The virtue of a proportional response: 7 things to know for January 5
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The virtue of a proportional response: 7 things to know for January 5

As pundits predict how Iran is likely to retaliate to the American strike that killed Soleimani, Israeli media commences with a male-dominated chorus of high-fives and chest-bumps

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Protesters demonstrate over the US airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, January 4, 2020. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
Protesters demonstrate over the US airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, January 4, 2020. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

1. War of words: American officials have asked Tehran to respond “in proportion” after US forces killed top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards claims, as Washington gears up for the Islamic Republic’s reaction to its daring targeted killing.

  • Apparently unable to handle the suspense, US President Donald Trump tweets a threat to hit 52 Islamic Republic targets, should Iran attack Americans in retaliation for Soleimani’s killing.
  • Iran’s army chief Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi responds by telling state news agency IRNA, “I doubt they have the courage to initiate [a conflict].”
  •  Already, a series of rockets launched in Baghdad late Saturday fell inside or near the Green Zone, which houses government offices and foreign embassies, including the US Embassy. Still, no one is convinced that this marked the climax of Tehran’s retaliation.
  • As Soleimani’s body arrived in Iran and was greeted by throngs of mourners, Iranian lawmakers opened a parliamentary session with festive chants of “Death to America.”
  • Hundreds of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip joined their brethren in Tehran in mourning Soleimani’s death by trampling on and burning American and Israeli flags. Gaza terror groups, including the enclave’s Hamas rulers, have also erected a mourning tent for the slain Iranian general.

2. [What] was he thinking? Reporters and pundits work to get into Trump’s head in the hours and days before he ordered the hit on Soleimani.

  • White House advisers tell the New York Times that they had placed killing the Iranian commander on the list of options they presented to Trump last Monday at the Mar-a-Lago resort, but didn’t really expect the president would go for the extreme option.
  • Trump made the decision despite disputes in his administration regarding intelligence that pointed to threats to American embassies and military personnel in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon where Soleimani had just visited, senior officials told the Times.
  • One official described the intelligence as “thin,” saying Soleimani’s plans were not imminent because Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had yet to green-light them and had ordered the Iranian commander to meet with him in the coming weeks in order to further discuss the matter.
  • AP’s Zeke Miller writes that aides and allies describe Trump as increasingly emboldened to act on his instincts as he enters the final year of his first term.
  • Brookings Institute Iran expert Suzanne Maloney argues that Trump’s base loves a successful hit-job on a bad actor and doesn’t care if the Middle East goes up in flames as a result. “For 2020 campaign, Trump doesn’t need a diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East. The region can remain in turmoil… But Trump’s base won’t rally behind war. Starting yet another messy, costly Middle East war might be the 1 thing that could sink his reelection.”

3. It’s not virtuous. It’s what there is: While some argue whether the response from Iran will be as forceful as a US one would have been if the roles were swapped and Tehran had taken out the head of the CIA, all are in agreement that Soleimani’s killing will not go unanswered.

  • In Foreign Affairs, former US State Department official Ilan Goldenberg writes that “the Islamic Republic’s behavior over the past few months and over its long history suggests that it may not rush to retaliate. Rather, it will carefully and patiently choose an approach that it deems effective, and it will likely try to avoid an all-out war with the United States.”
  • “The United States must, at a minimum, expect to find itself in conflict with Shiite militias in Iraq that will target US forces, diplomats, and civilians. Iraq is the theater where the US strike took place and therefore the most rational place for Iran to immediately respond,” he adds, predicting that Iran will also significantly accelerate its nuclear program.
  • In Haaretz, Amos Harel recalls how after senior Hezbollah official Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus in 2008, Iran and Hezbollah threatened to avenge his death with attacks on Israeli targets. “But most of those attacks were thwarted or disrupted. The reason why, in hindsight, is that after Mughniyeh’s death, there was no Mughniyeh left to avenge him.”
  • In related news. social media was aflame over the weekend with reactions to the US killing of Soleimani, with World War III hashtags trending online and users posting about fears of a US military draft.

4. Trump and his men: Responses in Israeli media to the American strike largely featured high-fives and chest-bumps from male-dominated panels across all of the networks.

  • On Channel 12, Ehud Ya’ari calls the attack the most influential targeted killing since the 1942 assassination of Holocaust architect Reinhard Heydrich. Channel 13’s Nadav Eyal says the strike was akin to the one that took out Pearl Harbor bombing architect Isoroku Yamamoto.
  • Ostensible Netanyahu-mouthpiece Israel Hayom goes even further back in time, calling Soleimani’s killing “the elimination of the century.” It accompanies the front page headline with nine (!) analysis pieces from its (all male) columnists.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth leads its Sunday edition with the phrase “New Middle East,” playing off of former prime minister Shimon Peres’s vision for the future of the region. Apparently, the American strike means positive developments are on the horizon.
  • Only Haaretz expresses a more nuanced response, writing in its editorial that “Israel can be satisfied that the man who led the Iranian campaign in the Middle East is gone. But it must remember that its challenge was not Soleimani, whom Israel could have taken out a number of times in the past, and that the ring of threats against it has not loosened with his death.”
  • The paper’s Aluf Benn points out that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has much to gain from the killing as it steers the national conversation in Israel away from his legal woes and instead toward his metier, foreign policy.
  • “The security situation will help Netanyahu bring to the polls right-wing voters who had previously had enough of him because of the corruption affairs, but will leave that aside to save the country from Iran. On the other hand, talk of war and emergencies distances the largely Arab Joint List from participation in a future coalition with Blue and White and discourages Arab voters, who went to the polls in September in the hope of such participation. Netanyahu’s survival, therefore, depends on his success in keeping the security agenda in the headlines in the coming eight weeks,” Benn writes.

5. Don’t look at me: In more local news, Israelis are up in arms and blaming Tel Aviv authorities for the flooding in the city over the weekend that resulted in the drowning deaths of a man and a woman in a basement elevator.

  • Residents of south Tel Aviv say the municipality had ignored its numerous warnings about the area’s infrastructure woes and failed to clear sewage drains of debris.
  • However, Mayor Ron Huldai tells Army Radio that the weekend storms were a “once in 50 year occurrence” and that he therefore should not be blamed for having been unable to prevent the improbable.
  • The victims from the elevator drowning were identified as Dean Yaakov Shoshani and Stav Harari, both 25.
  • Tel Aviv-Jaffa city council member, Shula Keshet, has called for a municipal commission to be formed to investigate the city’s handling of the incident.
  • A tenant in the building where the tragedy took place tells Army Radio that emergency services failed the victims. “I called 16 times and they hung up. It reminded me of a third world country.”

6. Just in the nick of time: With elections less than two months away, Netanyahu is once again calling on the parties to his right to merge in order to ensure that they cross the electoral threshold and prevent the ascension of a left-wing government.

  • “The right will not forgive [Naftali] Bennett, [Bezalel] Smotrich, and [Rafi] Peretz if they don’t combine into one slate,” Netanyahu tweets, referring to the leaders of New Right, National Union, and Jewish Home, respectively.
  • New Right tweets in response “We appreciate Netanyahu’s concern” but said it is focusing on drawing voters away from center-left Blue and White as well as the secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party.
  • For its part, Jewish Home uses Netanyahu’s call to urge National Union chairman Bezalel Smotrich to join its union with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party. Asked to explain his party’s willingness to team up with a slate of self-described disciples of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, Jewish Home director Nir Orbach tells Kan radio that Otzma Yehudit’s chairman has really moderated his views over the past year… Apparently just in time for the historic national religious party to join forces with a slate that was once beyond the pale.
  • On the left, Green Party chairman Stav Shaffir, who has threatened to run independently in coming elections due to a spat with the Meretz party, has offered to drop one place on the combined slate in a bid to preserve the Democratic Camp alliance.
  • In a letter to Democratic Camp head Nitzan Horowitz, Shaffir offers to give up her spot as #2 on the Democratic Camp slate, suggesting it should instead be given to an Arab Israeli, to ensure the Arab Israeli community is well-represented. All the other names on the slate, including her own, would then be moved down one place, putting Shaffir third.
  • Meretz sources respond that Shaffir had been offered sixth place on the Democratic Camp list, which polls have shown would not see her keep her seat in the Knesset.
  • Channel 12’s Daphna Liel criticizes Meretz officials over their insistence on pulling Shaffir further down the list, given that it hasn’t made the request to any other lawmaker on its joint slate.

7. Ball. Yuli’s court: In a potentially major blow to Netanyahu, Knesset adviser Eyal Yinon releases a legal opinion concluding there is no legal obstacle stopping the lawmakers from setting up a House Committee to decide on immunity for the premier, assuming there was majority support for such a move.

  • It will now be up to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to decide whether he will allow the special committee to convene during the transitional government in a move that would certainly anger Netanyahu.
  • The Blue and White party announces that it has the support of more than enough lawmakers to convene the committee.
  • Further hampering Edelstein’s ability to refuse Blue and White’s demand to summon the panel is the fact that the Knesset Speaker agreed to do so against Blue and White’s wishes just three days before the last election in order to debate legislation supported by Netanyahu to allow party operatives to film inside polling stations.
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