Did Israel need an Iranian leak when the talks are sunk already?

What has almost certainly kiboshed the Vienna talks on a deal with the Iranians is the Russian invasion of Ukraine


Members of Martyr Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades take part in a military parade in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 28, 2021. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** מצעד חמושים חמאס טיל תומכים חאן יונס רקטות משאיות

May 06, 2022 16:07

On Saturday afternoon, on the second-to-last day of Ramadan, Yahya Sinwar treated the Hamas leadership to an hour-long speech.

As they patiently sat there in the afternoon Gaza heat, waiting for the Iftar to break their fast, Sinwar stood in front of a picture of Israeli police in the Al Aqsa mosque and harangued them for the need for constant “resistance” to the Zionists.

“All the parties of the resistance and the military wings must be at peak preparedness and alert.

The battle is not over at the end of Ramadan,” Sinwar warned.

”The Palestinian people must be ready for a great battle if Israel does not stop its moves in Al Aqsa. The sword of Jerusalem from last Ramadan will not be returned to its scabbard until the liberation of Palestine.”

For all his fiery rhetoric, Sinwar was basically admitting that Hamas was unable to escalate the tension in Jerusalem in to a wider war, as it did last year when it launched rockets, in what it called Operation Sword of Jerusalem.

The infrastructure in Gaza, both on the civilian side and Hamas’ own weapon arsenals and tunnel networks, are still being rebuilt following last year’s destruction. And Hamas above all needs financial support from the Arab world to keep Gaza above water. It has no option of war.

Israeli Hamas-watchers were dismissive of Sinwar’s speech. One of them called it “pathetic, populist and transparent.”

Over the past year, since the last Gaza conflict ended, Israeli intelligence has been keeping close tabs on the internal struggle within Hamas.

This is between the faction lead by Khaled Mashal, which favours distancing the movement from Iran’s orbit and trying to build better relations with the “moderate” Sunni Arab regimes, and the faction lead by Ismail Haniyeh and Mohammed Deif, which prefers to remain part of the Iranian axis, along with Hezbollah.

Sinwar, who sees himself as the future leader of all Hamas, has been manoeuvring between the two sides. Until last May, he was seen by many as having joined the “pragmatic” wing, but then he threw his lot in with the pro-Iran faction and gave the order to launch the rockets.

In the year since, Hamas has received more money from Iran but nowhere near enough to fill its depleted coffers.

Meanwhile, it has felt increasing pressure on its fundraising from across the Muslim world, as well as in places like Britain.

This Ramadan, the Hamas leadership, including the Haniyeh faction, resisted Iran’s urges to escalate matters and launch rockets. They even prevented the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is much more compliant to Iran, from doing so. No one is under any illusion that Hamas is becoming moderate, but it’s beginning to realise that being an Iranian proxy isn’t such a great role either.

Superior intelligence
One of the reasons Iran needs proxies is that its own covert operations aren’t as sophisticated as some believe.

Last weekend, Mossad, in an unprecedented move, published details of an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate three targets in Europe: an Israeli diplomat in the Istanbul consulate, an American general stationed in Germany and a French journalist in Paris. The names of the intended targets were not specified in the orchestrated leaks to the Israeli media.

But what was released was the fact that a Mossad team had actually gone into Iran and interrogated Mansour Rasouli, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who was supposed to be in charge of the operation. They even released an audio file in which part of Rasouli’s interrogation could be heard.

Not everyone in the Israeli government was pleased with the leak, which had been authorised at the highest level by prime minister Naftali Bennett. “There’s no need to go into such details of operational procedures or tell the Iranians it was us,” was one of the criticisms.

“It’s a very transparent and clumsy ploy. The aim of the leak was to put more pressure on the Americans not to go ahead with the negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal,” said another official. “Why do that when it doesn’t look as if they’re going to rejoin the agreement anyway?”

The Iranian demand that the Biden administration remove the IRGC from the State Department Foreign Terror Organisations list is the last major sticking point in the US rejoining the Iran Deal. Which is why Israel has been trying to play it up in Washington, and it seems to be working. There have been increasing indications that the administration can’t afford to pay the political price for such a move, especially with a difficult mid-term election looming. But it is still far from certain.

What has almost certainly kiboshed the Vienna talks with the Iranians is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Iran are allies but the nuclear agreement is far down the Kremlin’s priority list.

At this point, it’s much more important for them to deny the Americans any achievement. Since returning to the nuclear deal was a key objective on President Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda, the Russian delegation has been busy since the invasion throwing spanners in the works. Three months ago, senior Israeli diplomats following the talks were convinced that the US would sign a new agreement “within days”. Now they assess that the likeliest outcome in Vienna will be a final failure of the talks.

Holding it together
Whatever the reason for a failure of the talks in Vienna, it will be a rare political win for the Bennett government.

Mr Bennett and his foreign minister, Yair Lapid, insisted that their low-profile approach of hashing out Israel’s disagreements with the administration behind closed doors was far preferable to Benjamin Netanyahu’s confrontational approach, which both failed to prevent the

Obama administration from signing the original agreement and squandered any chance Israel may have had of at least influencing some of its details.

They need any little bit of success they can get, going in to the Knesset’s summer session next week. The coalition no longer has a majority. Should it lose any more members, Israel could be on the verge of another election.

With Ramadan, Pesach and Israel’s national remembrance days over, they are at least out of the tense security period, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the opposition will ease its pressure on wavering coalition members.

One part of the coalition seems secure, at least for now. In his Gaza speech, Yahya Sinwar also had words for Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist party and coalition partner Ra’am. Sinwar said that Ra’am’s participation in the coalition while Israeli police were “defiling Al Aqsa” was an “unforgivable crime” and “a repudiation of your religion and your Arab identity”.

A furious Abbas went on television and responded that “we don’t owe Sinwar or anyone anything. We are doing what is good for Arab society and for the Palestinian people. We believe that a dialogue of partnership will advance peace between the nations.”

Ra’am had officially suspended its membership of the coalition while the clashes were ongoing on Temple Mount. But it seems to have been just a symbolic move and when the Knesset session begins, they’ll be back.

Another supporter of the precarious coalition is President Biden himself, who is expected to arrive in Jerusalem for a visit at the end of June.

The timing for this is rather curious, as it is not clear yet whether the US will still be negotiating with Iran by that point and Mr Biden ostensibly has more pressing foreign priorities such as the war in Ukraine.

The opinion in both Jerusalem and Washington is that the matters are linked. The Biden administration may already believe that there is no going back to the Iran Deal and with the need to wean the west off Russian oil and gas, it needs to urgently bolster its traditional Middle Eastern alliances.

A trip to Israel would be an opportunity for the President to indicate that unlike his old boss President Obama, he is fully behind both Israel and the Sunni regimes and no longer believes in “balancing” them and Iran.
That is, if there’s still a government to meet with in Israel by the time he arrives.

May 06, 2022 16:07

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive