Tom Gross Mideast Media Analysis

A unity government is preferred by many Israelis (& video: Tom Gross on Benny Gantz)

September 20, 2019

 

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (center) uniting Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz (right) in a three-way handshake yesterday at a memorial service for the late president Shimon Peres. Many in Israel would like Rivlin to force the two leaders to form a national unity government following Tuesday’s inconclusive elections, the second Israel has held this year.

The Blue and White coalition led by Gantz gained 33 seats. Netanyahu’s Likud party gained 31 seats. Each would need to persuade several smaller parties to back them to form a government, or alternatively they could join forces to form a unity government. Seven other parties with a very diverse range of views and agendas entered the 120-seat Israeli parliament.

 

VIDEO: TOM GROSS ON BENNY GANTZ

I’ve given a number of interviews following Tuesday’s Israeli elections, including two to BBC Arabic TV, which broadcasts across the Arab world.

The following interview is from Israel’s Channel 13 news yesterday evening. My remarks start in English at 43 seconds into the video.



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dly0jhdMFf4

Tom Gross on international views of Israeli elections. How will Benny Gantz be viewed if he becomes Prime Minister?

(With observations about the Washington Post, New York Times and Haaretz at the end.)

 

ARTICLE EXTRACTS AND SUMMARIES

A UNITY GOVERNMENT IS PREFERRED

Economics columnist David Rosenberg writes in today’s Haaretz (summary):

A unity government between Likud and Blue and White is preferable in that it won’t be blackmailed into making budget-busting promises to multiple coalition partners. But the financial markets should also be concerned in the medium and long term about the end of the Netanyahu era, which has brought unprecedented economic growth to Israel.

This is the result both of Netanyahu’s policies but also of his mastery of the political game. He was able to glide over divisions in Israel and bring a decade of political quiet between Israel’s warring factions. His successor may not have the same skills.

 

HISTORY WILL BE KINDER THAN MANY IN TODAY’S MEDIA

Ruthie Blum writes in today’s Jerusalem Post (extracts):

As much of a disappointment as it will be to his supporters if Netanyahu is unable to head the next government, it will not be the end of the world. Or of Israel.

But there is no doubt that Bibi will go down in history as one of Israel’s and the world’s most influential and consequential leaders of all times.

Under Bibi’s watch, the tiny war-torn Jewish state has become a world power to be reckoned with in every way, and not only the obvious ones, such as military prowess, hi-tech genius and medical advancement. In the industries of cooking, fashion, movie and TV, too, Israel is a global player.

In addition, despite repeated hysterical assertions, Israel is not “isolated.” On the contrary, Netanyahu has forged working relationships with heretofore unthinkable states, and has created alliances with soon-to-be former enemy Arab countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, through his incessant warnings about the Iranian regime’s race to obtain nuclear weapons.

He also has been as welcome a guest in the White House, since US President Donald Trump assumed office, as he is in the Kremlin. That he has been able to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin not to down Israeli jets on missions against Iranian targets in Syria is mind-boggling.

On the macro level, Israel’s economy is booming to such an extent that the ever-strengthening shekel has presented a problem to local manufacturers. And in spite of its over-the-top prices, the Holy Land is a prized tourist destination.

 

GANTZ FOREIGN POLICY ALMOST IDENTICAL TO NETANYAHU

Wall Street Journal correspondent Felicia Schwartz writes today (summary):

If he becomes Israel’s next leader, retired Gen. Benny Gantz, 60, would likely follow the same path as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz served as the head of Israel’s military from 2011 to 2015, while Netanyahu was the prime minister. President Trump, who has described Gantz as a “good person” and said Wednesday that the U.S. relationship is with Israel as a country, not any one leader.

Gantz has said he thought the Obama administration could have reached a much better nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. Gantz has wholeheartedly supported Netanyahu’s campaign against Iran and against Obama’s Iran deal, as Israel has launched strikes against Tehran’s positions and those of its Shia allies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. “I am standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the fight against Iran’s aggression,” Gantz told the Munich Security Conference earlier this year.

Gantz has said he would put any Israeli withdrawal from (parts of) the West Bank up for a public vote and would look to take unilateral steps if a peace deal can’t be reached. “If it turns out that there is no way to reach peace at this time, we will shape a new reality,” he said. After Netanyahu pledged to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley, Gantz called the area “a part of Israel forever.” Many Israelis, including Gantz, consider that area on the Jordan border essential to Israel’s security.

 

WHO IS BENNY GANTZ?

Ruby Mellen writes in The Washington Post (summary):

With a parliamentary election producing a deadlock, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for a unity government with his opponent, Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White alliance. Born in Israel to Holocaust survivors, Gantz entered the armed forces in 1977 at age 18 and steadily climbed the ranks in a military career that spanned 38 years.

In 1989, he oversaw an operation that airlifted 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. A decade later, he served as the commander of Israeli forces in southern Lebanon and then oversaw Israel’s withdrawal from the region. While chief of staff, the IDF fought two wars in Gaza in 2012 and 2014. In January he ran a campaign ad taking credit for the 1,364 terrorists the IDF says it killed in the 2014 war.

 

For Tuesday’s dispatch on the Israeli election please see:
Second Israeli election in five months: “Bibi fatigue” against a lackluster Gantz

 

* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia

Second Israeli election in five months: “Bibi fatigue” against a “lackluster Gantz”

September 17, 2019

Stall owners in a street market in Jerusalem show their support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of today’s national elections. Working class Israelis tend to support Netanyahu for his notable achievements on the economy and on security, whereas upper income Israelis often despise him, sometimes for cultural or elitist reasons. Other Israelis vote for smaller parties, often for sectoral or ethnic reasons.

 

SECOND ISRAELI ELECTION IN FIVE MONTHS

[Note by Tom Gross]

Polls have opened in Israel for the country’s second election this year, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and newcomer challenger, the former army chief Benny Gantz, again running neck and neck according to opinion polls.

The Netanyahu-led Likud party, and Blue and White, headed by Gantz, finished tied with 35 seats each in the April 9 ballot and Netanyahu failed to cobble together a majority.

Results will be known within hours of close of polls at 10 pm Israel time tonight. But unless one of the parties wins decisively, it may be weeks before we actually know who will be able to form the next coalition government. This is because Israel’s electoral system is perhaps “too democratic” in that it allows so many different political parties representing all kinds of factional and ethnic interests to enter the 120 seat Knesset

Many Israelis hope for stability and to avoid a third election, and therefore would like a Netanyahu-Gantz national unity government to emerge.

I attach five recent articles on the Israeli elections, including one from today.

Among the writers, Jonathan Tobin, Isi Leibler and Matti Friedman are all longtime subscribers to this list.

Below are a few extracts first for those who don’t have time to read the pieces in full.

 

EXTRACTS

THE PALESTINIANS ARE ACTUALLY THE KEY TO PEACE

Jonathan Tobin (JNS):

What most Americans – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – still fail to understand is the broad consensus among Israelis (including Netanyahu and Gantz) on security issues and the peace process. That consensus holds that the Palestinians have no real interest in peace, and that in the absence of a peace partner, the kind of territorial concessions Israel’s liberal friends demand it make wouldn’t be so much unwise as insane.

That’s why all the talk in the New York Times and Washington Post about Israel’s latest election deciding the future of the peace process isn’t just wrong, but ignores the fact that this question was actually determined in an election held 14 years ago, as well as in one that didn’t happen four years later. I refer to the vote that took place on Jan. 9, 2005 when Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority.

There has never been another election for Palestinian president in either the West Bank or Hamas-controlled Gaza; Abbas is currently serving in the 15th year of the four-year term to which he had been elected.

Had the Palestinians elected a person willing or capable of making peace, they would have grabbed Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, as well a share of Jerusalem.

 

THE DANGERS OF THROWING OUT A WORLD-CLASS LEADER

Isi Leibler (Israel Hayom):

A major concern even among this who have “Bibi fatigue” and want a change is the lackluster pre-election performance of Gantz himself, who is devoid of charisma, contradicts himself, and seems to be a monotonously “nice guy” but hardly the leader Israel requires. This is highlighted with comparisons to Netanyahu who – despite a viciously hostile press, major diplomatic and military challenges, constant legal pressures, and an impending election – remains as cool as a cucumber.

Aside from the extent to which the powers of the Supreme Court to override government decisions are to be limited, there are no major political differences between Likud and Blue and White.

Both agree that an independent Palestinian state at this time would mean creating a terrorist state on our borders that Iran could employ as a launching pad to destroy us. Both parties oppose dividing Jerusalem or ceding further territories unless a final settlement is reached.

Even those who detest Netanyahu cannot deny that, whatever his personal weaknesses, he stands out today as a world-class leader enjoying excellent relations with US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders and now forging diplomatic channels with Arab former adversaries now inching closer to open relations with Israel.

Yet ironically, there is a possibility that the outcome could achieve stability and the new government to be formed may even reflect a national consensus if Gantz agrees to a unity government with Netanyahu …

 

NO MOOD FOR A THIRD ELECTION

Jonathan Kolatch (Wall St Journal):

With 65 of 120 Knesset members recommending him for a fifth term as prime minister, the April election should have provided Netanyahu a clear path to form a government.

Yet the ultimate cause of the breakdown following the April election was a miscalculated campaign by the breakaway New Right party, powered by former Education Minister Naftali Bennett and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Their new party ended up 0.03% of the vote short of the 3.25% minimum to qualify for the Knesset. With 1,400 more votes, they would have won four seats, giving Netanyahu a majority …

During this new current campaign, Netanyahu has missed no beat. He has restated his intention to apply Israeli sovereignty to Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria. Against advice from his attorney general, Netanyahu initiated a failed attempt to pass a law allowing cameras in election precincts. He announced discovery of a second Iranian nuclear site. Reinforcing his international luster, he met Prime Ministers Narendra Modi in New Delhi, Boris Johnson in London and Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia. Blue and White mocked him as “Benjamin of Tudela” a medieval Jewish wanderer. The prime minister’s campaign strategy is to dominate the agenda and divert discussion from pending legal vulnerability and escalating hostilities in Gaza. …

President Reuven Rivlin, who has broad oversight over the coalition-formation process, has made clear that he will do everything in his power to move the process to conclusion. Almost everyone agrees Israel is in no mood for a third election.

 

GANTZ: NETANYAHU IS TOO WEAK ON GAZA

Felicia Schwartz (Wall St Journal):

Underpinning his pitch: Many Israelis say they have rarely, if ever, felt safer than they have during Netanyahu’s last decade in power. A wave of suicide bombings and street stabbings, known as the second Palestinian intifada, had largely subsided when Netanyahu took office in 2009. The violence has generally been kept at bay, though Israel and Gaza have fought three wars since then….

In particular, Gantz has highlighted the prime minister’s weak policies on Gaza, where Hamas, a group labeled as terrorist by Israel and the U.S., is in power. Hamas has periodically launched missiles into Israel for more than a year, often prompting Israeli airstrikes.

Gantz, a former general, says a dramatic military operation could be necessary to uproot Hamas once and for all. The former Israeli army chief of staff says Netanyahu has gone soft, essentially buying Hamas off by allowing Qatar to send tens of millions of dollars into Gaza.

“We will not accept any violation of our sovereignty. Not a missile, not a kite, not a rocket. We will re-establish deterrence,” Gantz said at an event in northern Israel.

The threat from Hamas was underlined last week when Netanyahu was forced to exit a campaign event and seek refuge in a bomb shelter in Ashdod after Gaza militants fired rockets toward the seaside city…

Some former officials say there are flaws in Netanyahu’s tough image. Uzi Arad, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu who is now critical of him, said the premier hasn’t acted decisively to confront security challenges.

 

“BORN IN JERUSALEM AND STILL ALIVE”

Matti Friedman (New York Times):

When trying to understand Israel’s election, you can easily get lost in the details – corruption charges, coalition wrangling, bickering between left and right. But the best explainer might be a small film that you’re unlikely to see about something that people here prefer not to discuss: “Born in Jerusalem and Still Alive” …

No single episode has shaped Israel’s population and politics like the wave of suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinians in the first years of the 21st century. The attacks, which killed hundreds of Israeli civilians (and injured thousands), ended hopes for a negotiated peace and destroyed the left, which was in power when the wave began. Any sympathy that the Israeli majority had toward Palestinians evaporated.

More than any other single development, that period explains the durability of Benjamin Netanyahu, which outsiders sometimes struggle to understand. Simply put, in the decade before Netanyahu came to power in 2009, the fear of death accompanied us in public places. There was a chance your child could be blown up on the bus home from school. In the decade since, that has ceased to be the case.


ARTICLES

THE ELECTIONS THAT DECIDED THE FUTURE OF THE CONFLICT

The elections that decided the future of the conflict
Israeli voters won’t determine whether peace is possible. That happened when Abbas succeeded Arafat and subsequently refused to hold another vote.
By Jonathan S. Tobin
JNS
September 16, 2019

On the eve of the second Israeli election of 2019, there is no shortage of apocalyptic rhetoric about the potential consequences of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election. From The New York Times editorial column to the Forward’s opinion pages, we’re once again hearing the same stale rhetoric about how another Likud-led government will mark the decline and fall of Israeli democracy, the end of the Israel-Diaspora relationship, torpedo U.S. support for the Jewish state and cause the final collapse of any hope for peace with the Palestinians. That last point of view was best articulated by Washington Post editorial-page editor Jackson Diehl, who, like many liberal pundits, believes that Netanyahu’s promise to apply Israeli law to West Bank settlements and to hold onto the Jordan Valley forever ensures that peace will never be possible with the Palestinians.

Let’s leave aside the likelihood that Netanyahu statements are just campaign rhetoric that won’t be turned into action. Israeli law already applies to the settlements, and annexation, even of the Area C territory where Jewish communities are located, is still unlikely. As for the Jordan Valley, Netanyahu’s chief rival – the Blue and White Party’s Benny Gantz – has said that his position on the issue are no different than that of the prime minister. What most Americans – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – still fail to understand is the broad consensus among Israelis on security issues and the peace process. That consensus holds that the Palestinians have no real interest in peace, and that in the absence of a peace partner, the kind of territorial concessions Israel’s liberal friends demand it make wouldn’t be so much unwise as insane.

That’s why all the talk about Israel’s latest election deciding the future of the peace process isn’t just wrong, but ignores the fact that this question was actually determined in an election held 14 years ago, as well as in one that didn’t happen four years later.

By that I refer to the vote that took place on Jan. 9, 2005 when Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, succeeding Yasser Arafat. Abbas, who was the leader of Arafat’s Fatah Party and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, won with 62 percent of the vote. That wasn’t very impressive when you consider that his Hamas rivals refused to run in an election they not unreasonably believed was fixed, and that, according to independent Palestinian researchers, 94 percent of the coverage of the election in the Palestinian media was devoted to laudatory coverage of Abbas.

The election was largely the result of American pressure on both the Palestinians and the Israeli government then led by Ariel Sharon. President George W. Bush and his foreign-policy team had become convinced that the establishment of Palestinian democracy was the necessary prerequisite to peace. Like the Bush administration’s similarly misguided attempt to convert an Iraq that had been liberated from the rule of Saddam Hussein into a democracy, the notion that Palestinian political culture was capable of sustaining political liberty, let alone choosing peace, was a fantasy.

Bush had rightly rejected Arafat – who had been foolishly embraced by President Bill Clinton and Israeli governments led by the Labor Party as a peacemaker – as an unreconstructed terrorist. But although Abbas wore a suit rather than Arafat’s combat fatigues, he was no more interested or capable of ending the conflict with Israel than his predecessor.

While his elevation to the post of president of the P.A. was heralded at the time as a step towards peace, all it really did was to further entrench the corrupt rule of Fatah. Though Hamas branded him as a weakling, Abbas had no intention of making peace. The Islamist terror group won a Palestinian legislative election in 2006 and then organized a blood coup in 2007 that enabled them to seize power in Gaza.

So it was little surprise that when it came time for another Palestinian election, Abbas merely stayed in office without holding another vote. As had been the case many times elsewhere in the Third World in the post-colonial era, Palestinian democracy was a case of one man, one vote, one time. There has never been another election for Palestinian president in either the West Bank or Hamas-controlled Gaza; Abbas is currently serving in the 15th year of the four-year term to which he had been elected.

Had the Palestinians elected a person willing or capable of making peace, they would have grabbed Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, as well a share of Jerusalem. Instead, as Arafat did in 2000 and 2001, Abbas said “no.” He continued to say no when the Obama administration revived negotiations and Netanyahu expressed a willingness to talk about the future of the West Bank. And he continues, to this day, to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn. That means that he won’t signal that the century-long Palestinian war on Zionism was a failure and finally over.

It was the Palestinian elections of 2005 and 2006, as well as the one that wasn’t held in 2009, which made it clear that peace with Israel was impossible until a sea change in their culture produced a leadership that would be serious about peace. Should such a leadership ever emerge, they will, no doubt, find willing Israeli partners.

But that’s something to wish for in the future. For now, Israelis understand that the Palestinians have already decided against peace – no matter what Netanyahu, Gantz or any other potential prime minister will or won’t do. And it is high time that Americans who claim to be experts about the Middle East reconciled themselves to this reality, rather than continue to spin fantasies about peace the Palestinians have already rejected.

 

AN ELECTION OUTCOME REFLECTING THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE

An election outcome reflecting the will of the people
By Isi Leibler
Israel Hayom
Sept 11, 2019

The decision to hold this election was disgraceful and should have been avoided. Indeed, one of the big questions that could be critical for the outcome are the voters who are fed up with our dysfunctional politics and will simply not bother casting their ballots.

Yet ironically, there is a possibility that the outcome could achieve stability and the new government to be formed may even reflect a national consensus.

Although recent opinion polls have proven to be utterly misleading, it would seem that Likud combined with the haredi and right-wing groups but without Yisrael Beytenu will again fail to win sufficient seats to obtain the majority required to form a right-wing government. As nothing Likud could offer would satisfy Avigdor Lieberman’s primary personal goal of politically destroying Benjamin Netanyahu, a repeated deadlock seems inevitable.

Yet, any suggestion of holding a third election is not an option. Besides, the fact is that, apart from supporters of the Joint Arab List and the haredim, most Israelis will vote holding their noses.

Likud supporters will be voting for a government that would include an eccentric like Moshe Feiglin and would support the legalization of marijuana.

Yamina, formerly the New Right, is headed by able and charismatic Ayelet Shaked but will have as one of its leading personalities the coarse, loud-mouthed Bezalel Smotrich, whose views radically contrast with those of religious Zionism’s founders, moderates like Haim-Moshe Shapira and Yosef Burg.

Those traditionally supporting Labor Zionist parties are forced to choose between Amir Peretz’s Labor-Gesher party and the Democratic Union, a merger of Meretz with failed former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party.

Blue and White supporters have two issues to contend with. Many shudder at the prospect of Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid – often referred to as “flapping gums” – becoming prime minister after a rotation of two years with Benny Gantz, unless, as is likely, the partnership is abruptly terminated after the elections.

The other concern is the lackluster pre-election performance of Gantz himself, who is devoid of charisma, contradicts himself, and seems to be a monotonously “nice guy” but hardly the leader Israel requires. This is highlighted with comparisons to Netanyahu who – despite a viciously hostile press, major diplomatic and military challenges, constant legal pressures, and an impending election – remains as cool as a cucumber.

Aside from the extent to which the powers of the Supreme Court to override government decisions are to be limited, there are no major political differences between Likud and Blue and White.

Setting aside the right and left extremes in both parties, there is a consensus that:

* Both major parties have identical security objectives.
* Both agree that an independent Palestinian state at this time would mean creating a terrorist state on our borders that Iran could employ as a launching pad to destroy us.
* There are various streams in both parties regarding applying Israeli law to settlements and, if the US does not resist, possibly annexing and applying sovereignty to Area C.
* This will come to a turning point after the elections when the Trump peace plan is finally revealed.
* Both parties oppose dividing Jerusalem or ceding further territories unless a final settlement is reached.
* Both agree that in the context of the status quo, all efforts should be made to improve the living conditions of Palestinians in the hope that they will ultimately have leaders willing to peacefully coexist.
* In actuality, there are only two issues motivating voters.

The principal issue is “Bibi fatigue.” Those who have it argue that after 13 years, Netanyahu has outlived his political life and it is time for change so he should go. Ten years is usually regarded as the optimal political life of a democratic leader.

The secondary factor is the chance for a government in which the haredim are denied the opportunity to exert even more power and intensify their narrow interests with the Chief Rabbinate imposing even more stringent interpretations of Halachah. Lieberman’s anti-haredi incitement has successfully touched a responsive chord and led to an apparent substantial increase of voters to his party.

But what will happen after the elections when no juggling of political musical chairs with the smaller parties enables a government to be formed?

There is a possibility that, despite all the obstacles facing him, Netanyahu may still lead Likud to achieve a majority. Aside from last-minute electoral gimmicks, which Bibi has often successfully pulled off, many who despise him, when in the ballot box, may think twice before supporting an inarticulate novice to head their government in these troubled times. Even those who detest Netanyahu cannot deny that, whatever his personal weaknesses, he stands out today as a world-class leader enjoying excellent relations with US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders and now forging diplomatic channels with Arab former adversaries now inching closer to open relations with Israel.

In the context of what we face, it would surely be counterproductive to divest ourselves of him at this time when existential threats challenge us and agreements with the Americans and Russians could either have good or disastrous implications for us in the long term.

If Netanyahu is unable to form a right-wing government, he may make a generous offer to Gantz, possibly resulting in a split with Lapid, who would become leader of the opposition.

A national unity government would then be achieved, to the satisfaction of most Israelis. The haredim could remain within the government but they would no longer hold the balance of power and thus would not be in a position to veto government initiatives.

Even if politically victorious, Netanyahu will still face legal charges, but allowing for the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, which has not been the case with the scurrilous media campaign against him, the court may face a tough and lengthy battle to convict him.

In the alternative scenario should Likud not top the polls, there will be pressure from all sides, including his own party, for Netanyahu to step down and for a national unity government, with or without the haredim, to be formed, headed in rotation by Gantz and a new Likud leader.

Although this election is somewhat like a lottery, voters should try to set aside their personal feelings and, even if it means holding their noses, support the party whose leader they feel will be best equipped to head our nation over the crucial year facing us. Our choice could have existential repercussions on the nation.

 

ISRAEL’S ELECTION IS FULL OF WILD CARDS

Israel’s Election Is Full of Wild Cards
The result could help bridge the religious-secular divide. Or it could end the Netanyahu era.
By Jonathan Kolatch
Wall Street Journal
Sept. 17, 2019

Israel’s repeat election Tuesday may reinforce the dominance of the right – and begin to bridge the divide between religious and secular Jews that has plagued Israel since the state was established. But polls are tight. If the vote swings left, it will likely spell the end of the Benjamin Netanyahu era.

With 65 of 120 Knesset members recommending him for a fifth term as prime minister, the April election should have provided Mr. Netanyahu a clear path to form a government. Snatching headlines for the negotiation’s breakdown was the refusal of Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) Party won five seats, to back Mr. Netanyahu unless a bill requiring ultra-Orthodox students to serve in the military was passed without revision.

Yet the ultimate cause of the breakdown was a miscalculated campaign by the breakaway New Right party, powered by former Education Minister Naftali Bennett and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Their new party ended up 0.03% of the vote short of the 3.25% minimum to qualify for the Knesset. With 1,400 more votes, they would have won four seats, giving Mr. Netanyahu a majority – without Mr. Lieberman – and a repeat election would have been unnecessary.

Instead of focusing on their achievements as ministers, Mr. Bennett and Ms. Shaked opted for Madison Avenue glitz. Ms. Shaked, 43, a secular Jewish woman with a respect for tradition, appeared in a sexy campaign ad in which she scented herself with a fragrance called “Fascism,” parodying critics of her judicial reforms. Her clincher: “Smells like democracy to me.” Mr. Bennett overplayed his security credentials and mounted a spot with a perched dove in hand, conveying the message that the road to peace is through strength.

Given a second chance, Mr. Bennett and Ms. Shaked realigned with their old nationalist-religious allies to form a hybrid party called Yamina (To the Right) that melds traditional Judaism with allowance for secularists. Yamina aims for 10 seats in the next Knesset, enough to demand choice cabinet portfolios. Polls have Yamina within striking distance.

Yamina will likely show new flexibility on matters of religion and state. Rabbi Rafi Peretz, now education minister and No. 2 on the Yamina slate, has backtracked from his stance encouraging “conversion therapy” to reverse homosexuality. Ms. Shaked, who tops the slate, would demand the justice ministry and push for reduced power for Israel’s left-leaning Supreme Court. Some see her as a future prime minister.

Counterintuitively, the major obstacle to Yamina’s ascent is Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud, which, as in April, is trying to sap as many votes from other right-wing parties as possible. With Likud as top vote-getter, Mr. Netanyahu would merit first crack at forming the next coalition. Former army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz ‘s centrist Blue and White Party, Likud’s principal rival, is likewise attempting to beat down potential partners on its left.

To the final campaign bell, Mr. Netanyahu has evinced a visceral coolness toward Ms. Shaked, instigated heavily by his wife, Sara. The prime minister’s message to Likud campaigners is that if Yamina gets 10 seats, Ms. Shaked won’t recommend Mr. Netanyahu to form the next government. In retort, Yamina reiterates its support for Mr. Netanyahu, and hints at favoring immunity from prosecution on corruption charges for the prime minister.

The wildest card in the revote is Mr. Lieberman, the slippery-tongued politician who pulled the rug from under Mr. Netanyahu’s victory in April. Flush with power and up in the polls, he has shifted left, demanding a unity government comprised of his own party, Likud and Blue and White. Such a configuration wouldn’t sit well with Likud’s hawks.

Maneuvering left and right at once, Mr. Netanyahu engineered a deal whereby the fringe ultranationalist Zehut (Identity) party dropped out of the election in return for a cabinet seat for its leader, Moshe Feiglin. Mr. Netanyahu’s hope is that Mr. Feiglin’s withdrawal will send otherwise wasted Zehut votes to the Likud. No guarantee, but if it works, those two or three extra Knesset seats would bring Mr. Netanyahu closer to the 61 seats he needs – without Mr. Lieberman.

But complexity begets complexity. Mr. Feiglin’s withdrawal lifted the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Might) party, steeped in the extremist philosophy of American émigré Meir Kahane (1932-90). Otzma may now reach the 3.25% threshold to enter the Knesset – more potential votes for the right, fewer for Likud. On election eve, Mr. Netanyahu insisted in a Facebook broadcast that Otzma will fall short of the threshold, begging the votes for Likud.

During this campaign, Mr. Netanyahu has missed no beat. He has restated his intention to apply Israeli sovereignty to Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria. Against advice from his attorney general, Mr. Netanyahu initiated a failed attempt to pass a law allowing cameras in election precincts. He announced discovery of a second Iranian nuclear site. Reinforcing his international luster, he met Prime Ministers Narendra Modi in New Delhi, Boris Johnson in London and Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia. Blue and White mocked him as “Benjamin of Tudela,” a medieval Jewish wanderer. The prime minister’s campaign strategy is to dominate the agenda and divert discussion from pending legal vulnerability and escalating hostilities in Gaza. But a post on his personal Facebook page warning that “The Arabs want to annihilate us all” was withdrawn as going too far.

This isn’t a betting man’s election. Only Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud has the potential to cobble together a 61-seat coalition with like-thinking partners. If Likud fails, an unstable minority government could emerge with tacit support of anti-Zionist Arab Joint List. Mr. Lieberman could zigzag back to Likud. Knesset members on the left could defect. Likud and Blue and White could form a unity government. Blue and White could drop its policy of having only secular partners and court the ultrareligious parties. Or a Likud majority could decide to end the Netanyahu era by appointing another Likud member to form a government.

President Reuven Rivlin, who has broad oversight over the coalition-formation process, has made clear that he will do everything in his power to move the process to conclusion. Almost everyone agrees Israel is in no mood for a third election.

 

ISRAELI LEADER PINS ELECTION BID ON SECURITY RECORD

Israeli Leader Pins Election Bid on Security Record
Netanyahu heads into an election Tuesday with his record of protecting Israel under fire
By Felicia Schwartz
The Wall Street Journal
Sept. 16, 2019

Underpinning his pitch: Many Israelis say they have rarely, if ever, felt safer than they have during Mr. Netanyahu’s last decade in power. A wave of suicide bombings and street stabbings, known as the second Palestinian intifada, had largely subsided when Mr. Netanyahu took office in 2009. The violence has generally been kept at bay, though Israel and Gaza have fought three wars since then.

“Security is his strong suit,” said Shalom Lipner, who worked for several Israeli prime ministers including Mr. Netanyahu and is now with the nonpartisan Atlantic Council. “His luck may have run out now, but that’s what kept him ticking along.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, is running neck and neck in opinion polls with Blue and White, a new centrist party led by three former heads of the Israeli military. Blue and White’s leader, Benny Gantz, has sought to neutralize Mr. Netanyahu’s advantage on security matters and point to voter fatigue with the country’s longest-serving premier.

In particular, Mr. Gantz has highlighted the prime minister’s policies on Gaza, where Hamas, a group labeled as terrorist by Israel and the U.S., is in power. Hamas has periodically launched missiles into Israel for more than a year, often prompting Israeli airstrikes.

Mr. Gantz, a former general, says a dramatic military operation could be necessary to uproot Hamas once and for all. The former Israeli army chief of staff says Mr. Netanyahu has gone soft, essentially buying Hamas off by allowing Qatar to send tens of millions of dollars into Gaza.

“We will not accept any violation of our sovereignty. Not a missile, not a kite, not a rocket. We will re-establish deterrence,” Mr. Gantz said Tuesday at an event in northern Israel.

The threat from Hamas was underlined last week when Mr. Netanyahu was forced to exit a campaign event and seek refuge in a bomb shelter in Ashdod after Gaza militants fired rockets toward the seaside city.

Mr. Gantz and the other Blue and White ex-generals, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, used similar arguments against Mr. Netanyahu in a failed election bid in April. They got another shot with the help of another security-minded politician, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who defected from Mr. Netanyahu’s camp and forced another election.

Mr. Lieberman’s motivation was to force out of power religious parties that are allied with Mr. Netanyahu, but he, too, has slammed the prime minister’s security record.

“What’s happening here is the capitulation of the prime minister to terror from the Gaza Strip,” Mr. Lieberman said Thursday on Israel’s Army Radio.

Mr. Netanyahu allowed the Qatari aid to Gaza as part of efforts to seek a cease-fire with Hamas mediated by Egypt and the United Nations. He says he has taken a measured approach with Hamas, repeatedly launching strikes on Gaza and preparing for a fourth war with the group while working to prolong a fragile calm since 2014.

Mr. Netanyahu said Friday that Israel could launch an operation in Gaza “at any moment, including four days before the elections.”

“Israeli citizens know well that I operate responsibly and with consideration and we’ll start an operation when the moment is most right,” he told Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster.

Analysts say Mr. Netanyahu is trying to burnish his security credentials not only to thwart Mr. Gantz, a centrist, but also to prevent voters from choosing parties to the right of Likud.

Right-wing voters see Mr. Netanyahu’s security record as a strength. “It’s not just an image. It is his record,” said Jason Pearlman, a former aide to several right-wing politicians and now an independent consultant. He noted Mr. Gantz headed the army during the last war in Gaza while Mr. Netanyahu was in power and “doesn’t have much to offer as an alternative.”

The broadsides from Blue and White and other parties to Mr. Netanyahu’s right have helped make his position more tenuous with voters, who rank security as the most important issue in the election. While Mr. Netanyahu faces a hearing for possible corruption charges in October, security issues have been central in this do-over election.

The leader has filled his schedule with security-focused events. He traveled to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to discuss avoiding accidents as Israel steps up its military activities in the Mideast. Last week, he made a last-minute visit to London to discuss Iran with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

He described his pledge to annex the Jordan Valley earlier this week as an effort to give Israel a permanent secure Eastern border. It was widely viewed as an 11th-hour bid to draw right-wing voters, though outside Israel it drew rebukes from the Arab world and even Russia.

In one campaign ad, Mr. Netanyahu played the part of lifeguard, protecting Israelis on the beach from security threats and urging swimmers from a lifeguard tower to “stay to the right, it’s much safer.”

Some former officials say there are flaws in Mr. Netanyahu’s tough image. Uzi Arad, a former national security adviser to Mr. Netanyahu who is now critical of him, said the premier hasn’t acted decisively to confront security challenges.

“This is an attitude that is clearly not in character with the tough hard-nosed Netanyahu that would never negotiate with terrorists or deal with Hamas,” Mr. Arad said. “The ultimate is the results, and in the results, he’s also failed to act and lost certain battles.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to confront Iran have won him widespread support. But that record also faced a setback after Mr. Trump fired national security adviser John Bolton, who favored a tough line on Iran.

Mr. Netanyahu says he is working closely with the Trump administration, saying in a radio interview that voters must decide: “Who will manage the negotiations and contacts with Trump on [Iran]?”

 

THE ONE THING NO ISRAELI WANTS TO DISCUSS

The One Thing No Israeli Wants to Discuss
By Matti Friedman
The New York Times
Sept. 10, 2019

JERUSALEM – When trying to understand Israel’s election on Sept. 17, the second in the space of six months, you can easily get lost in the details – corruption charges, coalition wrangling, bickering between left and right. But the best explainer might be a small film that you’re unlikely to see about something that people here prefer not to discuss.

The opening scene of “Born in Jerusalem and Still Alive,” which just won the prize for best first feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival, catches the main character grimacing as he overhears a glib tour guide. When she describes downtown Jerusalem to her group as “beautiful,” the “center of night life and food for the young generation,” Ronen, an earnest man in his late 30s, interrupts.

“Don’t believe her,” he tells the tourists in Hebrew-accented English. “You see this market? Fifteen years ago it was a war zone. Next to my high school there was a terror attack. Next to the university there was a terror attack. First time I made sex – terror attack.” One of the tourists sidles over, interested. “Yes,” Ronen tells her, “we had to stop.”

No single episode has shaped Israel’s population and politics like the wave of suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinians in the first years of the 21st century. Much of what you see here in 2019 is the aftermath of that time, and every election since has been held in its shadow. The attacks, which killed hundreds of Israeli civilians, ended hopes for a negotiated peace and destroyed the left, which was in power when the wave began. Any sympathy that the Israeli majority had toward Palestinians evaporated.

More than any other single development, that period explains the durability of Benjamin Netanyahu, which outsiders sometimes struggle to understand. Simply put, in the decade before Mr. Netanyahu came to power in 2009, the fear of death accompanied us in public places. There was a chance your child could be blown up on the bus home from school. In the decade since, that has ceased to be the case. Next to that fact, all other issues pale. Whatever credit the prime minister really deserves for the change, for many voters it’s a good enough reason to keep him in power on Sept. 17.

Given the centrality of those years, it’s striking how seldom they actually come up in conversation. Along Jaffa Road, the hardest-hit street (and the setting for “Born in Jerusalem”), the traces have become nearly invisible. The Sbarro pizzeria where in 2001 a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 people, including seven children and a pregnant woman, is now a bakery with a different name. It’s a few paces from where I’m writing these lines, and it’s full of customers, many of whom probably don’t know what happened there.

That’s what “Born in Jerusalem” is about. Not politics, but the repression of personal memory that has allowed us to move on while leaving an unsettling sense of missing time.

In another scene in the film, Ronen and his love interest, a Jerusalemite named Asia, discuss those years, which she can call only “the time of the attacks.” It allows him to point out the period’s strangest feature, which is that it doesn’t have a name. The Palestinians called it the “second intifada,” and Israelis euphemized it as “the situation.”

It isn’t officially considered a war, even though it killed more Israelis than the Six-Day War of 1967. And no one can say exactly when it began or ended. The attacks picked up in the mid-1990s, as Israel pursued a peace deal and ceded land, but the worst came between 2000 and 2004. Though other forms of violence persist, the last Israeli fatality in a Palestinian suicide bombing was in 2008.

This repression of memory has helped the Palestinian leadership pretend that none of it ever happened, and few of the foreign journalists covering the country right now were here at the time. Why are moderate Israelis afraid to pull out of the West Bank? Why has the once-dominant left become a meager parliamentary remnant? Why is there a separation barrier? Why is the word “peace” pronounced with sarcasm while the word “security” carries a kind of supernatural weight? If you weren’t in Israel then and can’t access the national subconscious now, the answer will be elusive.

The film’s Ronen is the alter ego of Yossi Atia, 39, who plays him and wrote and co-directed the film. Mr. Atia, like me, lived through those years in Jerusalem as a college student. His character can’t bear the silence, or the feeling that he’s crazy for remembering, so he starts leading sightseeing tours of his ownin the heart of the city: the Sbarro pizzeria, the place where two bombers exploded together near Zion Square, the vegetable market that got hit again and again.

He hands tourists old Nokia cellphones and has them simulate one of the period’s key rituals: the calls we used to make after attacks to tell our families we were O.K. It’s unclear if this is meant as education for the people he’s showing around, or therapy for him. He explains the odd social calculations that would follow an attack: If eight people, say, had just been killed on a bus, could you go out with a friend for a drink that evening? (Yes.) What if it was 12 people in a cafe? Could you go on a date? (No.) Ronen has an actual chart.

I remember those quandaries of terror etiquette, just as I remember standing at a bus stop when I heard a suicide bomber blow himself up and murder 11 people one street over, at Café Moment. My mother passed through the Nahariya train station right before a suicide bomber struck there, and my sister was in a cafeteria at the Hebrew University campus when Palestinians blew up a different cafeteria. I’ve got many more memories like that, all of them standard for the time.

When I spoke to Mr. Atia, he said he thought Israelis avoid the subject for an obvious reason: It’s too awful. Because the carnage wasn’t on a distant battlefield or limited to soldiers, the experience encompassed the whole society, and you don’t forget images or fear like that even if you’ve forced it all down to the murkiest layers of your brain. “It wasn’t a military war, it was a civil war, and the victims were civilians,” he said. His character, Ronen, wants to talk about it, and that makes him strange: “No one wants to listen.”

Mr. Atia’s movie doesn’t trade in any discernible anger at the Palestinians or anyone else, even when Ronen demonstrates how the Sbarro bomber rigged his explosives inside a guitar case. The approach is a kind of light surrealism. The closest thing to political comment comes when he points out that the memorial plaques from the bombings of the 1990s, the years of the peace process, followed the victims’ names with the traditional Jewish phrase “May their memories be blessed.” By the early aughts it had changed to a different phrase drawn from tradition: “May God avenge their blood.”

For a viewer who remembers that time, much of the movie’s resonance comes from the contrast between what Ronen describes on his tours and the oblivious city around him today. Jaffa Road, which was bleak and deserted at the worst moments, was given a face-lift and a new light-rail line, and is now crowded with pedestrians, lively and unrecognizable. The events Ronen describes to his tourists seem hard to believe.

But he knows they happened, and so does the Israeli electorate. As a psychiatrist might tell us, the deeper something is repressed, the more power it exerts. So when Mr. Netanyahu declares in an election ad that “in the stormy Mideastern sea we’ve proven that we can keep Israel an island of stability and safety,” we all know what he means, even if we don’t vote for him. That’s his strongest card, and if he wins, that will be why. The scenario we’re afraid of is clear even if it doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t need one.

 

* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia

Annabelle Weidenfeld

The North Korean-Israeli shadow war continues to threaten Israel

September 12, 2019

 

NORTH KOREAN DANGERS

[Note by Tom Gross]

North Korea helped murder 26 tourists (and injured 80) at Tel Aviv airport. It flew Egyptian and Syrian warplanes in 1973. Now it is helping Assad rebuild his chemical weapons facilities, and assisting Iran with its nuclear weapons project.

Above: While many of his people starve, North Korean communist dictator Kim Jong Un visits Sheldon Adelson’s Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino in Singapore last year, ahead of his summit with American President Donald Trump.

(Unconnected, but of passing interest: Adelson is a prominent supporter of both Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. The Marina Bay Sands hotel was designed by award-winning Israeli architect Moshe Safdie.)

While denuclearization of North Korea would be an outstanding result of the American-North Korean talks, one shouldn’t forget the appalling human rights situation in North Korea where hundreds of thousands of innocent people are held in brutal prison camps.

 

I attach a very long piece below by Jay Solomon, the former national security reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

For those who don’t have time to read it in full, I have extracted some lines from it below and added one or two comments of my own.

One of the Trump administration’s point persons for the current US negotiations with North Korea is an Israeli-born American friend of mine, who travels regularly to meet with negotiators from the North Korean regime.

 

EXTRACTS AND COMMENTS

* North Korea and Israel, though separated by two oceans and 5,000 miles, have been engaged in low-intensity conflict and high-stakes spy games for more than five decades.

* The so-called Hermit Kingdom in Pyongyang has been actively bolstering states hostile to Israel, and facilitating attacks on the Jewish state, since the 1960s. Despite occasional attempts to broker a truce between the two nations, the Israeli-North Korean relationship has been defined for decades by covert hostility and proxy conflict – a shadow war between the two nations. The pattern continues through the present day in North Korea’s alliance with Iran and Syria.

* North Korea has long transferred military capabilities to Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Libya and Myanmar, including, in some cases, nuclear technologies or materials.

* And yet despite this enmity, North Korea and Israel have also secretly engaged in intermittent diplomacy in recent decades to try and safeguard their national security, at times behind Washington’s back.

NORTH KOREA BEHIND ATTACK AT TEL AVIV AIRPORT

* For North Korea, confronting Israel emerged in the 1960s as a central plank in its campaign to fight U.S.-backed governments. The communist regime aggressively funded and trained Arab and other terrorists who targeted Israel in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1972 North Korea trained and financed the Japanese Red Army terror group who attacked Tel Aviv Airport, killing 26 people and injuring 80 using Czech-made machine guns smuggled into the airport hidden in violin cases. Most of those murdered were Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land from Puerto Rico.

* Pyongyang sent nearly 1,500 personnel to help the Egyptians run their Soviet-made surface-to-air missile systems in the run up to the Yom Kippur war. During the war, Israeli jets shot down at least two North Korean-piloted MiGs in dogfights over the Sinai desert. North Korean pilots also flew with the Syrian Air Force in 1973.

* Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, North Korea allied itself with the Islamic regime. North Korean defectors interviewed in Seoul said they were dispatched to Iran throughout the 1980s to fortify Iran’s defenses.

* The North Korean-Iranian military alliance continued even after the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988. North Korea helped Iran develop strategic missile systems that allowed Iran to target Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

DIPLOMATIC OVERTURES, SOMETIMES BEHIND WASHINGTON’S BACK

* But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and starvation taking root in North Korea as a result of disastrous socialist economic policies, the North Koreans wanted to outreach to the US. They did this initially through reaching out to Israel and setting up a meeting with an Israeli official in the diamond district of mid-Manhattan.

In November 1992, an Israeli official invited to Pyongyang was put up at a luxurious state guesthouse where Yasser Arafat previously stayed.

* Despite this outreach, North Korea continued to aggressively assist Israel’s enemies, and Israel took steps to defend itself.

* In the spring of 2004, a massive explosion struck a North Korean train near the Chinese border, killing Syrian military personnel inside it. Some in South Korean intelligence believe the Mossad may have been behind this though there is no evidence to prove this.

ASSAD TRIES TO GET A NUCLEAR WEAPON, WHICH HE MAY WELL HAVE USED

* In Vienna in 2007, the Mossad found photos on Syrian Atomic Energy Commission director general Ibrahim Othman’s laptop showing a building located near a Syrian trading town called Al Kibar, which was a virtual replica of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear bomb-making reactor.

Another photo Othman stored on his laptop showed him standing arm-in-arm with an Asian man whom the Mossad identified as Chon Chibu, a North Korean nuclear scientist who worked at the Yongbyon facility.

* Even after Israel bombed the Syrian nuclear facility before it managed to produce nuclear weapons, North Korea has continued to proliferate sophisticated weapon systems to Israel’s enemies, including Iran.

UN: NORTH KOREA ASSISTING IRAN NUCLEAR PROJECT

* They UN now concurs with the Mossad that North Korea (and Iran) continue to help Assad produce chemical weapons which Assad has used to gas thousands of Syrians in the civil war.

* In 2018, U.N. inspectors detailed in a confidential report how North Korean trading companies smuggled tons of industrial equipment into Syria to build a new chemical weapons facility. The U.N identified 40 previously undisclosed North Korean shipments to the SSRC from 2012 to 2017

* Concern is now mounting in Jerusalem that the Trump administration’s current diplomatic overtures toward North Korea, which are aimed at dismantling its nuclear weapons arsenal, will fail as previous U.S.-led efforts have. “Israel doesn’t have the same timetable in dealing with North Korean threats as the US does. For us, it’s more immediate.”

North Korean assistance with Iran’s missile programs is equally dramatic and dangerous. Iranian military officers and technicians attended some of the six nuclear tests Pyongyang has conducted including the 2013 North Korean test that’s believed to have involved a uranium bomb.

Israeli missile expert Uzi Rubin says. “If and when Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it will not be complicated to fit a lighter weight nuclear warhead on the Khorramshahr and thereby threaten Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Rome.”

 

Among related past dispatches on this list:

* As the world rightfully mourns Nelson Mandela, how many people can name a single North Korean victim? (December 29, 2013)

* Syria update: “This was one of the five most important acts in Israel’s history” (October 22, 2007)

* The 2007 Israeli bombing of the Syria’s nuclear weapons program: The untold story (February 4, 2013)

-- Tom Gross


ARTICLE

The North Korean-Israeli Shadow War
Whenever nuclear weapons technology appears in the hands of Israel’s enemies, Pyongyang is usually involved
By Jay Solomon
Tablet online magazine
September 9, 2019

https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/290884/north-korean-israeli-shadow-war

It was largely by chance that Israel scored one of its greatest ever intelligence coups in 2007.

At the time, Mossad was running surveillance on the director general of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, a pudgy, bespectacled bureaucrat named Ibrahim Othman. Othman was visiting Vienna that winter to attend meetings of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and Mossad sought to learn more about his secretive activities. The Israelis hacked the Syrian’s personal computer after he left his hotel for meetings in the Austrian capital.

The Israeli government was shocked by what Mossad found on Othman’s laptop. A trove of downloaded photos detailed a box-like building being constructed on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria. Israeli and American spy satellites had detected the mysterious structure during earlier scans of Syria, but derived no special significance to it. Othman’s photos, however, revealed the building, located near a Syrian trading town called Al Kibar, to be a virtual replica of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor, a plutonium-producing facility that the U.S. viewed as a virtual bomb-making factory. The facility had no real civilian applications. The Israelis’ concern about the North Korea link was only amplified by a photo Othman stored on his laptop. It showed him standing arm-in-arm with an Asian man whom the Mossad identified as Chon Chibu, a North Korean nuclear scientist who worked at the Yongbyon facility. Chon had previously taken part in disarmament talks with the U.S. and other world powers.

While the discovery of the Al Kibar nuclear reactor sparked panic among Israeli and U.S. officials, the fact that North Korea appeared to be taking an active role in providing lethal weapons expertise to one of Israel’s enemies could not have come as a surprise. In fact, while North Korea is not often thought of in the ranks of Israel’s enemies or, for that matter, as a player in Middle Eastern affairs, the so-called Hermit Kingdom in Pyongyang has been actively bolstering states hostile to Israel, and facilitating attacks on the Jewish state, since the 1960s. Despite occasional attempts to broker a truce between the two nations, the Israeli-North Korean relationship has been defined for decades by covert hostility and proxy conflict – a shadow war between the two nations. The pattern continues through the present day in North Korea’s alliance with Iran and Syria.

Back in 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made it clear to Washington that his government wouldn’t accept Syrian President Bashar Assad developing the capacity to make nuclear weapons. It went against the so-called Begin Doctrine, which held that no Israeli government could allow its regional enemies to possess weapons of mass destruction. This mantra guided Israel’s 1981 attack on the Osirak reactor in Iraq. But concern in Israel was heightened in 2007 by the fact that its intelligence showed the Al Kibar facility was about to go “hot,” meaning uranium fuel would be fed into the reactor. At that point, an Israeli attack risked spreading radioactive contamination across Syria and Iraq, which would fuel wide-spread condemnation of the Jewish state.

The George W. Bush administration, meanwhile, faced its own quandary. The U.S. was fighting a growing insurgency in Iraq after overthrowing strongman Saddam Hussein under the faulty pretext that Baghdad was developing weapons of mass destruction. U.S. officials questioned whether Washington could engage in military operations against another Arab state, particularly under the guise of stanching the spread of WMD. U.S. intelligence officials were also struggling to find out how they could have missed Assad’s nascent reactor, while Washington hyped the presence of a nonexistent weapons program in Iraq.

Both Israel and the U.S. doubled down in the spring and summer of 2007 to make sure their assessment of Al Kibar was correct. Israel covertly sent commandos into eastern Syria to obtain soil samples from around the facility on the Euphrates. The tests showed positive results for the man-made uranium particles needed for a nuclear program. The Bush administration, meanwhile, scrubbed its intelligence on the movement of North Korean diplomats and trading companies into Syria in the preceding years.

The U.S. eventually found the involvement of a troublesome player on the international stage: a company called Namchongang Trading Corp., which was headed by a senior North Korean official named Yun Ho Jin. The U.N. and U.S. sanctioned Yun for being one of Pyongyang’s worst nuclear proliferators. A former North Korean diplomat at the IAEA in Vienna, Yun had used Namchongang in the late 1990s to secretly procure aluminum tubes for his government’s nuclear program from engineering companies in Germany. Yun was seen as a master of using front companies and international smuggling networks to fool rival intelligence agencies. The U.S. believed Yun and his father-in-law, a high-ranking North Korean military officer, played a role in transferring military capabilities to Pakistan, Libya and Myanmar, and including, in some cases, nuclear technologies or materials.

Mysteries, however, still abounded about Al Kibar. Both the Israelis and Americans were stumped in trying to find the supporting structures inside Syria needed for a nuclear weapons program. These included a reprocessing facility to harvest the weapons grade plutonium from the reactor and the engineering sites required to convert the fissile material into the metal spheres for a bomb. The U.S. and Israel also questioned who was financing the construction, given Assad’s depleted finances. One theory was that Iran was paying for its close ally’s reactor as a way of owning a satellite nuclear program away from the prying eyes of Western intelligence.

The bombing of Al Kibar in 2007 didn’t deter North Korea from continuing to proliferate sophisticated weapon systems to Israel’s enemies, and even, in some cases, its friends in the Middle East. Indeed, concern in Israel over North Korea has only grown in the 12 years since the attack on Syria. Pyongyang’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, has dramatically increased his country’s military capabilities since Donald Trump took office in 2017. The North has tested ballistic missiles that, once perfected, could hit the western U.S., American intelligence officials believe. North Korea has also increased the yield of its nuclear weapons, moving toward what Kim’s government says will be a hydrogen bomb capability. Israel’s security officials say that North Korea’s past actions suggest Kim would have no qualms transferring these capabilities to Israel’s Mideast enemies, particularly for the right price.

Concern is now mounting in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that the Trump administration’s current diplomatic overtures toward North Korea, which are aimed at dismantling its nuclear weapons arsenal, will fail as previous U.S.-led efforts have. Israel could then be forced to again consider taking military action to prevent Pyongyang from distributing its supply of increasingly sophisticated weapons into the Mideast, say current and former Israeli officials.

“Americans have made statements that the U.S. would deal with the issue of North Korean missiles, which they never did,” said Eytan Bentsur, a former deputy director of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, who held secret negotiations with North Korea in the early 1990s. “Israel doesn’t have the same timetable in dealing with North Korean threats. “It’s more immediate.”

* * *

North Korea and Israel, though separated by two oceans and 5,000 miles, have been engaged in low-intensity conflict and high-stakes spy games for more than five decades. For the Jewish state, Pyongyang has presented a remote, yet existential, threat due to its repeated transfer of nuclear and missile technologies to Israel’s sworn enemies in the Middle East. For North Korea, confronting Israel emerged in the 1960s as a central plank in its campaign to fight Western imperialism and U.S.-backed governments. North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, aggressively supported the Palestinian cause, funding and training Arab militants who targeted Israel in terrorist attacks in the 1970s.

And yet despite this enmity, North Korea and Israel have also secretly engaged in intermittent diplomacy in recent decades to try and safeguard their national security, at times behind Washington’s back. Israel, on at least two occasions, discussed with North Korean diplomats ways to essentially buy off Pyongyang’s missile exports to the Mideast. The North viewed Israel as a potential economic partner in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and a conduit to better relations with the U.S. On both occasions, however, the diplomacy died, in part, because of Israel’s inability to act independently from Washington. Some Israeli diplomats have grumbled that their country’s dependence on the U.S. failed to protect them from North Korea’s growing military capabilities and Pyongyang’s exports of sophisticated military technologies to their enemies.

North Korea’s strategic threat to Israel goes back to the late 1960s when Kim Il Sung moved to directly insert his military and intelligence services into the Arab-Israeli conflict. Kim, who called Israel an “imperialist satellite” on the Mediterranean, backed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad in their campaigns to reclaim Arab lands lost in the 1967 Six-Day War and push back against Western influence in the Mideast. Pyongyang also staunchly supported Palestinian and left-wing terrorist groups who staged a string of attacks against Israeli targets, both in the Mideast and Europe, during the 1960s and ‘70s.

In 1972 North Korea trained and financed operatives from the Japanese Red Army, a radical Marxist organization, who attacked Israel’s Lod Airport, killing 26 people and injuring 80 more. The plot played out like a spy novel. The Japanese militants trained with members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The PFLP’s commander, George Habash, had traveled to Pyongyang two years earlier to receive guidance from intelligence officials there. The North Koreans paired the PFLP with the Japanese Red Army to help the Palestinians evade Israeli intelligence that was fixated on tracking Arab terrorist threats, according to court documents tied to the Lod case. The North Koreans also provided financing and overall guidance for the plot.

The Japanese terrorists in 1972 successfully breached Israeli airport security in ways the Palestinian-Arabs probably couldn’t. The attack quickly deteriorated into a bloodbath. The three Japanese terrorists had sneaked Czech-made machine guns into the airport by hiding them in violin cases. They shot indiscriminately inside the arrival hall and threw grenades. Most of those murdered were Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land from Puerto Rico. Two of the Japanese attackers were killed during the shootout. But a third member of the Japanese Red Army, Kozo Okamoto, survived. He spent decades in an Israeli prison before his release, when he returned to Lebanon as part of a prisoner swap.

The fallout from the attack has echoed for decades. In 2010, the families of the Puerto Rican victims successfully sued North Korea in a U.S. court for masterminding the attack, winning a $378 million settlement. North Korea never paid.

Pyongyang’s military forces moved to directly enter the Arab-Israeli wars in 1973. At the time, Egypt was severing its military ties with the Soviet Union, even as Cairo was gearing up for a surprise attack on Israel. President Anwar Sadat’s expulsion of the Soviet military advisers imperiled Egypt’s ability to operate sophisticated air defenses deployed by Moscow. The Egyptian Air Force was almost totally made up of Russian MiG-21s.

Into this breach stepped the North Koreans. Sadat and his army chief, Hosni Mubarak, were impressed by North Korean military capabilities, which were repeatedly on display against South Korea and their U.S. backers. Just a few years earlier, Pyongyang had seized the Pueblo, an American Navy intelligence vessel that had strayed into North Korean waters. North Korea, as a member of the Soviet axis, also understood how to operate all of Egypt’s Soviet-sourced military equipment, including the air defenses and MiG-21s.

In June 1973, Sadat formally invited North Korean military advisers to Egypt. According to Chinese press reports, Pyongyang sent nearly 1,500 personnel to help the Egyptians run their Soviet-made surface-to-air missile systems as war with Israel appeared imminent. Pyongyang camouflaged its soldiers as day laborers to avoid detection by the prying eyes of the U.S., Israeli, and South Korean intelligence services. The British researcher Adrian Chan-Wyles translated these Chinese press reports. Pyongyang also sent a North Korean Air Force mission that included 20 experienced combat pilots who had flown sorties against U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula.

As the Yom Kippur War commenced, Israeli military personnel described clashes with North Korean fighters over the Sinai. In October 1973, Israeli Air Force Commander Gen. Benjamin Peled told a press conference that Israeli jets shot down two North Korean-piloted MiGs in dogfights.

North Korean pilots also flew with the Syrian Air Force. In the months after the Yom Kippur War formally ended, Israel’s military intelligence still picked up chatter between Syrian jets who were flying intermittent missions against the Jewish state to secure Damascus’ borders. The communications perplexed Israeli analysts, as some of the combatants weren’t speaking Arabic. Rather, they conversed in a language clearly not native to the Middle East or the Syrian Arab Republic.

Israeli officers scrambled to gain clarity on the provenance of these mysterious fighter pilots and sent the intercepts to the Pentagon for analysis. The answer they received back from Washington stunned them. They were North Koreans, the Americans said, embedded with the Syrian military. “My initial response was amazement that the North Koreans were there,” Colonel (Ret.) Pesach Malovany, a former Israeli intelligence officer who analyzed the signal intercepts 45 years ago, told me in Tel Aviv. “Our conflict clearly had more than just regional implications.”

* * *

Following Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979 that toppled the U.S.-backed shah and installed the theocratic Khomenist regime, North Korea allied itself with the country that would become Israel’s chief regional rival. Kim Il Sung was attracted to the staunch anti-American, anti-imperialist line staked by Tehran’s new Islamist rulers. He quickly deepened diplomatic and economic relations with Iran and sought to expand Pyongyang’s military operations in the Middle East.

When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, a U.S.-led arms embargo made it virtually impossible for Tehran’s new government to secure arms to repel Saddam Hussein’s forces. Kim Il Sung ordered his military to aid the Islamic Republic. North Korean defectors interviewed by this author in Seoul over the past decade said they were dispatched to Iran throughout the 1980s to fortify Iran’s defenses. One senior defector who worked in Pyongyang’s munitions industries said he was sent to Iran by North Korea’s Second Economic Committee with the task of constructing missile batteries on the Iranian island of Kish to help Tehran better control the movement of enemy ships through the Straits of Hormuz.

The defector said his main interlocutor was Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The former hydromechanic says camaraderie developed between his 100-man team and the guard, despite their differences in culture and language. He chuckled at how his hard-drinking North Korean team found it challenging to unwind in a country that had banned alcohol. “The Iranians always remember that it was us who came to their defenses when the rest of the world isolated them,” said the defector, in describing why Iranian-North Korean relations flourished and endured.

The North Korean-Iranian military alliance continued to advance even after the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988. It was at this time that the two countries began close cooperation in developing strategic missile systems. This capability allowed Iran to target its Arab adversaries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But it would also eventually allow Tehran to target Israel, which Iran’s Islamist leaders viewed as a “cancer” in their region. Yet in the early 1990s, North Korea was facing existential crises on multiple fronts. The collapse of the Soviet Union was drying up Moscow’s financial support for Pyongyang, while also robbing the North of its key export markets in the global communist bloc. Since the end of the Korean War in the 1950s, North Korea had at times outpaced South Korea as a producer of industrial goods. But that dynamic dramatically reversed itself as Seoul emerged as a world leader in the production of electronics, ships and automobiles.

North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung was in his 80s at the time and suffered from heart problems that would eventually claim his life. There was great uncertainty in Pyongyang about his chosen successor, eldest son Kim Jong Il, and his ability to lead the country at such a challenging time. The younger Kim had a reputation of being a womanizer and drunkard who preferred making movies to statecraft.

It was in this context of instability at the top that North Korea, in 1992, made a covert overture to Israel. The North was seeking ways to address its economic malaise and viewed the Jewish state as a potential partner in rehabilitating its industry. The North’s leaders also may have believed that Israel, and its powerful political lobby in the U.S., could be a conduit for better ties with the U.S. at a time when Pyongyang’s alliance with Moscow was in question.

The North’s initial outreach to the Israelis came in September 1992 through a Korean American businessman. The businessman contacted the Israelis through a relative of Eytan Bentsur, the deputy director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, who was visiting Washington at the time for negotiations with the Palestinians. An initial meeting was set up in the diamond district of mid-Manhattan. Pyongyang’s initial request was simple: It sought a $30 million Israeli investment in a gold mine destroyed by the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, as well as technical assistance to rehabilitate it. Successful cooperation on this project in central Unsan Province, the North hoped, could open up other paths for economic cooperation between the two countries.

Bentsur said in interviews that he was intrigued by the offer because of Israel’s growing concern about North Korea transferring ballistic missile technology to its regional adversaries. A strengthened relationship, he argued, could potentially stanch the flow of this weaponry and relieve what was emerging as the existential threat posed by the missiles systems of Iran, Syria, and Libya to Israel. A better relationship with Pyongyang, Bentsur argued, would also be in the interest of Washington, which still had tens of thousands of soldiers stationed on the Korean Peninsula to face down the North Korean threat. “The USSR was being dismantled. And starvation was taking root in North Korea,” Bentsur told me at a coffee shop in Tel Aviv. “They were looking for help.”

Bentsur proceeded in 1992 and 1993 to hold a series of negotiations with North Korea, both in Beijing and Pyongyang. The diplomat included experts in mining and minerals from Israeli universities to study the feasibility of rehabilitating the North Korean mine. And the Israelis started to broach the idea of Pyongyang’s missile exports during the discussions. Bentsur said his team made clear to their interlocutors that any economic assistance from Israel would have to include Pyongyang ceasing its Mideast weapons trade. North Korea sought a larger fund of $1 billion for investments in the country.

In a November 1992 visit, Bentsur was put up at a state guesthouse where the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, once stayed. “We were kept in fantastic luxury,” Bentsur said of his sleeping in the same room as the Arab revolutionary. As the talks progressed from solely focusing on the mine to greater economic engagement, North Korea specifically stated that it expected to be compensated financially for ceasing its missile sales to the Mideast. Pyongyang estimated that it earned hundreds of millions of dollars from the trade per year.

Ultimately, Bentsur and his team believed they had the parameters of an agreement with the North. Israel would help with the mine, establish the $1 billion fund and seek ways to address North Korea’s energy shortages. Pyongyang, in turn, would cease its missile exports to Israel’s enemies. “North Korea was ready to let Israel open a diplomatic mission. They wanted Peres to visit Pyongyang,” Bentsur told me, referring to Israel’s then foreign minister, Shimon Peres. “They agreed to let Israelis monitor their ports.”

But the deal never took hold. Unbeknownst to Bentsur, the North Koreans had pursued a separate channel of diplomacy with Israel through Mossad, the country’s famed spy service. Mossad’s deputy director at the time, Ephraim Halevy, was concurrently holding negotiations with Pyongyang focused on a 10-year plan for energy assistance. The two men traveled separately to Pyongyang in November of 1992 for discussions. And they were surprised to find one another on the same flight back from North Korea to China on Pyongyang’s state airline, Air Koryo. The North had purposefully kept the two men in the dark about the twin diplomatic channels.

Halevy didn’t share Bentsur’s optimism about engaging with North Korea. The British-born spy thought the North Koreans were trying to manipulate Israel by using economic trade as a way to diminish the U.S.’ leverage over its historic enemy. Halevy informed the Central Intelligence Agency about the secret talks and got word from Washington that the Clinton administration didn’t support the initiative. Foreign Minister Peres would get the same message from his American counterpart, Warren Christopher, in early 1993. “We couldn’t step into North Korea on our own without any recourse to how it would play in Washington,” Halevy told me in Tel Aviv. “We weren’t a player in Asia.”

Just months later, an international crisis erupted when United Nations nuclear inspectors discovered that North Korea had been diverting plutonium from its Yongbyon reactor, potentially for weapons use. The Clinton administration entered into negotiations with Kim Il Sung’s regime, and the two sides eventually reached a deal not dissimilar to the one Bentsur and Halevy pursued. The U.S. agreed to provide energy assistance to North Korea, in the form of oil shipments and light water reactors, in return for North Korea shuttering the Yongbyon facility. But the deal, known as the Agreed Framework, never addressed North Korea’s missile exports to the Middle East. And Pyongyang would continue to conduct covert nuclear work behind the backs of the U.S. and U.N. Indeed, North Korea would ultimately master two technologies for building nuclear bombs: One involved harvesting the plutonium produced by the Yongbyon reactor; the second used centrifuge machines to produce weapons-grade uranium.

In 1999, Israeli diplomats secretly entertained another offer from North Korea to cease its missile exports. This time, the North reached out to the Jewish state through diplomats based in Stockholm. Pyongyang said it would charge Israel $1 billion to cease exporting its more advanced missile systems to Syria and Iran. Israel responded that it couldn’t make such cash payments to the North behind the back of the Americans.

* * *

Despite these encounters with North Korea, Israeli officials say they never had particularly great intelligence on the country’s global activities. Pyongyang was largely viewed as an American problem, regardless of the threat the Kim regime posed to vital Israeli security interests. Still, rumors swirled in South Korea at times that Mossad was active in running sabotage operations against the North. In the spring of 2004, a massive explosion struck a North Korean train that was transiting near the Chinese border, killing more than 50 people. Some news reports in Asia alleged that Syrian military personnel were among the dead. This stoked speculation that Israeli spies targeted the train to block Pyongyang’s missile exports. I was unable to confirm such an operation took place, despite extensive reporting trips to Seoul and Israel.

The North Korean-built nuclear reactor in Syria posed a threat that Israel could not ignore even after President Bush decided in the summer of 2007 against using America’s military to destroy the facility. The inability of U.S. intelligence to answer the outstanding questions about Syria’s nuclear capacity was one important reason for Bush. But he also told his aides that he couldn’t risk another regional Mideast war in the waning months of his second term. He suggested to Olmert that the U.S. report Syria to the IAEA for violating international nonproliferation statutes and try to remove Damascus’ threat diplomatically. The Bush administration was concurrently pursuing talks with North Korea aimed at dismantling its growing nuclear weapons arsenal. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice believed a strike on Al Kibar could disrupt that process.

Olmert accepted Bush’s rationale, but made clear Israel was preparing to act alone. His aides believed any diplomatic track involving the IAEA would result in a prolonged negotiation that risked legitimizing Syria’s nuclear program. They had watched a similar dynamic play out after Iran was caught secretly building nuclear sites in 2002.

On the evening of Sept. 5, 2007, eight Israeli aircraft secretly took off from two air force bases in the Negev desert and flew north over the Mediterranean and then east into Turkish air space before entering Syria. The jets completely destroyed the Al Kibar facility before returning safely to Israel. Olmert placed a blackout on the Israeli media reporting on the attack. President Assad also kept quiet, embarrassed by the strike’s exposure of his country’s slack air defenses. Only North Korea publicly condemned the operation. U.S. officials said a number of North Korean workers died during the bombing of Al Kibar.

Many Israeli and American officials, however, remain concerned about the lessons learned from the episode. Olmert was relieved that Assad didn’t respond militarily to the strike and potentially stoke a regional war. But neither Syria nor North Korea ever paid any real diplomatic or financial cost for their blatant acts of nuclear proliferation. Indeed, the Bush administration continued its pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Pyongyang and removed the North from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2008. Even then, Bush never got the disarmament pact he sought. North Korea backed out of the talks in the waning months of his presidency and proceeded to dramatically increase its production of atomic bombs and long-range missiles. Syria and North Korea, meanwhile, always denied they’d cooperated to build the reactor on the Euphrates River.

The lesson for North Korea was that it could proliferate, in the Middle East and elsewhere, and get away with it. “I believe our approach towards North Korea at the end of Bush’s term set an incredibly dangerous precedent,” said Elliott Abrams, Bush’s top Mideast advisor at the White House who took part in the discussions on Al Kibar. “We’re paying for it now.”

* * *

In Syria, North Korea has rushed to help President Assad win the brutal civil war waged since 2011. While Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah have been Assad’s biggest allies in the brutal conflict, North Korea has also been fused into the Syrian dictator’s war machine, according to U.S., U.N., and Arab officials.

Production of the chemical weapons Assad has used to gas thousands of Syrians is one key role North Korea has played in the civil war. U.N. inspectors detailed in a confidential report last year how North Korean trading companies smuggled tons of industrial equipment into Syria to build a new chemical weapons facility in collaboration with Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center. The SSRC oversees Assad’s chemical weapons production. These shipments were tracked by several U.N. member states and included acid-resistant tiles, stainless steel pipes, and other materials associated with chemical weapons production. The U.N., in the report, identified 40 previously undisclosed North Korean shipments to the SSRC from 2012 to 2017.

The U.N. also detailed North Korea’s deployment of its engineers at Syrian military bases active in the civil war. These personnel helped Damascus manage its chemical weapons and missile plants at bases in Hama, Adra, and Barzah, according to the U.N. Soldiers from Iran’s elite military unit, the Revolutionary Guard, and Hezbollah have also been active in these areas and targeted by dozens of Israeli airstrikes during the war. Israel is concerned that the IRGC and Hezbollah are seeking to establish permanent bases inside Syria to launch cross-border attacks into the Jewish state. This raises the possibility that Israel may again be attacking North Korean personnel inside Syria, as it reportedly did at Al Kibar in 2007.

Syria has lauded North Korea for its military alliance and diplomatic support. In 2015, the Assad regime inaugurated Kim Il Sung Park in a Damascus suburb. It sits adjacent to a 1-kilometer street also named after North Korea’s founder. The ceremony was held to mark the anniversary of the establishment of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party. Kim Il Sung was an “historic ruler and leader, famous for his struggle to liberate and build his country,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad said at the ceremony, according to Syrian state media. “For this reason, he deserves to be honored in Syria.”

Egypt has also continued to be a buyer of North Korean weapons in recent years, despite Cairo’s military alliance with the U.S. and diplomatic relations with Israel. These arms purchases have stoked tensions between the Trump administration and the Egyptian government. The U.S. has been trying to starve Pyongyang of its revenues from military sales in a so far unsuccessful bid to force Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear arsenal. The Trump administration withheld nearly $300 million in military aid from Egypt in 2017 in order to force President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s government to cut off these transactions.

Egypt’s purchasing of North Korean weapons speaks to the depths of the relationship Cairo and Pyongyang forged back in the 1950s, according to U.S. and Arab officials. It also illustrates how Pyongyang has transformed itself into a major supplier of low-cost guns, munitions, and missiles to developing countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Pyongyang mastered the use of sophisticated front companies, smuggling routes, and false flagged vessels to work around U.S. and U.N. sanctions.

The U.S. was alarmed in the summer of 2016 when a Cambodian flagged merchant ship, the Jie Shun, left from the North Korean port of Haeju for the Suez Canal. The ship contained a 23-man North Korean crew and cargo shrouded under heavy tarps. Egyptian authorities eventually boarded the vessel before it transited the canal, after being tipped off by U.S. intelligence agencies who were concerned about the nature of cargo. Under the tarp, the Egyptians found coal that sat atop 30,000 North Korean rocket-propelled grenades. A U.N. report concluded that the Jie Shun marked the largest seizure of North Korean munitions since international sanctions were enacted against Pyongyang in the 1950s. The weapons were valued at $23 million.

* * *

No country in the Middle East has had deeper cooperation with Pyongyang in missile development than Iran, according to U.S. and Israeli officials. Tehran’s nuclear program is by far the most advanced in the region, besides Israel’s, and the best positioned to benefit from North Korea’s technological advances.

U.S. and South Korean intelligence have been tracking the movements of Iranian and North Korean military officers and scientists between their countries in recent years. One South Korean official said they’ve documented hundreds of North Koreans traveling to Tehran using a range of real and forged passports. Many transited into Tehran on flights that originated from Qatar’s international airport.

The Obama administration announced in 2016 that American intelligence agencies found that Iranian technicians from Tehran’s defense industry decamped in North Korea to jointly develop an 80-ton rocket booster for ballistic missiles. Pyongyang’s Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. also was caught shipping key components for liquid propellant ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles to Iran. This included valves, electronics, and measuring equipment.

The West’s concern about North Korean-Iranian military collaboration spiked on Sept. 22, 2017, during the Revolutionary Guard’s annual Sacred Defense Week. The event includes a parade that commemorates the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War in which hundreds of thousands of Iranians died repelling Saddam Hussein’s forces from their country. Banners hung at the event included the mantras, “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” written in three languages.

Transported down a major Tehran thoroughfare that day was a new medium-range, Iranian ballistic missile, called the Khorramshahr after the Iranian city where a crucial battle of the Iran-Iraq War took place. The missile is estimated to have a flight range of between 2,000 and 3,500 kilometers, depending upon the weight of its payload. At this distance, Tehran could target Israel, the Persian Gulf and a number of countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

American and Israeli intelligence officials who analyzed photos of the Khorramshahr quickly noticed its similarities in size, construction and flight dimensions to a North Korean missile called the Hwasong-10, or Musudan. Pyongyang developed the Musudan by reengineering missile technologies it acquired from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. North Korea is believed to have sold the missile technologies for the Musudan to Iran in recent decades. But both countries have had difficulties mastering its physics and engineering, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.

Despite faltering progress in deploying the Musudan, “there is, nonetheless, no doubt that the Khorramshahr missile constitutes a potential threat to Europe,” wrote Uzi Rubin, a renowned missile expert at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. “If and when Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it will not be complicated to fit a lighter weight nuclear warhead on the Khorramshahr and thereby threaten Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Rome.”

North Korea’s and Iran’s missile programs complement each other in a number of important ways, say Israeli intelligence analysts who track them. Pyongyang has a better mastery of the electronics used in the navigation systems of the projectiles, while Tehran is seen as having a better grasp of the solid-fuel propellants used to ignite them.

In recent months, Israeli analysts have theorized that North Korea and Iran may be sequencing their tests. They note, for example, that North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, called the Hwasong-14, on July 4 of 2017. The Iranians then tested a space-launch vehicle, called the Simorgh, just a few weeks later on July 27. The rockets share a number of important properties. “Is it coincidental? Maybe. But it seems like they’re learning from each other,” said an Israeli intelligence analyst in Jerusalem. “It seems to be a two-way street.”

To date, Israeli, American, and IAEA officials say they haven’t seen hard evidence that North Korea and Iran are directly sharing nuclear technologies or materials, in ways similar to how Pyongyang transferred them to Syria and Libya. But the regular exchanges of Iranian and North Korean defense officials and scientists are being heavily scrutinized.

North Korea and Iran signed a formal scientific cooperation agreement in the fall of 2012 when Pyongyang’s No. 2 political leader, Kim Yong Nam, visited Tehran. The pact doesn’t specify nuclear collaboration, but its language is eerily similar to one Pyongyang signed with Syria in 2002, just months before the construction of the Al Kibar reactor is believed to have started. The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran at the time, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, attended the signing of the agreement. And it called for the establishment of joint laboratories, exchanges of North Korean and Iranian scientists, and technology transfers in the areas of energy and information technology.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea have common enemies since the arrogant powers can’t bear independent governments,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Kim Yong Nam during his visit, according to the official Fars news agency.

American and Israeli intelligence officials say they’ve seen evidence that Iranian military officers and technicians have attended some of the six nuclear tests Pyongyang has conducted since 2006. They say they’ve also seen them attending North Korean military parades and missile tests. A particular focus has been placed on a 2013 North Korean test that’s believed to have involved a uranium bomb. Iranian opposition groups have said the putative father of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, a Revolutionary Guard General named Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was in attendance. American and Israeli intelligence officials say they haven’t ruled out this possibility.

“Are they cooperating in the nuclear field? That’s an open question,” concluded an Israeli intelligence analyst.

 

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Netanyahu: Reports that Israel spied on Trump are “Total Lie”

 

REPORTS THAT ISRAEL SPIED ON WHITE HOUSE ARE “COMPLETE FABRICATION”

[Note by Tom Gross]

The allegation made today by the Washington news website Politico that Israel spied on the White House, is a “total lie designed to try and damage the American-Israeli alliance,” according to the Israeli embassy in Washington.

The Politico report has now been repeated in other major media such as NBC.

On his arrival in the Russian city of Sochi today, where he was due to hold talks about the Iranian crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said the Politico report is “a complete fabrication.”

Speaking to reporters in Sochi, Netanyahu said: “We have a directive, I have a directive, no intelligence work in the United States, no spies. Period. And it’s vigorously implemented, without any exception. The [Politico] report is a complete fabrication.”

The devices were said to have been discovered in October 2018, according to Politico.

Politico alleged that the spying devices that were uncovered are “StingRays” that emulate normal cell towers to trick cellular devices into giving out their locations and identity details.

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security both declined to comment on Politico’s report.

Tom Gross adds: My sources in Washington tell me that Politico based their account on information provided by three former Obama administration officials who bear a personal grudge against both Netanyahu and Trump, and are trying to discredit Netanyahu in the run up to next Tuesday’s Israeli general election. Netanyahu is currently neck and neck in the polls against his main challenger, Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party.

I attach the article from Politico, below.

 

ISRAEL ACCUSED OF PLANTING MYSTERIOUS SPY DEVICES NEAR THE WHITE HOUSE

Israel accused of planting mysterious spy devices near the White House
The likely Israeli spying efforts were uncovered during the Trump presidency, several former top U.S. officials said.

By Daniel Lippman
Politico “Exclusive”
September 12, 2019

https://www.politico.com/story/2019/09/12/israel-white-house-spying-devices-1491351

The U.S. government concluded within the past two years that Israel was most likely behind the placement of cellphone surveillance devices that were found near the White House and other sensitive locations around Washington, according to three former senior U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter.

But unlike most other occasions when flagrant incidents of foreign spying have been discovered on American soil, the Trump administration did not rebuke the Israeli government, and there were no consequences for Israel’s behavior, one of the former officials said.

The miniature surveillance devices, colloquially known as “StingRays,” mimic regular cell towers to fool cellphones into giving them their locations and identity information. Formally called international mobile subscriber identity-catchers or IMSI-catchers, they also can capture the contents of calls and data use.

The devices were likely intended to spy on President Donald Trump, one of the former officials said, as well as his top aides and closest associates — though it’s not clear whether the Israeli efforts were successful.

Trump is reputed to be lax in observing White House security protocols. POLITICO reported in May 2018 that the president often used an insufficiently secured cellphone to communicate with friends and confidants. The New York Times subsequently reported in October 2018 that “Chinese spies are often listening” to Trump’s cellphone calls, prompting the president to slam the story as “so incorrect I do not have time here to correct it.” (A former official said Trump has had his cellphone hardened against intrusion.)

By then, as part of tests by the federal government, officials at the Department of Homeland Security had already discovered evidence of the surveillance devices around the nation’s capital, but weren’t able to attribute the devices to specific entities. The officials shared their findings with relevant federal agencies, according to a letter a top Department of Homeland Security official, Christopher Krebs, wrote in May 2018 to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Based on a detailed forensic analysis, the FBI and other agencies working on the case felt confident that Israeli agents had placed the devices, according to the former officials, several of whom served in top intelligence and national security posts.

That analysis, one of the former officials said, is typically led by the FBI’s counterintelligence division and involves examining the devices so that they “tell you a little about their history, where the parts and pieces come from, how old are they, who had access to them, and that will help get you to what the origins are.” For these types of investigations, the bureau often leans on the National Security Agency and sometimes the CIA (DHS and the Secret Service played a supporting role in this specific investigation).

“It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible,” said a former senior intelligence official.

An Israeli Embassy spokesperson, Elad Strohmayer, denied that Israel placed the devices and said: “These allegations are absolute nonsense. Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the United States, period.”

A senior Trump administration official said the administration doesn’t “comment on matters related to security or intelligence.” The FBI declined to comment, while DHS and the Secret Service didn’t respond to requests for comment.

After this story was published, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied that Israel was behind the devices. “We have a directive, I have a directive: No intelligence work in the United States, no spies,” he said in a gaggle with reporters. “And it’s vigorously implemented, without any exception. It [the report] is a complete fabrication, a complete fabrication.”

But former officials with deep experience dealing with intelligence matters scoff at the Israeli claim — a pro forma denial Israeli officials are also known to make in private to skeptical U.S. counterparts.

One former senior intelligence official noted that after the FBI and other agencies concluded that the Israelis were most likely responsible for the devices, the Trump administration took no action to punish or even privately scold the Israeli government.

“The reaction ... was very different than it would have been in the last administration,” this person said. “With the current administration, there are a different set of calculations in regard to addressing this.”

The former senior intelligence official criticized how the administration handled the matter, remarking on the striking difference from past administrations, which likely would have at a very minimum issued a démarche, or formal diplomatic reprimand, to the foreign government condemning its actions.

“I’m not aware of any accountability at all,” the former official said.

Beyond trying to intercept the private conversations of top officials — prized information for any intelligence service — foreign countries often will try to surveil their close associates as well. With the president, the former senior Trump administration official noted, that could include trying to listen in on the devices of the people he regularly communicates with, such as Steve Wynn, Sean Hannity and Rudy Giuliani.

“The people in that circle are heavily targeted,” the former Trump official said.

Another circle of surveillance targets includes people who regularly talk to Trump’s friends and informal advisers. Information obtained from any of these people “would be so valuable in a town that is like three degrees of separation like Kevin Bacon,” the former official added.

That’s true even for a close U.S. ally like Israel, which often seeks an edge in its diplomatic maneuvering with the United States.

“The Israelis are pretty aggressive” in their intelligence gathering operations, said a former senior intelligence official. “They’re all about protecting the security of the Israeli state and they do whatever they feel they have to to achieve that objective.”

So even though Trump has formed a warm relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and made numerous policy moves favorable to the Israeli government — such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, ripping up the Iran nuclear deal and heavily targeting Iran with sanctions — Israel became a prime suspect in planting the devices.

While the Chinese, who have been regularly caught doing intelligence operations in the U.S., were also seen as potential suspects, they were determined as unlikely to have placed the devices based on a close analysis of the devices.

“You can often, depending upon the tradecraft of the people who put them in place, figure out who’s been accessing them to pull the data off the devices,” another former senior U.S. intelligence official explained.

Washington is awash in surveillance, and efforts of foreign entities to try to spy on administration officials and other top political figures are fairly common. But not many countries have the capability — or the budget — to plant the devices found in this most recent incident, which is another reason suspicion fell on Israel.

IMSI-catchers, which are often used by local police agencies to surveil criminals, can also be made by sophisticated hobbyists or by the Harris Corp., the manufacturer of StingRays, which cost more than $150,000 each, according to Vice News.

“The costs involved are really significant,” according to a former senior Trump administration official. “This is not an easy or ubiquitous practice.”

Among professionals, the Israeli intelligence services have an especially fearsome reputation. But they do sometimes make mistakes and are “not 10 feet tall like you see in the movies,” a former senior intelligence official noted.

In 2010, the secret covers of a Mossad hit team, some of whom had been posing as tennis players, were blown after almost 30 minutes of surveillance video was posted online of them going through a luxury Dubai hotel where they killed a top Hamas terrorist in his room.

Still, U.S. officials sometimes have been taken aback by Israel’s brazen spying. One former U.S. government official recalled his frequent concern that Israel knew about internal U.S. policy deliberations that were meant to be kept private.

“There were suspicions that they were listening in,” the former official said, based on his Israeli counterparts flaunting a level of detailed knowledge “that was hard to explain otherwise.”

“Sometimes it was sort of knowledge of our thinking. Occasionally there were some turns of phrase like language that as far as we knew had only appeared in drafts of speeches and never been actually used publicly, and then some Israeli official would repeat it back to us and say, ‘This would be really problematic if you were to say X,’” said the former official.

Back when the Obama administration was trying to jump-start negotiations with the Palestinians, for example, the Israelis were eager to get advance knowledge of the language being debated that would describe the terms of reference of the talks.

“They would have had interest in what language [President Barack] Obama or [Secretary of State John] Kerry or someone else was going to use and might indeed try to find a way to lobby for language they liked or against language that they didn’t like and so having knowledge of that could be advantageous for them,” the former official said.

“The Israelis are aggressive intelligence collectors, but they have sworn off spying on the U.S. at various points and it’s not surprising that such efforts continue,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former coordinator of counterterrorism at the Obama State Department and now director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth.

Benjamin, who emphasized that he was not aware of the FBI’s investigation into the cell-phone spoofing, recalled once meeting with a former head of Mossad, the premier Israeli intelligence agency, when he was out of office. The first thing the former Mossad official told Benjamin was that Israel didn’t spy on the U.S.

“I just told him our conversation was over if he had such a low estimate of my intelligence,” Benjamin said.

Israeli officials often note in conversations with their American counterparts — correctly — that the U.S. regularly gathers intelligence on Israeli leaders.

As for Israel’s recent surveillance of the White House, one of the former senior U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged it raised security concerns but joked, “On the other hand, guess what we do in Tel Aviv?”

 

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How the frenzy of Brexit might affect Israel, Iran and the Arab world

September 04, 2019



Brexit in paperclips: Depending on your viewpoint, either horror at Brexit, or horror of staying in the EU. Or maybe at a second Trump term.

 

HOW MIGHT BREXIT AFFECT THE MIDDLE EAST?

[Note by Tom Gross]

Below is the English version of a piece that appears today in print in Arabic, that I was asked to write by Asharq Al-Awsat, the Middle East’s leading pan-Arab daily newspaper.

(Asharq Al-Awsat is printed simultaneously on four continents in 12 cities. It is owned by members of the Saudi royal family, and Saudi King Salman says it is the newspaper he reads each day.)

Incidentally, the Arabic version of my piece exactly mirrors the English one. The editors have not sought in any way to censor or alter the sympathetic comments I made about Israel in the piece – in contrast to many British and American newspapers which have for years edited my opinion pieces without my approval to include deliberately hostile or misleading information about Israel.

There are an increasing number of journalists and diplomats from throughout the Arab world subscribing to this Middle East email dispatch list.

https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1886621/tom-gross/brexit-and-its-effect-middle-east

Arabic version

(This article was also discussed on several foreign language websites, for example, here on this Hungarian foreign policy site.)

 

CRITICISM OF ANTISEMITISM IN THE ARAB WORLD

On another note, in a notable column published in Asharq Al-Awsat in April 2019, Saudi journalist and businessman Hussein Shobakshi strongly condemned the prevalence of antisemitism in Islamic culture.

He wrote: “The intensity of the Jew-hatred, disseminated by the media and art, literature, and political cartoons has reached a degree that cannot be ignored.”

He continued: “Antisemitism in the Arab world is the product of a loathsome, racist education that is rooted in the Arab mentality that is used to labeling people according to tribal, family, and racial affiliation, and according to the religious school which they belong. It is this education that prompted thousands of Jews who were citizens of Arab countries to emigrate after the establishment of the State of Israel.”

 

ARTICLE

Brexit and its Effect on the Middle East
By Tom Gross
Asharq Al-Awsat
September 4, 2019

https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1886621/tom-gross/brexit-and-its-effect-middle-east

Britain is in frenzy over Brexit. The country almost seems to be experiencing some kind of collective ‘mid-life crisis’. Many economic and social decisions are on hold, and both major political parties, the Conservatives and Labour, are engaged in bitter infighting over whether, how and when to leave the European Union. Politics is decidedly domestic at present, so it is not surprising that there has been little discussion in Britain about how Brexit might affect the country’s foreign policy.

Key international players, including Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the Chinese leadership, are eager for Brexit to proceed because they believe (correctly, in my view) that it will result in both a weaker EU and a weaker Britain, and hence boost their own global power and influence.

In order to encourage Britain to make a clean break with Europe, Trump has asserted that Brexit would enhance Britain’s standing in the world. But that is not what I hear in private from influential politicians both in Washington and elsewhere. “We’ve already downgraded the UK,” a senior foreign policy advisor to a long-standing Republican senator on the influential US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me in private.

Indeed we already see signs of a weakened Britain, as other countries test the UK’s resolve. Iran seized a British ship in the Gulf in July and arrested 23 crew members. The British government called it “state piracy” but initially did little in response (though they announced on September 2 that they are now sending drones).

China continues to push back on its treaty with Britain guaranteeing rights and freedoms in Hong Kong – the UK only agreed to hand the territory to China [in 1997] on that basis. Yet the British response has been timid. Observers have noted that criticism of China over Hong Kong by Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been more muted than that by leaders in Australia and Canada, for example.

The UK may well continue to be immersed in domestic issues even after Brexit, not least because many in Scotland and perhaps also Northern Ireland may step up their campaigns to break away from the UK. They see Brexit as a form of English nationalism, rather than a British phenomenon. They don’t want to be “England’s last colonies”.

Despite all this, the UK remains an important world power. It is one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council. It has (with France) one of the two strongest militaries in Europe. London will remain an important international financial capital. And British companies and media will continue to have global influence.

And what of the Middle East? Will Britain change its policies, post-Brexit? In some ways, perhaps yes. But it is worth remembering that even while the UK was in the EU there were sharp differences on key issues, most notably the 2003 Iraq war. The UK, along with Poland, Italy, the Netherlands and others, backed the American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, whereas France, Germany and other EU states rejected American calls to help.

On the questions of Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, however, the consensus Britain currently enjoys with the EU may change after Brexit.

On a visit to London last month, US national security advisor John Bolton said that the US is enthusiastic about “no deal Brexit” and added that the US may be prepared to sign quick trade deals with the UK, sector by sector, rather than wait for a comprehensive deal which may take years to conclude.

What Bolton did not make explicit is that the Trump administration, as part of these negotiations, may require the UK to fall into line with American positions on the Iranian regime.

This would please many in both the Arab world and Israel who share Bolton’s view that the EU-backed “Iran nuclear deal” increases not decreases the chances of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons in the medium term.

As for Israel, so long as the British Conservatives remain in power, the UK may also move closer to American positions post-Brexit, rather than being part of the EU consensus which is sometimes hostile to Israel. For example, senior government minister Michael Gove has in the past suggested in an article for The Times that the UK should move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and he also reiterated this to me when we met.

In July, the new finance minister, Sajid Javid, became the first British government minister in 19 years to visit Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Javid, who is a secular Muslim, first visited Israel with his Pakistani-born parents for a family holiday when he was a child. He is a lifelong supporter of the country, and even spent his honeymoon in Israel before he entered politics.

Another senior minister, Home Secretary Priti Patel (born in London to a Ugandan-Indian family), is also a keen supporter of Israel.

As for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, he has been supportive of Israel at various times, but less so at others. He stood up for the Jewish state at the Oxford Union when he was a student, which was not always a popular thing to do, and spent his summer holidays on a kibbutz.

When he was Foreign Secretary, he condemned the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for its disproportionate focus on Israel, which he said was “damaging to the cause of peace”.

However, during the Gaza war, he described Israel’s response as “disproportionate, ugly and tragic.” In his book about Churchill, he writes about “the shameful way Israelis have treated Palestinians”, as well as the “generally woeful quality of Palestinian leadership”.

In the past, in reference to his varied ancestry, Johnson has described himself as a “one-man melting pot” – with Muslim, Jewish, and Christian great-grandparents. (His father’s grandfather was Circassian-Turkish journalist Ali Kemal; his mother’s grandfather was a Lithuanian-born Jewish scholar.)

But from what I know of him, having met him several times over the years (including a lengthy lunch he and I once had in Prague, in which he wasn’t so anti-European), his Muslim and Jewish family origins are not at all relevant to his foreign policy outlook. In fact he is very British. He was educated at Eton and Oxford, served as president of the Oxford Union and was a member of the Bullingdon Club – all institutions at the very heart of the British establishment.

What would likely lead to a much more dramatic change to British Mideast policy, post-Brexit, is if Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn comes to power, which he may well do if Johnson calls an early election in the coming weeks.

In the past Corbyn – who would be by far the most radical leftist leader Britain has ever had – has been a vocal supporter of the Islamic government in Iran, as well as the Iranian-financed Hamas and Hezbollah.

Corbyn spent several years working for Iran’s state propaganda channel, Press TV. He was a star speaker at “The All-Encompassing Revolution” seminar held in 2014 “to commemorate the auspicious anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran”. He was joined by Abdolhossein Moezi, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s personal representative to the UK.

But when the BBC asked him about his support for Iran earlier this year, Corbyn instead responded by criticising Gulf Arab states.

Corbyn seems to admire any government so long as they are anti-American. In the past he wrote a chapter in an “anti-imperialist” book defending the North Korean regime, and expressed admiration for East German communist leader Erich Honecker.

Even today Corbyn finds it difficult to condemn the Syrian regime for its massacres and ethnic cleaning of Sunni Arabs from Syria, or to criticise despots such as Vladimir Putin or Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. By contrast, Corbyn detests both Israel and Saudi Arabia if only because they are both close allies of America.

A Corbyn government could see Britain move sharply away from the EU consensus on the Middle East and in effect adopt pro-Hamas, and pro-Iranian regime positions.

(Tom Gross is British journalist, specialising in the Middle East.)

 

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