'Israel's Mideast Enemies Adapted. They Now Operate in the Shadow of Coronavirus'

The series of incidents in Tehran and the deepening Lebanon crisis spell a sensitive period for Israel in the coming week ■ Annexation date came and went? Not in this army unit

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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sits during a meeting in Tehran, Iran, in a photo released on June 31, 2020.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sits during a meeting in Tehran, Iran, in a photo released on June 31, 2020.Credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

“There is no connection between the Middle East at the outbreak of the second wave of the coronavirus and the state of the region as it was at the start of the first wave in March,” a senior Israel Defense Forces officer told Haaretz this week. “When the pandemic first came here, our enemies were in shock at its force. A large part of the activity against us was suspended. Since then, they have gone back to working in its shadow. They, like us, have adjusted.”

The main event of this month, and perhaps of the whole period, is looking to be the explosion at the centrifuge facility at Natanz in Iran last week. David Albright, president of the non-governmental Institute for Science and International Security in Washington and one of the top nuclear experts in the world, assesses that Iran’s recovery time from the incident will be lengthy. Various intelligence sources have posited in recent days that the atomic program will be delayed by a year to two years. Albright told The Jerusalem Post that on the basis of detailed satellite photos from the site, it appears that close to 75 percent of the main complex for producing advanced IR-2 centrifuges was destroyed in the explosion. In his estimation, the damage is significant, extensive and in part irreparable.

Sovereignty Setback: Who Burst Bibi's Annexation Bubble?Credit: Haaretz

Albright added that the force of the explosion caused a powerful fire to break out in a large part of the building and even sent some of the roof flying. A report published by the institute he heads says the production workshop that was damaged was inaugurated in 2018 and was essential for the mass production of advanced centrifuged and enrichment of uranium. In a conversation with the Reuters news agency, Iranian sources said that Israel was responsible for the explosion, even though since then it appears that Tehran has been maintaining ambiguity and is not releasing further details.

In light of the series of incidents that have occurred during the past two weeks in Tehran and the worsening of the internal crisis in Lebanon, apparently the coming weeks, too, will go by at a high level of security alertness. Hezbollah is in a position of distress in Lebanon, where the economic situation is in a downward spiral.

Another reason for alertness has to do with the situation in the Gaza Strip. Thanks, in fact, to the tight closure surrounding it, Gaza has become one of the safest places in the world with regard to the coronavirus. The close supervision imposed by Hamas on people coming through the Rafah crossing point, who are obligated to go into quarantine for two weeks, has thus far prevented the spread of the pandemic. However, the fear of mass infection is preventing Hamas from permitting 7,000 merchants and workers from the Gaza Strip to go back out to work in Israel as they had been doing prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis.

The increasing economic tension in Gaza, and alongside it periodic demonstrations of independence by Islamic Jihad, are leading to the firing of rockets into Israel once every week or two. In this arena as well there is potential for escalation under cover of the coronavirus, despite the sides’ clear lack of desire.

A military non-apology

The impressive series of Yaniv Kubovich’s investigative reports in Haaretz about the exploits of Lt. Guy Eliahu of the Golani reconnaissance unit culminated this week in a detailed military investigation by GOC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Amir Baram. Kubovich exposed a chain of hair-raising events: hitches that preceded a road accident in which three reconnaissance unit soldiers were killed on Highway 6, an act of vengeance by their teammates that damaged Palestinian property in a West Bank village (the driver who ran over the soldiers was an Arab from East Jerusalem), forgery of a military document in order to evade testifying at the trial and a mysterious incident in which fighters from the team under Eliahu’s command killed Syrians near the border in the Golan Heights.

Baram decided to stop the promotion of Eliahu, who had been slated to be appointed a company commander in the reconnaissance battalion and not to assign him any more command positions. In addition, he addressed command reprimands to Golani Brigade commander Col. Shai Klapper and the commander of the reconnaissance battalion Lt. Col. Shimon Siso. Exceptionally for these times, the GOC included in his investigation a statement about the importance of the press. “We do not conduct ourselves or take command decisions in light of the media or in order to please it, but attention must be paid to the fact that sometimes it is the media that reveal for us angles we had not known or flaws that occurred in processes and our considerations. This must not be ignored,” wrote Baram.

Possibly the IDF Spokesman should have adopted a similar approach. In one of the incarnations of the affair, the spokesman took the trouble to issue a ridiculous and crude denial of Kubovich’s report, saying that “in this report as in the previous reports he chose to distort and falsify the facts ... The report is wrong and misleading.”

This week, in a summation statement by the IDF Spokesman about the investigation, a clarification was appended to the effect that “the denial we published concerning this matter on June 7 was accurate at the time. After clarification of further details, it has emerged that the reporter had received part of the information he published from a military source.” Accurate at the time? Sometimes it is simply necessary to apologize. You were right, we were wrong, sorry.

An annexation tag

The plan to annex parts of the West Bank that was the focus of our attention just 10 days ago, has somehow been forgotten. The Likud spokesmen barely mentioned it this week and the prime minister has moved on to busy himself with other matters. The visit to Israel by the Trump administration’s young emissary, Avi Berkowitz, ended with mass disappointment in Jerusalem. Some of Netanyahu’s associates are still promising that the idea hasn’t been abandoned and he is expected to bring up the move again in hope of enlisting the Americans’ agreement, before the presidential election in the United States in November.

Nonetheless, it turns out that July 1, the target date Netanyahu set in the coalition agreement with Kahol Lavan for starting the annexation move, has not gone by without any symbolic action. Last week, in one of the less glamorous IDF units, the supply center, they handed out a new unit tag to the soldiers in the wake of an organizational change that brought together a number of sub-areas. On the tag is, exceptionally, a map of the greater land of Israel including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Drawing up a unit tag in the IDF is a lengthy process that entails official approval by a committee headed by a high-ranking officer. In Israel there are a number of devoted collectors of IDF unit tags that have been issued over the years. Checking with them reveals that this is the first time such a map has appeared on a military tag. Various parts of the country do appear on a few tags, in accordance with the geographical ascription of the various units but not the entire map.

The IDF Spokesman has responded: “In recent months the head of the Manpower Directorate has approved two new unit tags on which are depicted a map of the land of Israel. Both tags represent, each in its way, the geographical deployment of the units in a symbolic way. Any attempt to connect the design of the tags to one political or diplomatic issue or another lacks any basis.”

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