Analysis |

As Iran Tensions Flare, Israel Suspects Trump Aims for 'Nuclear Deal 2.0'

Economic sanctions may give Trump better bargaining chips ■ An Iranian provocation may occur much closer to Israel than the Gulf ■ Why Israel's botched Gaza op was more John Le Carré than James Bond

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A pilot speaks to a crew member by an F/A-18 fighter jet on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, June 3, 2019
A pilot speaks to a crew member by an F/A-18 fighter jet on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, June 3, 2019Credit: Jon Gambrell,AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The summer months in the Middle East will pass in anticipation of developments in the most important strategic clash of all, the one that could also affect matters farther afield – the conflict between the United States and Iran. The impression in Israeli intelligence is that the Iranians are conducting themselves cautiously. In the series of incidents in the Persian Gulf in recent months, from attacks on oil tankers, airports and oil fields to the decision to shoot down an American drone, not a single hair on the head of a single American soldier or civilian was harmed. This was not at all by chance.

At the moment Tehran is tugging at the rope in a relatively restrained way. Even the incident on Wednesday, in which Iranian boats tried to stop a British oil tanker in the Gulf, was a direct response to the British takeover of an Iranian tanker that was transporting oil to Syria near the Straits of Gibraltar last week.

>> Read more: No talks, no war: For some Washington hawks, one Iran strategy remains | Analysis ■ By calling off strike on Iran, Trump seems to prefer bloodless wars | Analysis

It’s the conduct of the Americans that remains somewhat puzzling. Apparently U.S. President Donald Trump made a reasonable decision when he cancelled a planned punitive attack at the last minute after, according to him, his general told him that it could cost the lives of 150 Iranians. Subsequently reports were leaked to the American media about American cyberattacks on Iran, but without specifying their nature and extent. Israeli sources are haven’t yet determined whether the move gave the United States the last word. However, it is clear that additional escalation in the Gulf could also affect what happens on other fronts, from Syria and Lebanon to Yemen and the Gaza Strip.

Last week we wrote here about the new Washingtonian discourse, in which the hawks in administration circles are trying to peddle “regime collapse” as a laundered alternative for calls for regime change in Iran. In the American capital, this talk is eliciting unpleasant echoes of the last bloody adventure in the region, the 2003 war in Iraq. Even though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12-point plan does not explicitly use either of the two expressions, its subtext is clear: It aims at replacing the regime. However, the president himself, even though he directs tweets with threatening language at the Iranians now and then, remains within a narrow range that focuses on changing the conditions of the nuclear agreement.

In Israel this approach by Trump, who is definitely shying away from another regional war, arouses the suspicion that he is aiming for “Agreement 2.0,” a return to negotiations culminating in a new nuclear arrangement with the Iranians that imposes greater demands on them. In the meantime both Israel and the United States are having difficulty assessing the extent to which Iran, which is interested in renewing the talks, will be prepared to be more flexible in any future negotiations beyond what it agreed to give Barack Obama’s administration. The main thing that has changed is the Iranian economy. Its situation under the steamroller of the sanctions is grim – and possibly this will provide the American authorities with powerful bargaining chips.

The next crucial test, if there is no escalation prior to it, could come in September, when the Iranians are threatening they will go back to enriching uranium to a concentration of 20 percent, which would enable them to progress toward producing a nuclear weapon. In Israel they are hoping this will be the stage when the three Western European signatories to the agreement, Britain, France and Germany, will wake up and tell the Iranians, “no more.” However, Europe is currently in the throes of its own intramural troubles, from the Brexit to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s apparently frail health, and is not showing much toughness toward Iran.

Another question that could affect the development of the crisis has to do with the Iranian assessment of the chances of Trump’s reelection. At the moment, the strong American economy and the Democratic Party’s difficulty in coalescing around a candidate who will be acceptable to all its factions are leaving the president in a pretty comfortable position. From the perspective of the Middle East, the outcome of the American presidential election in November of 2020 becomes critical with regard to a number of issues, from the Iranian atom bomb to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Possibly in light of the uncertainty, the Iranians will ultimately choose to wait.

Iran's President Hassan Rohani meeting with the diplomatic adviser to the French president in Tehran, July 10, 2019.Credit: AFP

There are hidden interrelationships between the election in Israel this coming September and the 2020 election in the U.S. On Wednesday Ben Caspit reported in the daily newspaper Ma’ariv that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is examining the possibility of renewing the talks on establishing a mutual defense treaty with the Americans. The political rationale behind the move is clear: On the eve of the previous election here, Netanyahu leveraged his good relations with the leaders of the United States, Russia, India, Brazil and other countries – very much to his advantage. Tump was the most munificent of all in his declaration of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which joined his previous decisions to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran and move the American Embassy to Jerusalem.

But now Netanyahu’s and Trump’s political needs have become mutual. With his status in the public opinion polls limping, Netanyahu needs a resounding move in the strategic arena. And Trump can make use of Netanyahu ahead of the U.S. election as a character witness among his evangelical supporters, most of whom are fans of Israel. The treaty could ultimately amount to a general defense pact or no more than a declaration of principles, but if Trump comes to Israel before the election to declare this, he will be doing his pal a great favor. In the defense establishment, opinions on the issue of the defense treaty have been divided for more than two decades. The main question is whether Israel would be sacrificing a part of its freedom to maneuver, for example, in case of the need to initiate action against Hezbollah, in return for an American commitment to come to its defense in a time of war.

A few weeks ago a number of cabinet ministers were somewhat panic-stricken after intelligence officials sketched out scenarios concerning the possibility of an Iranian provocation on one of Israel’s borders in an attempt to spur the Americans to return to talks. In a later, sober assessment, it appears the main risk lies in the Gaza Strip, due to a combination of external and internal circumstances. The Iranians have a great deal of influence on the members of Islamic Jihad there. They can exploit a dangerous free electron for their own purposes: the commander of Islamic Jihad’s northern brigade, Baha Abu al-Ata, whom Israel has already accused of attempts to wreck the truce last April. The man is likely to try to renewed the escalation once again, either of his own volition or as instructed from afar.

This week the Israel Defense Forces revealed an 18th attack tunnel leading from Gaza into Israel, which was discovered during construction of the underground barrier along the border. Apparently it is an offshoot of the most strategic of all the tunnels, the one through which Hamas operatives infiltrated into Israel and captured the soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006. Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in the Strip, was one of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners the Netanyahu government decided to set free in the deal to release Shalit five years later. The Intelligence branch assessment is that Sinwar is continuing to lead his organization’s sober line in Gaza, and although he is demanding an ease of the blockade, he is nevertheless not eager for a war with Israel.

This week Haaretz reported an additional concession secretly arranged by Israel: an increase in the number of workers and merchants permitted to enter into Israel from Gaza from 3,000 to 5,000. Sinwar, who spent 22 years in prison in Israel, speaks fluent Hebrew and believes he understands Israeli society very well. For now, he is confining himself to launching incendiary balloons to achieve his aims.

The opposite effect

The recent regional developments presage a broader process for the IDF. Worrisome signs are accumulating on a number of fronts, signaling the closing of a window of relatively convenient times from a security perspective that opened after the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, made possible for Israel in the context of the shake-up in the Arab world, the civil war in Syria and calm on the Gaza border.

Gaza is once again in agitation since the end of March 2018, when Hamas began the mass demonstrations along the border fence. Since then, it’s been hanging by a thread. Iran is back in a contrarian position vis-a-vis the West following the American withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the renewal of sanctions. In Syria, Iran is not giving up its efforts to dig in its army, despite the extensive aerial attacks against it. At the same time, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has re-established its control over most parts of the country and he is beginning to rebuild his army. Russia has provided Syria with two advanced anti-aircraft S-300 missile system batteries, which will challenge Israel Air Force actions over Syria and Lebanon, along with the most advanced S-400 system, which Russia itself operates. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has brought most of its forces back from Syria and is again concentrating on preparations for a future conflict with Israel (though not initiating it).

On all these fronts, Israel is continuing to pursue its “between the wars” campaign. For years, the IDF has been selling the campaign as an effort to discourage conflict – the varied attacks damage the enemy’s capability and deter it from starting an all-out war. However, the effort could also work in the opposite direction: The attacks strengthen the sense of constant hostility and a failed attack (or one that is more devastating than intended) is liable to drive the region to the brink of a war. This nearly happened on one occasion already. In January of 2015, after the killing of an Iranian general and a senior Hezbollah figure in an attack in the Syrian Golan Heights, which was attributed to Israel, Hezbollah responded by killing an Israeli officer and an Israeli soldier at the foot of Har Dov; the sides nearly found themselves in a war they hadn’t planned and didn’t want.

This is quite a grim picture. However, it’s not possible to dissociate entirely from what is waiting around the corner: the ambitious multi-year plan being formulated by Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and the expected showdown with the Finance Ministry, which is planning a considerable budget cut in light of the deficit after the completion of the second election Netanyahu has imposed on the country this year. Dozens of military teams are still working on the planning, without the slightest notion of what the budget at their disposal will be. Some of the sources for funding the plan are supposed to be based on internal diversions of funds within the IDF. Among other things, the intention is to establish a large system of simulators in the ground forces that will enable more effective and inexpensive training maneuvers along with live exercises in the field, which is what the air force has been doing for years.

At the General Staff they have the impression that the prime minister is familiar with the plans and attentive to the army’s needs but Netanyahu has already promised many things to many people in his lifetime. There is no knowing for certain where he will be after the election and whether he will make it safely through his legal troubles. However, it is perfectly clear that the military’s honeymoon with the Finance Ministry is over. The understandings reached by the Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and the previous chief of staff, Gadi Eiszenkot, have passed their expiration date. For four years these understandings enabled the sides to the avoid the power struggles that had characterized them in the past. Economic growth is dwindling, the deficit is increasing and the treasury is warning that it needs to close a gap of about 25 billion shekels in the budget. The Defense Ministry will have to grapple over its share with the Social Services, Health and Education ministries.

A failed operation

At the beginning of this week the military published unusually detailed data and conclusions regarding the special operation that went wrong in Gaza’s Khan Yunis in November of last year, in an incident in which seven Hamas operatives and Lt. Col. M. were killed. The special operations officials at the Intelligence Directorate thought that what happened at Special Operations should stay in Special Operations and held that the army, too, can hide behind the cover of secrecy, just like the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad do in similar circumstances. Kochavi and Intelligence Directorate head Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman decided to reveal the details on the grounds that the army is obligated to report on such a serious and dramatic incident to the pubic, as long as the security damage that might be caused by the publication is controlled and limited. This brought about articles in some newspapers on Monday that described the incident as “heroism and fiasco” – the courage of the special forces soldiers who managed to escape under fire after encountering a Hamas agent and the blunder, by implication, when M. was killed by friendly fire.

In fact, the officer who fired at the Hamas operatives was the one who apparently also hit his comrade in arms. This is not a fiasco, but rather functioning in extremely difficult conditions, which an outsider probably cannot judge. According to senior IDF sources, the decision to open fire saved the lives of the rest of the people in the operation and prevented the capture of some of them. In the near future the Central Command citation committee will convene in order to decide how many and which decorations will be awarded to the fighters who took part in the mission. The media outlets competed among themselves in publishing the James Bond story about the operation, but however fascinating and amazing these descriptions may be, the process of the decision-making and the preparation for the action belongs to the world of John le Carré, not that of Ian Fleming.

The special forces operation, the IDF now admits, did not achieve its aim. Therefore, the exposure of the soldiers and the losses they took reflect a resounding failure, which will certainly cause a seismic upset that will affect the entire Israeli intelligence community. It will have aftershocks that will be felt for a long time. It is not by chance that senior officers are departing now, among them the platoon commander, Brig. Gen. G., and another commander in the program with the rank of lieutenant colonel. The severity of the crisis was also documented in Kochavi’s exceptional decision to reinstate Brig. Gen. (res.) A. to the position of brigade commander, which he held until three years ago and then retired from the army.

For years, the Gaza Strip was the lowest priority for intelligence. At Netanyahu’s direction, most of its efforts and resources were invested in the struggle with Iran and its regional agents, first and foremost Hezbollah. The intelligence with which the IDF approached the 2014 Gaza war, as revealed in journalistic investigations and subsequently in the State Comptroller’s Report, was only partial. After that war the army set about trying to make things right but apparently this too entailed high-risk operations. Presumably the crowded, blockaded and suspicious Gaza Strip has become more difficult territory for deep action than other areas. Any test that is successfully passed in one place is not necessarily valid in another place. Whoever decided to send the fighters into the action, at the time and in the place that were chosen, apparently also took those considerations into account.

According to the description released by the army, M. successfully withstood 45 minutes of aggressive and sometimes violent interrogation by his Hamas captors, until his comrades at arms came to the conclusions that there was no alternative but to open fire in order to extricate themselves. The detailed military investigations, in which top people from the other intelligence branches participated, reverse engineered the conduct of the soldiers, their preparation and their decision-making process.

Because of the exceptional circumstances, Brig. Gen. A will return to the army as a civilian employed by the IDF and only after he signs a conflict of interest agreement. After their release from the army, many graduates of the platoon continue to work in the shadow world of tech: intelligence and cyber companies. This is a possible opening for ethical conflicts and one hopes that this time they will be in the hands of the military advocate general himself and not remain under the auspices of someone lower ranking.

A. is a courageous fighter and an officer with much to his credit, who at the beginning of this decade was called upon to rehabilitate an elite intelligence unit that was in crisis. However, in this case too it is best to remember: le Carré, not James Bond. The names of some of the heroes of the current event were already entangled in a seismic affair in the past, surrounding the friendship between Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz, a graduate of the platoon, and the man who admitted forging the document that gave rise to the affair named after him. From the State Comptroller’s Report on that affair they emerged by the skin of their teeth, after Kochavi, the head of the Intelligence Branch at the time, stood up for them. This fact, too, must serve as a reminder that we aren’t talking about superheroes or saints here, as some articles tend to depict them, but rather flesh and blood human beings who act in a complex reality.

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