran. Unlike with Bush and Obama, there is greater confidence that Trump wouldn’t stand in the way,” Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti write.
- “The threat of war could be a bluff, or an election ploy. But it also represents a dangerous confluence of interests: an American president often reluctant to use military force and an Israeli prime minister looking to deal with unfinished business,” they add.
- If it were an election bluff, one might expect to find the story leading Likud mouthpiece Israel Hayom, but instead the daily buries its report in the expose on the bottom of page 9, and leads not with the threat but rather information about the strike that was called off.
- Electioneering in Israel is also not so subtle. A Twitter user named Amir Peleg points out that a Likud ad showing Democtratic Camp politico Ehud Barak and Joint List Ayman Odeh together mimics another ad showing Hezbollah leader Hassaan Nasrallah and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani together, with the text on both reading “They don’t want you to vote for us.”
- Colin Kahl, who had a key role in crafting the Obama administration’s Iran policy, also thinks the threat is serious, though Netanyahu isn’t actually planning on leading the charge: “As the top Pentagon civilian overseeing Middle East policy during much of the period discussed here, my sense was that Netanyahu was serious about striking Iran, but his main goal was to use the threat to get the US to do it. That remains the case today,” he tweets.
As the top Pentagon civilian overseeing Middle East policy during much of the period discussed here, my sense was that Netanyahu was serious about striking Iran, but his main goal was to use the threat to get the US to do it.
That remains the case today. https://t.co/8cO7RGtIdQ
— Colin Kahl (@ColinKahl) September 4, 2019
2. We were thiiiis close: While the newer plans make the biggest headlines, much of the 10,000-word expose is focused on how close Israel came to striking Iran around 2012. Ultimately, according to Netanyahu, it was not US opposition that drew him back, but a lack of support at home.
- “If I’d had a majority, I would have done it. Unequivocally,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying by the Times.
- Former diplomat Alon Pinkas notes that the upshot of that admission is that it was Likud ministers who stopped the attack. “Not president Shimon Peres, IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi or Mossad head Meir Dagan. Likud ministers in the cabinet.”
- It’s worth noting that the Likud-led cabinet of 2012, with relative moderates such as Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, was a very different animal from the cabinet of today.
- Michael Oren, then ambassador to the US, tells the Times that he was pretty much in the same mode as all of us journalists back then, sleeping with one eye open and a phone nearby: “I went to bed every night, if I went to bed at all, with the phone close to my ear. I was ready to be called in by Israel and sent to the White House or the State Department to tell them we had attacked, or if they already knew from their own sources, straight to CNN.”
Am I the only news person who wakes up every morning thinking "Please don't attack Iran (during my shift)"?
- Among other tidbits in the monster piece (helpfully rounded up by JTA’s Ben Sales, among others), is the fact that the US built a massive replica of the Fordo nuclear site to test dropping bunker-busting bombs on it, and would send US officials to Israel every few weeks knowing Israel would not attack then, in a move it called “bibisitting.”
- Bibi himself embraced the bibisitting concept in a campaign ad in 2015, meaning the US was bibi-sitting the bibi-sitter.
3. Bombs over Beirut? Israel Hayom isn’t the only paper to care little about the New York Times expose, which fails to make anything more than a perfunctory plop in Hebrew-language media.
- Even Yedioth Ahronoth, whom Ronen Bergman writes for, only runs the story on page 10 (with a write-up by different author.)
- Instead, most Hebrew news reports about Iran are focused on Iranian proxy Hezbollah and the threats of a third Lebanon war, after six years of reportedly bombing the group in Syria only.
- Channel 12 news reports that the army has decided to deploy a number of Patriot anti-missile batteries in the north of the country, possible presaging more violence.
- On Army Radio, Foreign Minister Israel Katz continues to threaten attacks on Hezbollah and hints that Lebanese civilian infrastructure could be inbounds as well: “What was in 2006, when Israel differentiated between Hezbollah and Lebanon, won’t happen this time. … If Hezbollah hits us from Lebanon we’ll strike back at dual-purpose sites, anything that can serve Hezbollah and the Lebanese population.”
- Several reports, seemingly fed by the army, have accused Hezbollah of hiding military equipment in civilian areas, likely laying the groundwork to justify such attacks. In Israel Hayom’s English site, columnist Rachel Avraham says Hezbollah is pursuing a “callous strategy” by placing missiles in homes, quoting ex-minister Naftali Bennett claiming that some homes in Lebanon are actually built around missiles: “This happens primarily in Shiite villages but not only. You got villages where 30 to 40% of the houses are hosting missiles right now. The rest of the villages are booby-trapped,” she quotes him saying.
4. The price is wrong: The Israeli media is also closely following the demise of the nuclear deal and Tehran’s threats to walk back from the agreement and possibly ratchet up enrichment.
- In Yedioth, columnist Ben-Dror Yemini lashes out at France for trying to extend a $15 billion line of credit to Iran as part of a plan to salvage the pact.
- “The French proffer to Iran is actually anti-Israel. What it means in the immediate term is another green light to Tehran to continue entrenching itself along the northern axis, and that means more bases in Syria and Iraq, more help for Hezbollah, [and] more money for Qassem Soleimani.”
- France isn’t the only one trying to pay off Iranians. The Financial Times reports that US diplomat Brian Hook, who heads up the Iran talks portfolio for the State Department and clearly was a Nigerian prince with money stashed away in a previous life, offered the captain of an Iranian tanker millions of dollars to pilot the ship somewhere where the US could have it impounded.
Hard to overstate how out of ordinary this is. For a high ranking State Dep. official to attempt to bribe a ship captain. Then when the guy didn’t bite they sanctioned him. Kind of following their model in dealing with #Iran FM Zarif: Come see #Trump or we will sanction you. pic.twitter.com/tdqRpkFhs8
— Bahman Kalbasi (@BahmanKalbasi) September 4, 2019
5. London calling: A lightning trip by Netanyahu to the UK to meet with Boris Johnson is also seen through a security lens.
- Army Radio notes air force chief Amikam Norkin and operations head Aharon Halija are joining the trip, calling it a “security flight.”
- Meeting the two in London will be US Defense Chief Mark Esper. Haaretz notes that while talks with Johnson will focus on Iran, those with Esper will laser in on Israel’s “security needs.”
- What’s the difference? “In recent weeks, there have been intensive talks between some of Netanyahu’s advisers and people close to US President Donald Trump over a potential statement by the American president, in which he could commit to protecting Israel in the future from any existential threat,” the paper reports.
- Yedioth Ahronoth calls the visit part of a “diplomatic blitz,” describing the maneuver as something “that has become routine during election campaigns for Netanyahu.”
- Standing next to the wobbly Johnson could also make Netanyahu, who has presided over a transition government for going on nine months, look like the picture of staid stability.
Definitely the UK's turn to be Most Dysfunctional Democracy on the planet this week. Painful to watch, but US, Israel, others appreciate the break from contending for the top spot.
— Dan Shapiro (@DanielBShapiro) September 4, 2019
- “Entangled by corruption allegations that make his electoral performance hard to predict, Netanyahu is relying heavily on external events and support to bolster his campaign,” The Guardian notes.
6. Like an election on Stuxnet: For those charged with doing the diplomacy behind the blitzing, the election has already kicked off, as Israel’s envoy in Wellington marks the official start of voting almost two weeks before the rest of the country will get a chance.
- In the meantime, electioneering is kicking into high gear, the spin machine running like an Iranian centrifuge infected by a Dutch mole.
- “The centrist Kahol Lavan slate is looking to draw votes from the left and from Yisrael Beitenu on the right. Labor-Gesher is dispatching cars with full-size replicas of the Iron Dome anti-missile system mounted on them,” Haaretz reports in a roundup of all the silly-season madness. “The Democratic Union is trying to position itself as the only address in its political bloc for those who don’t want to strengthen Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, while United Torah Judaism is reaching out to non-ultra-Orthodox voters.”
- Despite all the craziness, Bloomberg’s Ivan Levingston notes that the whole campaign is singularly focused on Netanyahu: “Missing in virtually all the political messaging is any reference to the fundamental issues Israel faces: relations with the Palestinians, potential conflicts with Iran, Lebanon, or Syria, a widening budget deficit, and the divide between religious and secular Jews. Instead, Israel’s second national vote in five months has become a referendum on Netanyahu.”
- Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan-Sommer notes that many on the left, already decided on being against Netanyahu, are torn on who they are for.
- “Dizzying rounds of political musical chairs as the opposition fails to unite into a large-scale bloc against Netanyahu has many left-wingers frustrated, confused and undecided. Some are considering voting for parties they never considered supporting in the past. Some even confess quietly that, for the first time ever, they are toying with the idea of not voting at all,” she writes.
7. Out, damn extremist: On the right, Likud has chosen Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit as its enemy du jour after he refused overtures to drop out and save the right-wing camp.
- “He’s burning two seats,” reads a front page headline in Israel Hayom, referring to the votes that Otzma will get instead of Yamina or Likud, which will then get thrown in the trash given the likely scenario that the party does not cross the 3.25% Knesset threshold.
- Netanyahu’s battle for the far right was apparent in his visit to Hebron for the first time in years, promising that a Jewish presence would remain in the city.
- Otzma took the occasion to unleash an ad blitz, lining the route down to the divided city with posters showing Netanyahu and Ben Gvir together reading “Love Netanyahu, vote Ben Gvir,” Radio Kol Hai reports, calling it a “surprise” for the prime minister.
- Going against the grain, in ToI, Shalom Yerushalmi writes that Netanyahu has actually decided to help Ben Gvir cross the threshold and steal some votes from Yamina, at the urging of Sara Netanyahu.
- “[Yamina head Ayelet] Shaked won’t hold all the cards, which is what we care about the most,” a source close to Lady MacBalfour is quoted saying.
- How to explain the attack, then? It could be that by making him an enemy, Netanyahu is actually elevating Ben Gvir from a car emblem-stealing nobody like the other 20-odd parties that won’t make it in, into a worthy rival, a car emblem-stealing somebody.