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Strike on Natanz nuclear facility strategic or short-sighted?

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Israel

A story broke in The Jerusalem Post on 11 April that Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility had once again been attacked. According to the paper, the site’s electric grid and its backup system were destroyed along with a large number of centrifuges. It estimated that the latest attack had added nine months to Iran’s breakout time.

This isn’t the first time this facility has been attacked. In 2010, it was struck by a mysterious Stuxnet computer worm believed to have been a joint effort between the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF’s) 8200 Unit and the National Security Agency of the United States (US). In July 2020, it suffered a major explosion, where, again, according to The Jerusalem Post, it was estimated that three-quarters of the above-ground centrifuge assembly facility was destroyed.

It’s therefore no surprise that this particular facility was targeted once again. The only question is, why now, and why was Israel less secretive about this operation? This time around, there were leaks to the local press and barely concealed satisfaction from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi (chief of general staff of the IDF). Previously, they refused to comment.

The answer, of course, is the resumption this past week of talks in Vienna between Iran and various other countries (Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, and indirectly the US) in an attempt to resuscitate the 2015 nuclear deal.

The close link between the two events is unlikely to be coincidental. By attacking the nuclear facility now and almost leaving a calling card this time, Israel no doubt attempted to reap some strategic benefits.

First, a clear warning was sent to the US. The US’s negotiating officials have stated that they want any return to the 2015 deal to be accompanied by amendments to the deal to make it “longer and stronger”. However, Israel and its new Gulf allies fear that any changes to a newly signed deal will be cosmetic and not address their fears.

While it’s unlikely that Israel is against a nuclear deal per se, Israel has three key clauses that it insists must be included in any upgraded deal. If these aren’t included, Israel fears its security will be severely compromised.

The most important amendment to the 2015 deal is no “sunset clause”. The current nuclear deal which placed limitations on Iran’s nuclear programme would expire in 2030, and this is unacceptable to Israel.

It requires a much longer limitation on Iran’s nuclear programme. The second key problem, according to Israel, is the lacuna that the 2015 deal didn’t address Iran’s ballistic missile programme, which Israel finds unacceptable.

Israel’s third problem with the 2015 deal is that it didn’t address Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East, and its destabilisation of various neighbouring countries.

Israel believes it cannot live with a new agreement that doesn’t address these three key issues, and this strike is a statement of intent to the US. It says, “Sign a deal that doesn’t address our concerns, and we won’t be bound by it.” Or, even more directly, “If you ignore our concerns, expect a lot more attacks and instability.”

What’s increasing Israel’s anxiety and no doubt caused it to strike now is Western efforts to achieve a breakthrough in negotiations before the 18 June Iranian presidential election. Israel fears a more hardline leader could emerge and scupper talks.

This rush to reach a settlement, Israel fears, could lead to the US signing a new deal prematurely, before all the issues are adequately addressed.

Many commentators believe the Obama negotiators were outmanoeuvred last time by the Iranians, and Israel no doubt wants to raise the temperature now as a warning not to rush into a situation of being similarly outplayed.

The second reason that now would be a good time to strike the facility from the Israeli point of view is that Israel knows Iran doesn’t want any major escalation at this stage. It would put any new agreement at risk.

Israel could feel safe in therefore taking another shot to “change facts on the ground” without fearing any major retaliation. That has proven true. While Iran has threatened to retaliate, it hasn’t done so. Also, its move last Tuesday, 13 April, to announce it would be enriching uranium to 60% purity might have worked against it.

The US and European parties to the deal called the move “provocative”, and warned it was contrary to efforts to revive the deal abandoned by Washington three years ago.

On the other hand, some commentators are speculating that the Israeli strike could backfire. With Iran enriching uranium to 60%, in spite of the strike and the damage it caused, it could make the US and Europeans more anxious and lead to them pressurising their negotiators to reach a deal quickly. That could therefore achieve the exact opposite of what Israel intended, and lead to a hurried deal being signed, with Israel’s key concerns not adequately addressed.

It’s well known that in international geopolitics “timing is everything”, and this doubtless caused Israel to strike when it did. It remains to be seen, however, whether this more aggressive attempt by Israel to influence the nuclear talks will bear fruit, and whether the strike achieved its tactical and strategic aims.

This will become clearer in the next few weeks as the game of diplomatic and military poker plays out.

  • Harry Joffe is a Johannesburg tax and trust attorney.

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Israel considers the option of war with Iran

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Israelis are being asked again whether or not they support a proactive strike on Iran, even at the risk of starting a war. The overwhelming majority – more than 70% – say yes!

In a recent poll, just more than one in two also said that Israel should have attacked Iran years ago during the “early stages” of its nuclear development rather than wait for a negotiated settlement.

The debate is back in the news after last week’s reports that Jerusalem had approved $1.5 billion (R22.1 billion) for aircraft, intel-gathering drones, and unique armaments needed for a potential strike on Iran.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned that even more funds would be necessary. “Israel is challenged militarily on many fronts,” he said, “the most significant threat facing Israel – and the one for which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) most needs to allocate its resources – is Iran and its nuclear programme”.

The goal of an Israeli strike on Tehran would be twofold.

Primarily, it would aim at preventing the regime from being able to build an atomic bomb. From the start, the previous Israeli government under then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was against the July 2015 nuclear deal signed between Tehran and world powers.

Under its terms, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear programme and open its facilities to more extensive international inspection in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief.

But three years later, to Israel’s delight, former American president Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement and since then, the Islamic Republic has again started to ramp up its nuclear activities. It has also refused access to the International Atomic Energy Agency to repair surveillance equipment damaged in a June attack on a nuclear site that has been blamed on Israel.

The blast destroyed a camera and heavily damaged another, although it’s unknown how many cameras are there in total.

There is now renewed rigor by the current American administration and European powers to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, but their patience is running thin. Tehran is stalling, even more so after ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi won the presidential election in June.

The second goal of a potential IDF strike on Iran would be to reduce the country’s efforts, through its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, to establish a permanent base of operation on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, close to the Israeli border.

In recent months Israel has conducted numerous strikes on Syria, the latest reportedly on Monday morning, 25 October, to prevent precisely this.

But such attacks are becoming more difficult for Israel as Syria continuously improves its air defence capabilities, partly due to upgraded Iranian-made components. Iran also recently begun deploying advanced air defence systems in Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon to protect its forces and proxies in those countries from Israeli strikes.

In a five-hour meeting last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to maintain Moscow’s tacit acceptance of these strikes.

In spite of the fact that Bennett has replaced Netanyahu (only temporarily, many Israelis would tell you), the county’s leadership is on the same page when it comes to Iran.

Everyone – as in the Israeli political elite and the public – understands that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would effectively amount to declaring a war. For this reason, most in Israel would prefer the United States and Western countries to take the lead and for Israel not to have to shoulder the full responsibility and consequences of an attack on Iran.

There is also a lot of tension in the Islamic world, and Tehran is far from popular. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries in the Gulf that Israel recently signed peace treaties with, like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, are also concerned about Iran’s nuclear capability. But their messages are ambiguous, and it seems that their preference, at least in the short term, would be for actions short of war.

What’s more, an Israeli assault on a major Muslim country could very well unite Arab countries against the Jewish state.

First prize for Israel, of course, would be if any of these countries came on board a planned Iranian strike. But if they don’t, and before Iran’s nuclear programme reaches the point of no return, there seems to be an understanding in Israel that she would have to strike alone.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi has admitted that Israel has “greatly accelerated” preparations for action against Iran’s nuclear programme.

Already at the beginning of the year, Kohavi publicly declared that Israel was preparing fresh “operational plans” for a potent military strike. Two months ago, he admitted that Iran’s nuclear progress had prompted the IDF “to speed up its operational plans”. Reports suggest that an IDF strike plan is in the “draft stage”.

But an Israeli strike on Iran presents numerous challenges. In addition to having to find ways to strike Iranian facilities that are buried deep underground and that require specialised munitions and tactics, the Israeli Air Force will have to deal with increasingly sophisticated Iranian air defences in order to conduct such a strike. The air force will also have to prepare for an expected retaliation against Israel by Iran and its allies throughout the region.

The Iranians, for their part, have sounded a note of defiance in the face of Israeli threats.

One of Iran’s most senior leaders recently threatened that if Israel attacked its nuclear programme, the country’s response would require Israel to spend “tens of thousands of billion dollars” to reconstruct the country.

Israel views the Iranian nuclear project as a near existential threat. Amidst the international community’s hesitancy regarding Tehran’s real intentions and reluctance to take action – at least for now – Jerusalem will increasingly prepare for a D-Day when it might just be forced to go the road alone.

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Israel’s vaccination rules may hinder South Africans, olim advocate says

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Travelling to Israel may get easier soon, but with some rules that could hold South Africans back. According to former member of the Knesset (MK) Dov Lipman, from 1 November 2021, travellers to Israel may have to have a third booster shot, or have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 within six months of their visit. “Those who were vaccinated more than six months ago may have a challenge in entering Israel. We are trying to influence the decision for the better,” he says.

As some time has passed since most South African Jews received their vaccines, and with no possibility of a third booster shot being offered anytime soon, this may make travelling to Israel difficult. Lipman is concerned that tourists who have access to third booster shots may be able to travel to Israel, but relatives of olim may be left out in the cold. Ironically, those who got vaccinated earliest may have the most difficulty, which he said is a “sad” reality.

Not all superheroes wear capes – some of them wear kippot – and Lipman is doing everything he can to stop this from happening. His organisation, Yad L’Olim, works to help olim thrive in Israel and lobbies the Knesset to drive government policies that provide new immigrants with the tools that they need to succeed in Israel.

Lipman did just that in a speech to the Knesset on 12 October. Addressing ministers and MKs, he said, “Right now, they are talking about a new plan. They are talking about tourists who will come from all over the world. There are countries with Zionistic Jews whose family members made aliyah. And they have no ability to get the third vaccine dose. They have no ability to get it. So what’s going to happen? We’re going to have a state filled with tourists from all around the world who don’t have any special connection to Israel, and I am happy that they will come.

“But families who supported their family member’s decision to move to Israel won’t have the ability to come here. There must be an outcry from Knesset, from MKs and ministers, not to allow this to happen,” he said. “Yes, open the country to tourists, that’s fine, I have no problem with that. But let there be a plan. Actually, continue with the current policy enabling relatives who cannot get a third shot to come, and especially for there to be a true exceptions committee.

“There should be an easy to use link for those who have family weddings, Bar/Batmitzvahs or births. You cannot close the door on olim and their families when you are opening the door to tourists. I call on all of you to be our voices and take care of this.”

Lipman says that though Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wasn’t there when he spoke, “two MKs from his party were, and we’re now following up on what I said”. He says olim are already coming to him with concerns that their families may not be able to visit.

“We’re trying to make sure that they have the right balance of not shutting the door on everyone while changing the rules. Things are still in flux regarding final decisions. I’m recommending to anyone who can get a shot [vaccine], whether it’s a booster, or their first one, or someone who has recovered [from COVID-19] last year, if you can get one, I’m recommending that. Because it will ease your ability to get into Israel after 1 November, and that would apply even if you didn’t have a first-degree relative in Israel.”

He says he spoke out because “I’m concerned that there’s no mechanism in place for first-degree relatives to visit if they haven’t been vaccinated according to Israel’s requirements. And I believe that if people are going to undergo a full quarantine, testing, and the like, then there should be an option.

“Israel needs to be a place where olim know that their families can come. And yes, we have to take health concerns into account, and I’m not suggesting therefore just to open things up. But we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of families of olim coming. I also know that there are exceptions for weddings and births, and things like that, but the process has been complicated and not easy to use. I’d rather make it as user-friendly as possible for the benefit of olim and their families.”

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Israel’s status on agenda of AU executive

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On the eve of the meeting of the Executive Council of the African Union (AU) this week, there has been much speculation about whether Israel’s recent granting of observer status will be debated, and if calls for the decision to be rescinded will be heard.

The announcement in July that Israel had been granted observer status at the AU drew sharp reaction from several countries on the continent, including South Africa.

Last week, International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) Minister Naledi Pandor met her Palestinian counterpart, Riad Malki, and again expressed dissatisfaction with Israel’s status. (See story on page 1.)

During the official bilateral talks held at Dirco, Pandor said South Africa wasn’t party to the AU’s “shocking” decision to grant Israel observer status.

In July, Pretoria moved swiftly to lobby other Southern African Development Community states against the decision.

Many said the decision had been taken unilaterally by AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, and expressed solidarity with Palestine.

Out of 55 member states, 46 enjoy diplomatic relations with Israel. There are about 17 member countries opposing observer status.

It’s understood that the matter was placed on the agenda of the AU executive council following complaints by some member states.

Professor Hussein Solomon of the University of the Free State wrote recently that South Africa was “out of sync” with the views of most African heads of state. “Isolating Israel won’t work in promoting the well-being of Palestinians. This was tried for decades by Arab countries and has failed.”

Jean-Pierre Alumba Lukamba, the international director of the African Diaspora for Development, (ADD), told the SA Jewish Report this week that according to the guiding principles of the AU, Israel should be at the opening of the AU’s executive council meeting this week as an observer member for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The ADD has reiterated its call to African heads of state to maintain unanimously the admission of the state of Israel as an observer member.

In a statement, the ADD said, “The African people will derive great benefit from the state of Israel, which has notably established agricultural co-operatives, youth training centres, and medical facilities in countries such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Côte d’Ivoire.

“Israel supported the use of technology for the sustainable development of Africa in accordance with a resolution adopted by the United Nations,” it said, and it was “convinced” that admission to the AU of Israel would help to advance the African continent towards a better future for the well-being of African people.

The ADD joined its voice to those of other civil society organisations, and asked the African heads of state to include it on its agenda this week.

Earlier this week, the ADD held a peaceful rally in Abuja in support of Israel’s observer status.

Olubunmi Fagbuyiro, the Economic Community of West African States representative of the ADD, said that there was still concern about countries who opposed this observer status. “The AU should embrace Israel, as the country has already demonstrated its willingness for fruitful partnership with Africa,” Fagbuyiro said.

He said Israel had been pivotal in the provision of green energy, health infrastructure, and infrastructure for sustainable water supply in many countries on the continent. He noted Israel’s contribution to the fight against Ebola in Africa.

“It’s our view that the AU can play an important role in bringing about peace between Israel and Palestine, drawing on lessons from the African nationalist movements and the experiences of decolonisation and reconciliation following various conflicts can be used to inspire negotiation and peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

Meanwhile, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) has joined various African civil society organisations from across the continent in their call for African heads of state to reaffirm unanimously Israel’s admission as an observer member of the AU.

“Israel has had a mutually beneficial relationship with African states for more than 70 years. It has been at the forefront of efforts to help solve some of the most important developmental challenges on the continent. These include the areas of health, agriculture, youth development, water, education, and energy.

“The admission of Israel as an observer to the African Union, alongside more than 70 other countries, is a historic and welcome development. It should be celebrated and not undermined by those who aren’t interested in peace and prosperity on the continent,” it said.

The SAZF called on other organisations connected to Africa and its diaspora to sign a letter of support to the AU.

The letter is signed by prominent progressive international African organisations, companies, leaders, activists, youth movements, and trade unions. It says Israel’s admission seeks to “enhance the work of Israeli African co-operation on development programmes at bilateral and multilateral levels. Admittance is in the interests of peace and dialogue.”

Faki Mahamat accepted the credentials of Aleligne Admasu, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, on 22 July.

He said at the time that he hoped the move would contribute to the “intensification of the advocacy of the AU for the fulfilment of the principle of two states and the restoration of peace between Israel and Palestine” and reiterated the “unflinching commitment” of the AU to the fundamental rights of the Palestinians.

This included their “right to establish an independent national state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, within the framework of a global, fair, and definitive peace between Israel and Palestine.”

Faki Mahamat said the reservations expressed by “a few members” about this decision justified his intention to include it on the agenda of this week’s session of the executive council.

Israel obtained AU observer status after 20 years of diplomatic efforts. It had previously held the role at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but was long thwarted in its attempts to regain it after the OAU was disbanded in 2002 and replaced by the AU.

Apart from South Africa, other countries opposing Israel’s member status include Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.

Most other countries on the continent have sought closer ties with Israel, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda, and have secured Israeli help, expertise, and investment in many areas from water and agriculture to tech start-ups.

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