As the war clouds gather in Ukraine, is Israel ready for the coming storm?

If the Jewish state wants to keep operating against Iran in Syrian airspace it might have to play ball with Russia

January 28, 2022 09:00

In a television interview on Monday night, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was asked for Israel’s position on what was looking like an imminent war between Russia and Ukraine.

“Allow me not to answer about an event where major Jewish communities can be involved,” he said, sticking to Israel’s official line that it has no official line when it comes to Russian policy.

It wasn’t just Mr Lapid. Government press officers did everything they could this week to avoid questions on the high-level briefings that took place in recent days on what Israel would do if the Jewish communities in eastern Ukraine would need to be evacuated from a war zone.

The current assessments are that there are around 75,000 Ukrainian citizens of Jewish descent – and therefore eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return – in the eastern regions of Donbass, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa.

“Neither the Ukrainians or the Russians want the impression that the Jews are not safe under them, so we have to tread very carefully there,” said a senior Israeli diplomat with extensive experience in the former Soviet sphere.

“But it’s not just the question of the risk to Jewish communities in Ukraine. The Russians are here as well, just across our border.”

Since 2014, when the Russian air force deployed to Syria to save the Assad regime from collapsing in the Syrian civil war, Israel has had an understanding with the Kremlin that the IDF could continue to operate in Syrian airspace, as long as it didn’t harm Russian interests.

Russian state television broadcast on Sunday footage from a joint air-patrol this weekend of Russian and Syrian fighter-jets, flying over the Golan Heights, near the Israeli border.

Why carry out and publicise this joint manoeuvre now if not as a reminder to Israel that if it wants to keep its freedom to bomb Iranian targets in Syria, it should keep well away from whatever happens in Ukraine?

Saddle up, pegasus is back

This was a dismal week for Israeli law enforcement, with serious questions being asked about its surveillance operations and one of its most high-profile officers being forced to go on leave, probably for good.

A series of revelations in the Calcalist daily business paper accused the Israeli police of having used the infamous “Pegasus” hacking tool (below), developed by cybersecurity company NSO, against Israeli citizens.

Pegasus has been the subject of numerous reports in recent months, but until now all these were about non-Israelis who had been targeted abroad.

For the first time, it transpired that the powerful surveillance programme which extracts data from smartphones was being used in Israel as well, including against politicians suspected of corruption, and against political protestors.

Most Israelis didn’t really care that Israeli software was being used abroad, by other countries, against journalists and civil rights campaigners. They certainly didn’t care it was being used by Israel’s own intelligence agencies against other countries. Having it used against Israelis, by the police, is another matter.

“There’s supposed to be a clear line between the cyber-software Israel sells abroad, that which its own security services uses against non-Israelis and that which is used within Israel by the police,” says one former intelligence official.

“The capabilities in each case should be different and the legal constraints as to its use. What has happened with Pegasus, the way NSO have been allowed to sell it and the way it’s been used, have broken all the rules.”

The police haven’t denied using Pegasus, though they insist it was used “legally”. Attorney-General Avichai Mendelblit has ordered an enquiry, but its parameters are not yet clear. Mr Mendelblit himself should have been responsible for authorising the use of such intrusive methods.

As he is about to leave office next week at the end of a seven-year term, it’s unclear whether the enquiry will ever go ahead.

Meanwhile, there was more bad news in store for the police. On Monday, footage emerged of Deputy Commissioner Jamal Hakrush running down a staircase, jumping, and almost tripping over a dying victim of a stabbing.

Mr Hakrush is both the most senior Muslim officer on the force and the commander of a special task force meant to deal with violence in the Arab-Israeli community. Why was he running away from a crime scene?

The officer’s feeble protestations that he was off-duty. He wasn’t fully aware of what was happening, he said, and had only left when he was assured that other officers were there. He convinced no-one. He was suspended pending an investigation.

But it then emerged that the CCTV footage was over a year old and the police had been in possession of it all this time. So why had it come out now?

At least some officers wondered whether it wasn’t actually fortunate that the footage had been leaked just in time to knock the Pegasus scandal off the headlines. Especially as questions were being raised over whether among the surveillance targets were also suspects connected to a former prime minister.

Plea bargain basement

“Don’t listen to what either side is saying now about the plea bargain with Netanyahu,” said a senior legal source this week.

“Everyone, the defendants, the prosecutors and the judges, want it to happen and ultimately it will.”

A few hours earlier, the attorney-general had informed Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers that he was ending the talks with them over a plea bargain for their client. His replacement, who has yet to be appointed, will have to decide when and whether to return to the negotiations.

Mr Netanyahu had kept uncharacteristically silent for the past 12 days, ever since the news that he was seeking a deal.

He finally released a video online, in which he claimed: “In recent days, the media published erroneous claims that supposedly I had agreed to moral turpitude. That is simply not true.”

It was an interesting choice of words. The former prime minister didn’t deny that he had sought a deal which would have obviously meant him admitting to at least some of the corruption charges against him.

He didn’t even promise his supporters that he would not agree in the future to accepting charges including “moral turpitude”, which will force him leave frontline politics. He just said that he hadn’t done so yet. With Mr Mendelblit’s departure, the chief defendant has lost an interlocutor he knows well.

Before his appointment as attorney-general, he was Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary and though he gave the greenlight to prosecute his old boss, it took a lot of convincing and watering down of the original charges prepared by police and the state prosecutor.

Before he begins another round of negotiations, he will have to take the measure of the new attorney-general. But a deal will finally be reached, because he is not prepared to continue wasting millions of shekels on a trial where he runs the risk of being sent to the prison at its end.

“Bibi is the most eager because he’s wasting his own money on the trial,” said the legal source, who spent many hours back in the day with the former prime minister. “But neither do the prosecutors or the judges want to go on. For all of them, this trial has become a nightmare without an end in sight.

“Without a plea bargain, it will go on for years and for many of those involved, will become the last major case of their careers. No-one wants that. It may take a few more months, but they’ll find a way to agree with Netanyahu on ending this.”

January 28, 2022 09:00

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