Analysis |

Iranian Oil Shipment to Lebanon Poses New Challenge for Israel

This new unsupervised axis through the Suez Canal will be perceived as a Hezbollah accomplishment testing both Israel and Egypt ■ The Israeli army’s love affair with psyops blurs ethical lines

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The moon over Beirut, as it remains in darkness during a power outage, on Thursday.
The moon over Beirut, as it remains in darkness during a power outage, on Thursday.Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The impression of senior Israelis who have met with their American counterparts is that the Biden administration is focusing on three main missions, all beginning with C: COVID, climate and China. Too bad for Afghanistan, which the United States abandoned this week, that it doesn’t make the shortlist. Israel will try to add to the roster one more mission beginning with I: Iran.

Joe Biden decided to cut the Gordian knot and complete the withdrawal of the American forces from Afghanistan even before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks next month. The result was the rapid collapse of the government and the flight of the Afghan army from the capital Kabul in a way that contradicted U.S. intelligence’s appraisals and gave the administration its worst embarrassment in its seven months in office.

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But the president continues to insist that he did the right thing. America is done with sending soldiers overseas in the name of preserving democracy and preventing extremist-Islamic terrorism; it’s done with helping countries that aren’t able to fight for themselves. The great majority of voters support Biden’s decision despite the criticism from Donald Trump, who effectively set things off with the agreement he signed with the Taliban a year and a half ago.

The grim images of the withdrawal, with desperate Afghans clinging to the wheels of American passenger planes and falling to their death, will long be remembered. Many people are hearing an echo from the withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1975. Israelis who took part in the army’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 are also having a hard time ignoring the similarities.

The shock waves of the abandonment and the collapse are being felt around the world. In China, commentators in the government media advised Taiwan to take note of the events in Kabul, while rulers in the Middle East are worried that America will leave them to their own devices.

Afghanistan’s neighbor to the west, Iran, also watched the drama. In the coming weeks the Iranian nuclear project will return to the center of the world’s attention amid the expected efforts to revive the talks between Tehran and the powers following the inauguration of Iran’s hawkish president, Ebrahim Raisi.

The Iranian threat will be discussed at length in the meeting between Biden and Naftali Bennett at the White House on Thursday, though the prime minister knows that Washington’s decision on whether to sign a new agreement depends mainly on Iran’s willingness, not Israel’s demurrers. A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency this week corroborated the Israeli claim that Iran has stepped up its efforts to enrich uranium to a higher level – 60 percent – nearing the level for military purposes, 90 percent.

Israel has so far refrained from responding to two attacks by Iran and Hezbollah at the beginning of the month: the drone assault on a ship in the Persian Gulf managed by an Israeli-owned company, and the launching of 19 rockets from Lebanon into the Golan Heights. In both cases, though the other side was responding to Israeli operations, the government sufficed with tough rhetoric.

Oil tanker Mercer Street, which came under attack off the coast of Oman.Credit: Johan Victor

Israel will soon face another Iranian challenge that undoubtedly was discussed in the latest talks with Egypt. Iran is sending through the Suez Canal a first oil tanker bound for Lebanon, which is mired in a deep crisis. Hezbollah will chalk up an achievement based on humanitarian grounds, and a new and unsupervised route will open between Iran and Lebanon.

Israel and Egypt are undoubtedly contemplating how to act. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has already threatened to respond to any aggression against the tankers.

Bennett often cites the 2006 Second Lebanon War as an experience that was burned into his consciousness and shaped his view of strategic issues. A salient lesson from the Ehud Olmert government’s relative failure in that war was the lack of maturity and depth of the security cabinet following Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke.

Let’s hope the current security cabinet will now do a quick study of the strategic issues, because there's still potential for a rapid deterioration in a number of arenas.

Confusion of roles

Haaretz’s Yaniv Kubovich exposed a scandal this week. It turns out that the person who runs the popular defense news channel Abu Ali Express in the Telegram app is a salaried external consultant of the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command.

For many decades the Israeli intelligence community has been spearheading propaganda and consciousness-molding efforts aimed at the Palestinians and the public in the Arab states. But Israel always claimed that it stuck to the rule of not wielding psychological warfare on the Israeli public.

This latest affair shows that when you deliberately blur the boundaries between intelligence, PR and the media in contacts with the international community, the process will seep into the domestic arena.

In the past decade the IDF became enamored of the “consciousness effort” concept in the “war between the wars” against the Iranians and their cohorts across the region. While in the past, dubious leaks to obscure newspapers in Kuwait were considered enough, in recent years key media outlets in Britain and the United States have unblinkingly been quoting “Western intelligence sources” that weren’t really Western at all.

In the Abu Ali Express episode, we learned that the channel is run by G., whose full name has been banned for publication. G. was originally an officer in an IDF unit, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, until the former coordinator, Kamil Abu Rokon, removed from reserve duty in the unit people from the media in civilian life. To Southern Command officials, that was less of an issue, and G. was hired as a civilian consultant.

Attending meetings with operational and intelligence personnel, G. has access to inside information that his competitors in the media don’t have. Occasionally he publishes exclusives that usually conform to the IDF’s propaganda needs.

If that weren’t enough, G. also sometimes uses his channel to excoriate journalists who as it happens – by coincidence, you know – aren’t the favorites of Southern Command or the General Staff. All this goes on, as expected, without an iota of disclosure.

The army explains that its personnel have no responsibility for or connection with what G. publishes in Telegram and that senior people had no idea he was attacking journalists there. Still, the impression is that we’ve got a complete blurring of boundaries of the permissible and the impermissible. What did the recent IDF spokespeople know and when did they know it?

If they knew, they were part of the deception efforts aimed at the Israeli public, under the cover of an independent media channel. If not, somebody high up in the army doesn’t give a hoot about them.

As a reservist officer who handled similar issues in the past puts it, “The root of the problem lies in the ongoing confusion in understanding the role of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit and in the attempts to integrate it into consciousness-shaping campaigns. The true task of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit is to provide reliable information on the army’s operations to the shareholders – that is, the country’s citizens, who with their taxes fund the IDF and send their children to serve in it and often endanger themselves.

“What was revealed here is the tip of the iceberg of a snafu where officers – including combat personnel – perceive their role as manipulators of consciousness, not only of the enemy but of the country’s citizens. It’s all done, as usual, without the normal ethics checks and supervision, and of course without an internal review.”

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