Archive for November 30, 2020

Trump’s remarkable Middle East legacy

November 30, 2020

There is no denying the Trump team has done more than any previous administration to bolster Israel and its future.

Showing support for Trump at a pre-election rally in Beit Shemesh (photo credit: YAAKOV LEDERMAN/FLASH90)

Over the next few weeks, US courts will find themselves in the unenviable position of having to adjudicate challenges to the integrity of the presidential election process, a matter fraught with immense political and civic controversy.

Allegations of widespread voter fraud will be put to the test as President Donald J. Trump and former vice president Joseph Biden, as well as the rest of the country, seek some finality to the outcome of the balloting.

Regardless of how it plays out, this would seem to be a fitting time to look back at what the Trump administration has accomplished in the Middle East over the past four years. Simply put, it is nothing short of extraordinary.

Put aside for a moment whatever your feelings might be about Trump personally and place those emotions on hold. For anyone who values the US-Israel relationship, supports the Jewish state and cherishes it, there is no denying that the Trump team has done more than any previous administration ever did to bolster Israel and its future.

The list of achievements is lengthy, ranging from the symbolic to the substantive, and Jews everywhere owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Trump for his historic revamping of the region.

To begin with, the Middle East is a far safer place than it was just four years ago when Barack Obama resided in the White House.

Indeed, Obama bequeathed to Trump a region awash with rising Islamic fundamentalist extremism as the Islamic State controlled a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq equivalent in size to Great Britain.

Just as promised, Trump succeeded in demolishing the would-be caliphate, quashing the evil regime that was responsible for beheading Americans, slaughtering Yazidis and committing unprecedented atrocities.

Then, on October 26, 2019, the president dispatched US special forces into Syria’s Idlib province, where they tracked down the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died in the raid. The group hasn’t been the same since.

Similarly, when Obama turned over the keys to Trump, Iran was enjoying the windfall of the spurious nuclear deal it had reached with Washington. But Trump had the courage to pull out of the agreement and impose extensive and painful sanctions on the ayatollahs, which have left the tyrants of Tehran reeling.

And on January 3 of this year, Trump ordered an air strike on a convoy of vehicles at Baghdad International Airport which killed Qasem Soleimani, the mastermind of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and one of the most dangerous men in the Middle East.

Soleimani’s hands were drenched in blood and he bore responsibility for a wide array of terrorist activities ranging from the targeting of US troops in Iraq with roadside bombs to supplying Hezbollah with weapons and training. G-d only knows what other horrors he might have been planning.

Now neither he nor Baghdadi can ever again cause any mayhem.

But Trump has done far more than merely combating the bad guys. He has also expanded the circle of peace between Jews and Arabs in ways that once would have been inconceivable.

Over the course of just five weeks, Trump presided over the signing of historic peace deals between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on September 15 as well as the normalization of relations between the Jewish state and Sudan, which was announced on October 23.

For that alone he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

By tossing out the old narrative according to which Arab-Israeli peace would only be achieved once the Palestinian conflict had been resolved, Trump helped to rewrite the destiny of millions. And by all indications, there are additional Arab states moving closer to recognizing Israel as well.

In changing the paradigm of peace, Trump immeasurably strengthened the Jewish state, further enhancing its legitimacy and rightful place in the region.

Perhaps his most stirring and symbolic move was the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and then move the US Embassy to the Holy City in May 2018, steps that none of his predecessors had the fortitude to do and which paved the way for other countries to follow suit.

Then, on March 25, 2019, Trump signed a presidential proclamation conferring official US recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel. This helped to solidify Israel’s northern border with Syria, putting a huge dent in the Assad regime’s expansionist aims.

With regard to Judea and Samaria, the change in policy was no less dramatic. In November 2019, the US shifted its official stance regarding Jewish communities in Israel’s historical heartland and declared that they do not violate international law. And Trump’s plan for Middle East peace would enable Israel to apply sovereignty to 30% of Judea and Samaria, including nearly all the settlements.

Indeed, just last month, Washington lifted restrictions on providing American funding for scientific and agriculture projects in Judea and Samaria, thereby ending decades of discrimination. And last week, on a visit to Israel, Mike Pompeo became the first US Secretary of State to visit a Jewish community in Judea and Samaria. He also delivered a blow to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, labeling it “antisemitic” and declaring that the State Department would review its aid programs to ensure that no funds end up in the coffers of BDS supporters.

To be sure, not every step adopted by the administration has proven effective or even wise. Just ask America’s long-time Kurdish allies in Syria, who were summarily abandoned last year. The Iranians have continued to stockpile and enrich uranium, and an increasingly assertive Turkey has caused mischief throughout the region. And the Trump vision for peace includes the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state, which would create an unstable and hostile entity adjacent to Israel.

Nonetheless, when taken as a whole, the Trump administration has clearly transformed the Middle East, strengthening America’s national security interests while bolstering Israel’s position.

There are of course many other examples of the deep and lasting imprint that Trump has left on the region, from defunding UNRWA, which served to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee issue, to becoming the first sitting US President to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem. And there is still time for him to formally recognize Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, which would be a game-changer.

But regardless of whether his presidential tenure ends in January 2021 or not, Trump has profoundly changed the equation in the Middle East.

Love him or hate him, it is worth judging the man by his record, if only because the job of president is to be commander in chief, not compadre in chief.

And to paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s famous query from his 1980 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter: are Israel and the region better off than they were four years ago? The answer is clearly and overwhelmingly yes. 

Fakhrizadeh: Hit squads, car bombs and remote-controlled guns – analysis

November 30, 2020

Bit weird that he would get out of the car, regardless of what happened.

Three theories – and we’ll never really know the truth

Servants of the holy shrine of Imam Reza carry the coffin of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in Mashhad, Iran November 29, 2020.  (photo credit: MASSOUD NOZARI/WANA VIA REUTERS)

Remote-controlled weapons killed Iranian nuclear scientist and key nuclear program chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, according to Iranian accounts. But, another account has it differently: a handful of assassins did it. Yet a third explanation has it that twelve men came with several vehicles, using one of them to blow up and block the security convoy that was protecting the high value target. 

The competing narratives over the killing of the man who was at the pinnacle of Iran’s nuclear industrial complex are befitting one who was anyway known to be in the spotlight. Since the 2000s, he was known to the US, and sanctioned and then highlighted by a UN nuclear watchdog in 2011, before being named in a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

You don’t get better known in Iran than that. The UN, the US and the Israelis have all mentioned you. You can retire, or travel with security, but you’re on the wanted list.

So Mr. Fakhrizadeh knew that and those around him knew that. They knew that colleagues such as IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani had a deadly meeting with an American missile after travelling to Baghdad in January 2020. On the other hand, Iran also knew that attempted assassinations had been called off in the past for high value targets.

They had something else. Just days before, on November 14, the world had learned that Al-Qaeda’s number two had been killed in Tehran. How many assassin teams can possibly be operating in Tehran? That killing got international attention. It was carried out in August. Foreign reports claimed Israel did it in cooperation with the US.  

Thus the Fars News story of the exact details of how Fakhrizadeh was killed is a bit too much information. He was driving home with his wife. A nice Friday afternoon. His convoy had three cars. They were driving near Absard to a nice house for the weekend. The cars slowed for some reason, maybe a security check. One kept going.

And then Fakhrizadeh’s car struck something. He got out and there was a Nissan truck with a remote-controlled weapon in the back, sort of like the 1997 film The Jackal. Several bullets hit Fakhrizadeh. As he lay wounded and dying the truck exploded, also remotely. Only three minutes had passed. That would have been a lifetime for his guards in the two other cars and his wife. He was dead. 

A SECOND version, posted online under the name Abu Ali, claims to present another version from Iranian sources. In this estimation the hit squad included 12 personnel. They had military training equivalent to special forces outside Iran. More than 50 people supported their operation, maybe manning drones or satellites, or driving logistical support or moving weapons. 

The assault squad used a Hyundai Santa Fe jeep, a Nissan pickup truck (which was trapped – AA) and four motorcycles. The Hyundai Santa Fe can actually be rented in Tehran, with an extra charge of around 28 euros to return it to the Imam Khomeini Airport. An extra driver costs another 10 euros. In the case of an assassination, one definitely needs to get the full coverage, collision and personal protect. Deductible is another 900 euros in this case.  

According to these sources, the story is that the Iranian nuke chief was on his way to a private village. The hit team cut the power to the area and waited for the convoy to arrive. They deployed two snipers and four members of the team with the jeep. As the convoy passed, the first security vehicle continued on. At this moment the Nissan blew up to stop the convoy. Then, the members of the assassination team poured gunfire into Fakhrizadeh’s car and the security vehicle. The nuclear chief was even pulled out and shot, to make sure he was dead. The security details of the trip were known beforehand via some sort of cyber hack.  

Some details of the story seem comparable. In both versions, the Nissan truck appears. In both it explodes. The difference is that in one account a large number of other vehicles and shooters were present. Is it reasonable to conclude that an entire assassination would be done remotely with a rifle mounted in a truck, like in a movie?

Clearly if one wanted to actually succeed, and not have the rifle jam or the truck to be uncovered, that would be risky. Why go to such lengths to find and eliminate such an important person and leave it up to chance that some kind of signal might jam and the rifle malfunction? On the other hand, four motorcycles and two extra vehicles running around parts of Iran might be a bit large of a presence.

What is clear is that like so many well-known assassinations, the full details of this one may never be known. That they are suddenly presented in a blow-by-blow just 48 hours later appears to be a message to Tehran. It’s about showing Iran how easily it was to do. That means the stories and details are messaging, not necessarily connected to reality. It feeds into the regime’s sense of failure – and feeling that its highest members are vulnerable.  


Killing of nuke chief was done entirely by remote control — Iranian report

November 30, 2020

Semi-official Fars claims operation to kill Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was conducted in three minutes with no human operatives on the ground

By JUDAH ARI GROSS29 November 2020, 8:23 pm 

This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2020. (Fars News Agency via AP)

This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2020. (Fars News Agency via AP)

The attack that killed the alleged architect of Iran’s nuclear weapons program on Friday was carried out from afar using a remote-controlled machine gun attached to a car, a leading Iranian news site reported Sunday.

According to the semi-officials Fars news site, the entire operation was conducted with no human agents whatsoever, a significantly different description of the attack than has been presented until now. The account was not attributed to official sources and was not immediately confirmed by Iran.

According to the outlet, the assault took place over the course of three minutes as Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — a brigadier general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and a key figure in the country’s military research-and-development program long regarded by Israel and the US as the head of its rogue nuclear weapons program — traveled with his wife toward the resort town of Absard, east of Tehran.

The operation kicked off when the lead car in Fakhrizadeh’s security detail traveled ahead to inspect his destination, the report said.Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (Agencies)

At that point, a number of bullets were fired at Fakhrizadeh’s armored car, prompting him to exit the vehicle as he was apparently unaware that he was under attack, thinking that the sound was caused by an accident or some problem with the car, according to Fars news.

The outlet did not specify if those shots were fired from the remote-controlled machine gun or from a different source.This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2020. (Fars News Agency via AP)

Once Fakhrizadeh exited the vehicle, the remote-controlled machine gun opened fire from roughly 150 meters (500 feet) away, striking him three times, twice in the side and once in his back, severing his spinal cord. Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguard was also hit by the gunfire. The attacking car, a Nissan, then exploded, the report said.

Fakhrizadeh was evacuated to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His wife also appears to have been killed in the attack, according to Iranian media.

Photos and video shared online showed a sedan with bullet holes in the windshield and back window, blood pooled on the asphalt and debris scattered along a stretch of the road.

This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2020. Parts of image are blurred for potentially disturbing imagery. (Fars News Agency via AP)

Until now, reports from Iran indicated that an explosion occurred first, forcing Fakhrizadeh’s car to stop, at which point armed agents opened fire at him and his security detail, killing them, before fleeing the scene.

According to Fars news, Iranian authorities tracked down the owner of the Nissan, who left the country on October 29. The name of the owner was not included in the report.

A number of defense analysts cast doubts on the Fars report, noting that photographs of the scene showed what appeared to be precise gunfire aimed at Fakhrizadeh’s car, which a remote-controlled automatic weapon would be unlikely to produce and that better fits the initial descriptions of armed, trained operatives conducting the raid.

Other news outlets have also published contradictory accounts of the killing, including claims that dozens of Israeli operatives were involved.

The highly public killing of Fakhrizadeh prompted widespread condemnation from Iran, which explicitly accused Israel of being responsible for the attack and threatened to exact revenge for it. The United Nations and European Union criticized the operation — without naming Israel — saying it inflamed tensions in the region. Some American Democrats also spoke out against the raid, saying it appeared to be an effort to hobble efforts by US President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal, a move that Jerusalem staunchly opposes along with several Sunni Arab states.

An unnamed Western intelligence source told Channel 12 the killing of the nuclear physicist, described in the past as the “father” of Iran’s project to develop nuclear weapons, was the “pinnacle” of Israel’s long-term plans. Tehran officially denies plans to develop atomic weapons, maintaining its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, though a trove of Iranian documents stolen from Tehran by the Mossad, which where revealed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018, showed plans by Iran to attach a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile.Iran’s Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi pays his respect to the body of slain scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh among his family, in Tehran, Iran, November 28, 2020. (Mizan News Agency via AP)

While Israel remained officially mum on the killing of Fakhrizadeh and its alleged role in it, an Israeli minister publicly praised the results of the operation.

“The assassination in Iran, whoever did it, it serves not only Israel, but the whole region and the world,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday.

Fakhrizadeh was named by Netanyahu in 2018 as the director of Iran’s nuclear weapons project.

When Netanyahu revealed then that Israel had removed from a warehouse in Tehran a vast archive of Iran’s own material detailing with its nuclear weapons program, he said: “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on an archive brought out of Iran by the Mossad that documents Iran’s nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (AFP/Jack Guez)

In a video uploaded to Twitter on Friday shortly after news of the alleged killing emerged, Netanyahu, counting off various achievements of the week, noted that this was “a partial list, as I can’t tell you everything… It’s all for you, citizens of Israel, for our country. It’s a week of achievements, and there’ll be more.” According to Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen, Netanyahu was referring to his widely reported — though not officially confirmed — visit to Saudi Arabia.

Israel was bracing for possible Iranian retaliation, putting embassies on high alert. The Israel Defense Forces, however, remained in its normal routine in apparent indication that it did not anticipate an Iranian retaliation in the form of an immediate military strike. At the same time, the IDF said in a statement that it was “aware of the possible developments in the region” and would “maintain full preparedness against any expression of violence against us.”

Iran has suffered several devastating attacks this year, including the killing of top general Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike in January, and a mysterious explosion and fire that crippled an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, which is widely believed to have been an act of sabotage.

Iran’s atomic program has continued its experiments and now enriches a growing uranium stockpile up to the level of 4.5 percent purity, following the US’s 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal. That is still far below weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, though experts warn Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium for at least two atomic bombs if it chose to pursue them.

Amid threats from Tehran, IDF chief says army will keep fighting Iran in Syria

November 30, 2020

After killing of Iranian nuke scientist, Kohavi says military is ‘aware of possible developments,’ but operating as usual; praises troops for thwarting attack on Golan border

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, right, speaks with the head of the 210th 'Bashan' Division overlooking the Syrian border on November 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

By JUDAH ARI GROSS29 November 2020, 6:02 pm  0IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, right, speaks with the head of the 210th ‘Bashan’ Division overlooking the Syrian border on November 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Army chief Aviv Kohavi on Sunday said the military planned to continue fighting Iran’s presence in Syria amid heightened tensions in the region following the killing of Iran’s top military nuclear scientist two days prior.

“Our message is clear: We will continue to operate forcefully as needed against the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and we will continue to maintain full preparedness against any expression of violence against us,” Kohavi said during a tour of the Northern Command.

In the aftermath of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s death on Friday in a combined bombing and shooting attack, Iranian military officials and politicians threatened swift revenge against the Jewish state, which it accused of carrying out the operation.

Though Israeli embassies abroad and Jewish communities around the world raised their level of alertness following the killing of Fakhrizadeh, the Israel Defense Forces did not follow suit, an apparent indication that it did not anticipate an Iranian retaliation in the form of an immediate military strike.

During his visit to the Syrian border, Kohavi noted that despite the heightened tensions in the north, the military was in “full routine,” though it was “aware of the possible developments in the region,” the IDF said in a statement.IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, right, sits with head of the IDF Northern Command Maj. Gen. Amir Baram, left, during a visit to northern Israel on November 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

During the visit, the army chief met with IDF Northern Command chief Maj. Gen. Amir Baram and the head of the 210th Bashan Division, Brig. Gen. Roman Gofman, who is responsible for defending the Golan border.

For the most part, the threat from Iranian proxies — namely Hezbollah and other militias in Syria and Lebanon — is primarily against Israel’s northern borders. Tehran, however, also backs the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group and, to a lesser extent, Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Kohavi toured the border with Syria, where earlier this month Israeli troops uncovered three anti-personnel mines that the military said were planted by Syrian operatives operating under the orders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary Quds Force.

In response to the thwarted bombing attack, which the IDF believed was meant to target the soldiers who patrol the border, the military launched a series of airstrikes on Iranian and Syrian targets inside Syria, killing at least four Syrian soldiers who were operating air defense batteries that were targeted by Israeli fighter jets.

Three anti-personnel mines that Israel says were planted inside Israeli-controlled territory along the border with Syria, which were uncovered on November 17, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Kohavi praised the troops who took part in both the uncovering of the mines and in the retaliatory strikes the following day.

“I came here to discuss the security situation with a focus on Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and in order to thank all those who were involved in the precise and successful effort to expose the mines 10 days ago near the border and in the attack that was carried out afterward in Syria against Iranian and Syrian targets,” he said.

Israel views a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria as an unacceptable threat, which it will take military action to prevent.

The IDF has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011 against moves by Iran to establish a permanent military presence in the country and efforts to transport advanced, game-changing weapons to terrorist groups in the region, principally Hezbollah.