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Latest News – 5 September

Updates from Israel and the Jewish World
compiled by Dr Ron Wiseman

In remembering 1929 Hebron massacre, top Israeli leaders visit … and make history

“We are not strangers in Hebron, and we will stay here forever!” were the climactic remarks made on Wednesday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an official state ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron commemorating the 90th anniversary of the 1929 Jewish massacre.

Netanyahu also said that he was proud that his government approved dozens of additional housing units last year for Jewish residents of the ancient city.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein also visited Hebron on Wednesday, along with other government officials, to take part in the day-long memorial.

A statement released by the official leadership of the Jewish community in Hebron, noted that “for the first time in Israeli history, Israel’s prime minister, president and speaker of the Knesset arrived in Hebron on the same day.”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Hebron, marking the 90th anniversary of the 1929 massacre, in addition to vising the Cave of the Patriarchs

In August 1929, 67 Jews were murdered by an Arab lynch mob over the course of three days while their homes and synagogues were destroyed. The survivors were evacuated to Jerusalem, marking the first time in hundreds of years that Hebron was void of a Jewish presence.

The events unfolded following a blood libel started by Jerusalem Arabs, claiming that the Jews were preparing a takeover of the Temple Mount and a massacre of Arabs. In total, 133 Jews were murdered in riots in cities and towns throughout British-mandated Palestine.

Rivlin was the first to arrive at the event in Hebron, taking part in a symposium on the massacre in Hebron’s sister city of Kiryat Arba.

“Hebron’s Jewish community was present for many years prior to the massacre,” he said at the symposium. “There are those recent historians who rationalize that the 1929 massacre was aimed at the ‘Zionists’ and not at the Jewish people. They are twisting reality. The massacre was carried out against all the Jews … and only because they were Jews.”

Rivlin said that Hebron in 2019 is a “test of the ability of Jews and Arabs to coexist together.” While there, he visited the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Edelstein, at a memorial ceremony at the gravesite of the victims in the ancient Hebron Jewish cemetery, called for the application of Israeli sovereignty over the city. He said: “Ninety years after the 1929 massacre, we have to say clearly: “It’s time for Hebron! It’s time for sovereignty in Hebron! It is time for the Jewish community in Hebron to grow by the thousands! It’s time for a visit to the Cave of the Patriarchs to be the easiest, most comfortable, and most natural thing.”

Alongside Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ochana, he also took part in a small ritual affixing a mezuzah on a newly purchased building by the Jewish community called “The Machpela House” opposite the Cave of the Patriarchs.

In regard to the visit of the high-profile government officials, Yishai Fleisher, international spokesperson for the Jewish community in Hebron, said “we are very pleased to have the leaders of the government of Israel here today. And we’re saying to them, ‘Amazing that you are here today, amazing that you are recognizing, amazing that you are remembering! Let’s take that energy and build towards the future.’ ” (JNS)

Israel said again mulling raid on Iran; thinks Trump, unlike Obama, won’t oppose

Israeli officials are currently considering the possibility of conducting a military strike on Iran, with or without the approval of the United States, The New York Times reported Wednesday. They believe US President Donald Trump could decide not to stand in the way of such an attack, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, the paper reported Wednesday in an exposé that detailed the lows and highs of the Israel-US relationship in the face-off against the Islamic Republic over the past decade.

“Once again, more than a decade after they first raised the subject with American officials, Israeli officials have been considering the possibility of a unilateral strike against Iran,” said the report. “Unlike with Bush and Obama, there is greater confidence that Trump wouldn’t stand in the way.”

The report, “The Secret History of the Push to Strike Iran,” which focused on Israeli-US efforts to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, did not specify which targets Israel was now said to be contemplating attacking. It noted that “hawks in Israel and America have spent more than a decade agitating for war against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program,” and asked: “Will Trump finally deliver?”

“The threat of war could be a bluff, or an election ploy,” it added. “But it also represents a dangerous confluence of interests: an American president often reluctant to use military force and an Israeli prime minister looking to deal with unfinished business.”

“I think that it’s far more likely that Trump would give Netanyahu a green light to strike Iran than that Trump would strike himself,” the Obama administration’s ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro was quoted as saying. “But that, you know, is a big risk.”

Trump himself in June was “half an hour away” from approving a US strike on the Islamic Republic, reports said at the time.

“Trump’s last-minute decision to abort the attack in June led to a concern among Iran hawks in both Israel and the United States: that the president ultimately might not have the resolve to confront the threat with military force,” Wednesday’s piece said.

Jerusalem has been actively pushing and preparing for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities for many years, and in 2012 came extremely close to giving the Israel Defense Forces a green light to carry that out, the NY Times said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was interviewed in August for the article, told the paper that he would “unequivocally” have approved the attack, but did not have the necessary cabinet support.

The report quoted dozens of current and former senior officials to describe how Netanyahu threatened the Obama administration with carrying out the strike. That pressure, according to some of those cited in the story, ironically pushed the US president to expedite the negotiations with Tehran that eventually yielded the 2015 nuclear deal. Thus Netanyahu, according to these sources, inadvertently pushed Obama to promote the agreement he loathes so much.

According to one Israeli intelligence official, “Netanyahu achieved exactly the opposite of what he wanted… By doing what he did, he promoted the deal that he fought against afterward.”

Other sources, however, told the paper that Israeli pressure did not play a significant role: “President Obama’s push for a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear challenge long predated Prime Minister Netanyahu’s saber-rattling,” it quoted Ned Price, spokesman for Obama’s National Security Council, saying. “Candidate Obama pledged in 2007 to seek the very type of diplomatic achievement he, together with many of our closest allies and partners, struck as president in 2015.”

The report said Washington had been closely monitoring Israeli activities at the height of Israel-Iran tensions in the Obama era, and that in the summer of 2012, American spy satellites “detected clusters of Israeli aircraft making what seemed to be early preparations for an attack.”

“Israeli leaders had spent more than a year delivering ominous warnings to Washington that they might launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities — and that if they did, they would give the United States little warning and no chance to stop them,” the report said. “One former senior Israeli security official, looking back at that time, said that it wasn’t until then that he believed the prime minister was serious about striking Iran.”

Realizing the gravity of the moment, then-US secretary of defense Leon Panetta was said to make a rare decision to invite Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak to his Pentagon office and show him a “highly classified video.”

“In a desert in the American Southwest, the Pentagon had constructed an exact replica of the Fordo [fuel enrichment plant], and the video showed a test of the 30,000-pound [13,600 kilogram] massive ordnance penetrator, a bunker-busting weapon the [US] Air Force had designed to penetrate the most hardened of underground defenses. The bomb destroyed the mock-up in the desert. Barak was impressed,” the Times reported.

Concern in the White House over the potential Israeli strike also led it to send an official to Israel every several weeks to to “Bibisit” the Israeli leader and make sure he did not launch a strike on the Islamic Republic, the report said.

However, Israel kept preparing for the strike, which “came far closer to happening than has previously been reported.”

“[Israel’s] military and intelligence services had cut the time needed for the final preparations — for the attack and for the war that might ensue,” the report said.

“I went to bed every night, if I went to bed at all, with the phone close to my ear,” it quoted Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington at the time, as saying. “I was ready to be called in by Israel and sent to the White House or the State Department to tell them we had attacked, or if they already knew from their own sources, straight to CNN.”

Netanyahu himself was quoted as saying the threat to attack Iran “was not a bluff — it was real. And only because it was real were the Americans truly worried about it.”

The Times said Netanyahu at the time “pulled back from the brink only because he still could not get a majority of his cabinet to support him.” The Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday confirmed to The Times of Israel that Netanyahu was referring to the security cabinet, not the full cabinet.

“If I’d had a majority, I would have done it. Unequivocally,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying by the Times.

The timing was problematic as well, shortly before the 2012 US presidential elections. And after those elections the attack became impossible to approve because of a rift between Netanyahu and Barak, caused by a meeting the latter had with Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel in an attempt to convince him to support Jerusalem’s move. Netanyahu received word of the undeclared meeting and believed Barak had been undermining him.

In October, the report said, the strike was called off. It quoted Barak as saying: “It is one thing to strike alone, and a totally different thing to draw the United States into a confrontation that it doesn’t want to be a part of.”

Among other claims made in the piece is that Netanyahu “became increasingly suspicious of his senior advisers” as he considered in attack seven years ago. “He now accuses [then Mossad chief, the late Meir] Dagan of leaking the attack plan to the CIA, ‘intending to disrupt it,’ a betrayal that to Netanyahu’s mind was ‘absolutely inconceivable.’ Within a year, the paper noted, Dagan, IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, and national security adviser Uzi Arad, “were no longer in their posts.”

But “if Netanyahu hoped his handpicked replacements would be more compliant, however, he would soon be disappointed,” the report continued. Quoting three senior officials, it said “many others in the government,” including the new IDF chief Benny Gantz, “were also against the attack.” Gantz, who is Netanyahu’s main rival in the September 17 elections, was quoted telling the paper that his stance was a practical matter: “Even those who have not seen the intelligence understand that it would be a highly complicated affair and — if the impact it would have on other countries is taken into account — a strategic affair of the highest level,” Gantz said. (the Times of Israel)

Netanyahu to dash to London Thursday, meet Johnson, amid UK political upheaval

Despite a major political crisis in Britain, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to embark on a “snap visit” to London on Thursday for meetings with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, his office announced Wednesday.

The spontaneously planned trip raised some eyebrows among political analysts, given the turmoil currently engulfing the British political system that is sure to take priority over any other matter in 10 Downing Street.

Talks with Johnson, who is facing a revolt within his Conservative party over his controversial plan to leave the European Union by the end of next month, will focus on “the situation in the region and the way to rebuff Iran’s terrorism and aggression,” Netanyahu’s office said.

The UK is one of the signatories of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and continues to firmly back the agreement, but has recently clashed with the Islamic Republic after it detained a UK-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. British authorities had previously seized a tanker carrying Iranian oil off the coast of Gibraltar.

With Esper, who was sworn into office less than two months ago, Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, wants to talk about “Israel’s security needs,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office. The two spoke by telephone on Tuesday night and decided to expand on their conversation in London, Netanyahu’s office said.

Earlier this week, Hebrew media reported that Jerusalem has been discussing with the US administration a grand presidential gesture underlining America’s commitment to Israeli security in the coming days, including a possible statement on the two allies’ intent to enter into a defense pact.

The most likely action, the newspaper said, was a vow by US President Donald Trump that the US will defend the Jewish state from any potential existential threat, though such a statement would have few practical implications. The proposed declaration has largely been seen as Trump’s effort to boost Netanyahu ahead of the September 17 elections.

Earlier on Wednesday, PMO officials said Netanyahu also hopes to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow before the Israeli national vote. The officials said plans were underway for the prime minister to visit the Russian capital “soon.”

But officials at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv cast some doubt on the prospects of a meeting, acknowledging there had been talk of a trip but noting that Israel had yet to submit requests for diplomatic visas for its delegation.

The announcement came days after Netanyahu canceled a visit to India, a move that spurred rumors the Israeli leader was eyeing a different high-profile trip to boost his electoral prospects ahead of the national vote later this month.

The prime minister had been confirmed to fly to New Delhi for a one-day trip on September 9, during which he was scheduled to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and possibly sign a number of bilateral agreements.

But on Tuesday morning, Netanyahu called Modi to tell him that he would be unable to come due to “scheduling constraints.”

The prime minister’s visit to Delhi ahead of the September 17 poll was widely seen as a boost to his Likud party’s election strategy, which has been stressing his close ties with world leaders. Modi is one of three foreign statesmen — together with US President Donald Trump and Putin — who appear on huge campaign posters outside the Likud’s Tel Aviv headquarters.

The premier’s ties to Putin, in particular, are seen as important in pulling in votes from Israel’s large community of Russian expats.

Russian-speaking voters are thought to make up some 12 percent of the 6.3 million eligible voters in Israel — or some 770,000.

Netanyahu has hoped to pull Russian community votes away from rival Avigdor Liberman, whose party has traditionally been their home. Liberman refused to enter Netanyahu’s coalition after the April election, denying him a majority coalition and leading the prime minister to call new elections. (the Times of Israel)

Israel came really close to attacking Iran and 4 other takeaways from The New York Times exposé

by Ben Sales JTA

As of this writing, Israel has not bombed Iran’s nuclear program.

But according to an exposé in The New York Times that dropped Wednesday, it could still happen. And nearly did.

The 10,000-word story details how close Israel came to attacking Iran, how Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush tried to deter the Israelis and what actually stopped the would-be bombing raid.

It also tells the story of how President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and what that means for the future of the Iran-Israel-U.S. hate triangle.

Here are five takeaways from the story.

Israel came really close to bombing Iran.

From about 2009 to 2013, a potential Israeli attack on Iran was the most talked-about surprise ever. Iran was suspected of developing nuclear weapons in secret and was publicly threatening to destroy Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by making the Iranian threat his focus and consistently threatening to stop Iran’s quest for the bomb. The possible Iran attack was the subject of daily news coverage in Israel, and a story about it graced the cover of The Atlantic in 2010.

According to The Times story, the attack nearly happened in 2012. As early as 2009, when large protests called the Green Revolution were rocking Iran, Netanyahu suggested to U.S. officials that a strike could destroy the Iranian nuclear program and destabilize the regime. But by late 2010, Israel wasn’t ready to strike.

By 2012, that appeared to have changed. The United States had detected Israeli drones taking off from Azerbaijan to spy on Iran and saw clusters of Israeli planes preparing for an attack. That year, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak canceled a joint U.S.-Israeli military exercise so it would not conflict with a potential strike. Michael Oren, who served as the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., slept with his phone by his ear, ready to wake up and alert the White House of a strike, the article reports.

Bush opposed an Israeli attack as much as Obama.

So why didn’t Israel execute the attack?

One reason could be consistent American opposition to the idea — but not just from President Obama. Netanyahu criticized Obama repeatedly as soft on Iran and, according to the article, “part of the problem.” But President Bush opposed an attack as much as Obama — and was even more direct about it with the Israelis. In a 2008 meeting with Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and Barak, Bush interrupted as Barak was making the case for an attack on Iran.

“He banged on the table like this,” Olmert told The Times, “and he said, ‘General Barak, do you know what no means? No is no.”

The U.S. tried to stop an Israeli attack — but also simulated its own on U.S. soil.

During Obama’s his first term, according to State Department official Wendy Sherman, the United States told Israel “please don’t go off on a hair trigger and start a war.” As an Israeli attack appeared more likely, American officials began a tactic known as “Bibisitting,” a play on the Israeli leader’s nickname: A senior American official would visit Israel every few weeks, which meant the U.S. had a window of a couple weeks before and after the visit when it knew Israel would not launch the strike for fear of embarrassing the American official.

But the Americans also made their own preparations for an attack on Iran. The most intensive was when the U.S. built, in the western party of the country, a full-scale model of an Iranian uranium enrichment facility that’s embedded in a mountain. The Americans then detonated a 30,000-pound bomb on their own soil to destroy the pretend nuclear site.

Netanyahu would have attacked Iran if he’d had the votes.

In the end, Netanyahu told The Times, none of that dissuaded him from an attack. What ended up putting the kibosh on the strike was internal opposition in Israel. Netanyahu and Barak supported a strike into 2012, but it was publicly reported that senior military and security officials in Israel opposed one, as did a majority of the Cabinet there.

“If I’d had a majority, I would have done it,” Netanyahu told The Times. “Unequivocally.”

Among the opponents were Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency; Yuval Diskin, the head of the Israel Security Agency, or Shin Bet; and Gabi Ashkenazi, the head of the Israel Defense Forces. Ashkenazi’s successor, Benny Gantz, also opposed a strike. He’s now running against Netanyahu in elections being held in less than two weeks.

Netanyahu’s threats may have helped lead to the Iran deal he hates.

As U.S. negotiations with Iran progressed toward an agreement during Obama’s second term, Netanyahu pivoted to vociferous opposition, decrying the impending deal at nearly every opportunity. He went so far as to deliver a controversial speech to the U.S. Congress in March 2015 lambasting the pact.

But The Times article suggests that Netanyahu’s threats of an attack may have persuaded Obama to resolve the situation diplomatically. Although some people, including Netanyahu, dispute that cause-and-effect, other officials say Netanyahu inadvertently advanced the very agreement he abhors.

“Netanyahu achieved exactly the opposite of what he wanted,” one Israeli official said.

Did the Israeli pressure affect the decision to begin talks?

“Without a doubt,” said Dennis Ross, who advised Obama. “Unless we could do something that changed the equation, the Israelis were going to act militarily.”

President Trump took office in 2017 with a promise to withdraw from the Iran deal, which he did the following year. Since then, tensions have risen and Israel has struck Iranian proxies. Now, according to the article, Netanyahu is again considering attacking Iran.

Hizbullah’s Demographic Problem Explains Its Restraint – Hillel Frisch (Jerusalem Post)

Israel’s alleged attack in Dahiye, the Beirut Shi’ite neighborhood where Hizbullah is headquartered, was met with a very limited Hizbullah response, sending a signal, acknowledged by the Israeli side, that Hizbullah wanted to avoid escalation that could lead to all-out war.
There are several reasons why Hizbullah is restrained, but probably the most important has to do with its demographic predicament. Hizbullah’s recruitment pool is strictly limited to the Shi’ite community in Lebanon which numbers 1-1.5 million souls.
The community is suffering from a rapidly declining birth rate similar to the declining fertility rate in Iran – less than is needed to maintain the existing population. Moreover, small families are reluctant to sacrifice what is all too often their only son in a society where the two-child family becomes the norm.
Hizbullah has been sacrificing Shi’ite blood for the last 37 years. The ardor to sacrifice is hard to maintain.
It’s also a problem Hizbullah hardly can counter. Declining birth rates are the result of urbanization. Most Lebanese Shi’ites live in the multi-storied apartment buildings of Dahiye as opposed to the small villages and towns in the past.
In the city, children can no longer help on the farm, becoming consumers rather than producers. The parents want them educated, and many want to see them in Canada and Australia rather than fighting Iran’s wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
The balance between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Lebanon has grown in favor of the former as hundreds of thousands of Syrian Sunnis found refuge there. Shi’ite Hizbullah, then, faces a more uncertain future in Lebanon itself as a result.

The writer is a professor of political and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at its Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.