Analysis

Trading Insults Rather Than Kinetic Blows, U.S. and Iran Could Still End Up at the Table

Trump's plan – or rather, business strategy – was also evident at the Bahrain conference ■ A Breaking the Silence scandal ends with a whimper

Trump holds up a signed executive order to increase sanctions on Iran, at the White House, June 24, 2019.
Alex Brandon/AP

At the margins of all the twists and turns in the soap opera of Israeli politics this week, there also has recently been a series of security developments. The conflict between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf is far from over. Nerves on the Syrian border are frayed. The Israeli Gaza border communities are struggling with a new wave of fires ignited by incendiary balloons sent from the Strip. And there is no solution in sight for the economic crisis in which the Palestinian Authority has entangled itself in the West Bank, as a result of the dispute with Israel over PA’s continued provision of support for the security prisoners.

It’s quite tempting to try to braid these separate events together into a single strand that would explain everything with the generous stroke of a brush: the incidents in the Gulf, U.S. President Donald Trump’s threatening tweets, the report (on Israeli news website Walla) about an increased presence of Hezbollah people on the Syrian border with Israel in the Golan Heights, even the mysterious glitch in the civil aviation GPS devices – all of them could coalesce into signs of impending war that would involve Israel. An explanation of this sort also has political significance. If the current security situation is especially sensitive – and come to think of it, when wasn’t it especially sensitive in every year of the past decade? – why not accept the ruling Likud party’s new proposal to cancel the election and establish instead an emergency-unity government with the major opposition party, Kahol Lavan?

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Practically speaking, the sequence of security incidents reflects a confluence of several distinct processes, which are now being enlisted for the benefit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the context of the survival campaign aimed at keeping him in his position of power and distancing the three indictments against him. On Thursday, in the Likud they admitted what was already perfectly clear: Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s initiative to cancel the dissolution of the Knesset and prevent the September election was a trial balloon, which in the meantime has been abandoned, apparently because of a lack of sufficient support from the political parties. Presumably this balloon, or others like it, will be sent up again during the course of the summer, certainly if the surveys continue to predict bleak odds for Netanyahu’s chances of putting together a coalition of 61 Knesset members without Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman. And next time, too, the security argument will be invoked. As has been noted here more than once, we will always have Iran.

No exceptional incidents in the waters of the Persian Gulf were reported this week. However, there was another series of drone attacks on airports in Saudi Arabia launched by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are supported by Iran. The exchange of messages between Tehran and Washington was not kinetic, but rather verbal. Trump declared a series of new sanctions, among them the targeting of assets owned by spiritual leader Ali Khamenei (whom the U.S. president, naturally, called Khomeini). The practical value of the damage to Khamenei is apparently marginal as he does not hold identified assets in the West, but that insult was noted. The following day Iranian President Hassan Rohani said the White House is “afflicted by mental retardation.” Trump, too, was insulted and tweeted that the Iranians only understand force. Altogether, the American president had a lot to say with regard to the Iranian question this week. Among other things, he criticized the aggressive proclivities of his National Security Adviser John Bolton, when the latter was in Jerusalem at the summit with his counterparts from Israel and Russia.

Behind the scenes, presumably, the possibility of renewing the talks between the sides has not been abandoned, even in an official channel via Oman, as was the case in the talks that preceded the interim nuclear agreement in 2013. American scholar Ray Takeyh, who is of Iranian origin, wrote on the Politico site this week that the real reason Iran is in no hurry to renew talks on changes to the nuclear agreement, as the Americans are demanding, is that the regime wants to enter into them from a position of strength and “needs a narrative of success.” Iran, he says, is not looking for war by means of the attacks that have been attributed to it in the Gulf, but rather wants to enter into talks only after it feels it has courageously repulsed the American pressure. Trump’s last-minute decision to change his mind about an extensive punitive attack in response to the downing of the American drone a week ago could provide an opening to a renewal of the talks.

The reality, says Takeyh, is that the Iranians did not win at all. The Trump administration ditched the nuclear agreement a year ago without paying any price and slapped a series of painful sanctions on Tehran, which limited the ability of European firms to trade with it and harmed Iran’s economy. According to Takeyh, the Iranians believe they had gained the upper hand in the negotiations with former President Barack Obama’s administration and if talks are renewed they will also succeed in getting the better of the current administration. However, in order to go back to negotiations, they need to gather some bargaining chips. Iran is trying to achieve this by various means, including threats to shipping in the Persian Gulf and gradual violation of the nuclear agreement (by accumulating uranium enriched to a low level, beyond the quantity permitted in the agreement).

A U.S. Navy patrol boat carrying journalists to see damaged oil tankers leaves a U.S. Navy 5th Fleet base near Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, June 19, 2019.
Kamran Jebreili/AP

The damage to the oil tankers reawakened in Trump his usual distaste for spending money on what he sees as an unnecessary gesture America made to the international community. The president does not see his country as the world’s policeman. This week he explained that America does not need to continue taking upon itself the protection of shipping in the Gulf because it isn’t dependent at all on Arab oil for its energy needs. Trump’s sentiment is understandable but it is contrary to another element in his foreign policy, which strives to limit Chinese influence in the rest of the world. Apparently Beijing would be delighted, as part of its efforts to strengthen its international standing, to enter the vacuum Washington has left behind.

It is already the case that most American merchant ships prefer not to enter the Persian Gulf itself but rather remain near the more southern Gulf of Oman, which connects to the Indian Ocean. The Persian Gulf is a relatively narrow basin in which the American ships – like the oil tankers – are vulnerable both to Revolutionary Guard commando boat attacks and rocket fire from the shore.

Another regional problem has to do with the continuation of the civil war in Syria. President Bashar Assad’s regime is focusing its efforts now on an attempt to push the rebels out of the Idlib enclave in the northern part of the country, the most important major region that is still in their hands. The attack is being led by Russian planes and it has recently included a return to deadly carpet bombings, which took the lives of tens of thousands of people in earlier stages of the war. This time, Iran is hardly in the picture. In the Israeli defense establishment, they are trying to figure out how to interpret this development and to what extent it indicates a possible rift between Russia and Iran.

This week there was an attempt to depict the summit of security advisers in Jerusalem as an American-Russian-Israeli agreement on distancing the Iranian forces from Syria. Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev hastened to make it clear that his country remains Iran’s ally. “We believe it is unacceptable to depict Iran as a regional threat,” he said, and to some extent took the wind out of Netanyahu’s the sails of the conference in which participated.

Greenblatt: ‘No occupation’

The second, more glamorous conference was held this week in Bahrain. It is doubtful that the economic workshop initiated by the Trump administration will lead the Israelis and Palestinians to a better future, despite the wonderful photo opportunities in the picturesque principality. However, seen from afar, it appears that the conference had a number of positive outcomes. The very fact of the presentation of the possible economic fruits of peace could encourage parts of the Palestinian public in their support for a future agreement. And the interviews the Bahraini foreign minister granted to Israeli media – Channel 13 News and the Kan Public Broadcasting Corporation – provided heartwarming declarations of future normalization in the region.

The problem, for a long time now, has to do with the political and diplomatic element of “the deal of the century,” which a priori is inadequate from the Palestinian perspective and the presentation of which has been postponed now by the administration to some unknown date in the future. The president’s envoy to the talks, Jason Greenblatt, even rejected on Thursday the very idea that an occupation exists in the West Bank. Declarations of this sort are music to the ears of the Israeli right but only reinforce the Palestinian contention that Trump and his people cannot serve as fair intermediaries in the conflict. Some of the statements made by the Americans at the conference as to the situation in the territories sounded very remote, if not completely disconnected, from the factual circumstances.

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Jared Kushner attend the opening session of the "Peace to Prosperity" workshop in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019.
Bahrain News Agency via AP

The Palestinian Authority also chalked up considerable success in its deterrent campaign to prevent Palestinian businesspeople from attending the conference. The participation of a businessman from Hebron, who in recent years has been warmly and unusually embraced by the Jewish settlers in that city, cannot be considered an American administration success in recruiting Palestinians to the initiative.

There is a certain similarity between the administration’s strategies, and perhaps it should be said its business models as well, in the Iranian question and on the Palestinian issue. In both of them Trump is applying maximal pressure while brandishing the possibility of receiving maximal benefits if his proposals are accepted. However, the Bahrain conference was held after a series of harsh economic steps taken by the United States with respect to the Palestinians, which together with the dispute over the money for the prisoners has very much worsened the situation of the Palestinian Authority. The coordination between the security mechanisms of Israel and the PA is like skating on thin ice, which could shatter because of an incident in a religious context or a local conflict between Palestinian and settlers. The fact that the people who are shouldering the burden on the Palestinian side go home every month with half their pay, and sometimes less, is not helping to preserve stability.

The circumstances in the Gaza Strip are even more dangerous. Hamas is no longer even pretending it is trying to preserve quiet for more than a few days after the entry of the monthly shipment of Qatari cash. At the same time, the leadership of the organization is becoming increasingly frustrated in light of the impression that Israel is delaying the implementation of the relief measures agreed upon in the mediation by Egypt and the United Nations.

West Bank debacles

The Dean Issacharoff affair ended this week with a whimper. After a year of investigation, the State Prosecutor’s Office announced it was closing the case against the Breaking the Silence spokesman. Issacharoff, decided the prosecution, had testified to an incident that had indeed taken place in reality when he related that he had beaten a Palestinian under arrest at a violent demonstration in Hebron about five years ago. However, the force used against the detainee was reasonable in the circumstances and therefore it does not necessitate bringing the former Nahal Brigade platoon commander to trial. The case was closed “for lack of guilt” but in contrast to the first investigation, this time the prosecution is not saying that Issacharoff lied.

A detailed investigation by Baruch Kra broadcast on Thursday on the Channel 13 program “Hamakor” recounts this strange story, which during the past two years spilled over into political scandal. Issacharoff, who joined Breaking the Silence after completing his military service as an officer, spoke about the incident on many occasions. Publication of part of what he said on the internet aroused a campaign against him by the rightist organization “Reservists on Duty,” which filmed a counter-video in which his company commander and soldiers who had served under Issacharoff call him a liar and accuse him of having made up the incident.

Kra’s investigative report once again testifies to the wretchedness of the Israeli legal system in the Palestinian territories, which was displayed in all its nakedness at the beginning of this week in the cancellation of the indictment against the Palestinian suspect in the rape of a 7-year-old girl. In the Issacharoff affair as well, the Judea and Samaria District Police will not be getting any citations for excellence. The investigators, like the former soldiers, became confused in the incident, misidentified the Palestinian who was beaten at the time of the arrest and were also wrong about the identity of the officer who commanded the company at the time of the incident. The second police investigation, which was opened under pressure from the suspect himself and the Breaking the Silence organization, reached the relevant witnesses.

The correct company commander, the correct detainee and another soldier, who had served as the company commander’s communications officer and was involved in the arrest, are all interviewed on the program. The conclusion, after close study of all the details of an incident that is fairly common in the territories, is much closer to Issacharoff’s version: There was indeed an arrest, in which the platoon commander used violence. According to him, in order to control the detainee, Faisal al-Natsheh, he injured the Palestinian’s knee and his face. It appears that in the heat of the lecture the officer exaggerated a bit in describing the event itself. The Palestinian may have bled slightly. And he did not lose consciousness from the force of the blows, as Issacharoff claimed. However, in retrospect, said Deputy State Prosecutor Nurit Litman, today she would not have ruled that Issacharoff lied, as she had argued in the summation of the first investigation.

The politicians who rushed to leap on the bandwagon, headed by the justice minister at the time, Ayelet Shaked, did not bother this week to deal with the conclusions of the second investigation. Issacharoff says of himself that at a certain moment he began to doubt his own perception of reality. If everyone around you is saying that the incident never occurred, how far can you trust your memory?

The soldiers who were filmed for the reservists’ video are not liars. They were not involved in the real incident and they don’t feel comfortable admitting the possibility that such an incident could happen (in Issacharoff’s initial, exaggerated description) because that would cast doubt on the morality of the mission they carried out in the territories.

And that, in a nutshell, is the basic maneuver by which Israel strengthens a broad national consensus around military service in the territories, even when the occupation is entering its 53rd year this month. This is how we are having our cake and eating it too: Firstly, holding the territories is perceived as an essential security need. Secondly, of course the activity is conducted in a way that smells of roses. And therefore, thirdly, anyone who says otherwise is a liar who is slandering the State of Israel, even if he himself was an officer and a combat soldier.

And thus, accordingly, from time to time a festival of self-righteousness breaks out surrounding another incident, without a scrap of public memory regarding previous incidents. In the two years before Issacharoff, there were two similar incidents, both of which were filmed, in which an officer and a soldier from the Nahal Brigade were involved, in the same neighborhood and in quite similar circumstances.

Do most Israel Defense Forces soldiers hit Palestinians in an exaggerated fashion at the time of an arrest? Of course not. Is the IDF activity in the territories examined through biased lenses based on a double standard imposed by the international community? Of course it is. But what the “Hamakor” investigative report reveals is the hidden mechanism of deterrence and silencing. Issacharoff’s name was blackened in order to threaten his organization and at the same time his father, a veteran diplomat who is currently serving as Israel’s ambassador in Berlin, was also slandered. There was a longer-term deterrent aim here: to warn other demobilized soldiers not to speak in public about things they did and saw in the territories. It is a pity that the prosecution was dragged into this political stratagem. Fortunately, it came to its senses, though only after a considerable delay.