The media consensus is that Trump ordered the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani because the U.S. president was angered by the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad last week and because he felt a need to intimidate Iran. CNN and MSNBC are also offering the view that Trump is seeking to pump his popularity in the face of impeachment, or starting a war so he will be reelected.
Israel’s interest in the assassination continues to be my focus. Israel appears to have been a factor in Trump’s decision, beginning with the fact that his largest donor has called for a strike on Iran. As former White House negotiator Aaron David Miller tweeted:
If the Israelis weren’t somehow involved in this, I’d be stunned. Sulrimani’s been on their list for a long time.
The mainstream press keeps sidestepping the Israel angle, surely out of concern for antisemitism. So let’s connect the dots.
Israel is virtually the only country that supported this operation, even the mainstream tells us. On MSNBC yesterday, Kristen Welker stated that American “partners and allies in the region” were against the killing “with the exception of Israel.”
What about the Saudis and Gulf States, often touted as a militant influence over U.S. policy? Opposed. “Even the Gulf States are reacting much more negatively than the Israelis are, because the Gulf states feel like they’re much more likely to absorb the retaliation. It’s been pretty interesting to see them… argue for deescalation. It’s clear they did not think this was a good idea, contrasting to Israel,” says Ilan Goldenberg, formerly of the Obama administration.
The Saudis had been trying to negotiate with Iran in recent months and were “spooked” by the assassination and are urging the Americans to show restraint, Daniel Benaim of the Center for American Progress said on the Brian Lehrer’s WNYC radio show yesterday. Note that the Saudis were not consulted about the assassination ahead of time, though Israel was (contradicting earlier reports).
Goldenberg, who had a long career in the Obama administration, said explicitly yesterday that the strike was “not in the American interest” and was strategically a “major mistake.” Michael Koplow of Israel Policy Forum asked Goldenberg why in Israel “for the most part this [killing] is being universally cheered,” and why his Israeli counterparts are “calling or texting” to say it was “an unqualified good move” and to wonder why it is “not being universally cheered in the United States.”
Goldenberg responded by distinguishing between U.S. and Israeli interests:
If you’re sitting in Israel it’s an unqualified good move from an Israeli interest perspective because it’s nice to have this guy off the board especially because it was done entirely by the U.S…. I think Israel basically gets a huge benefit with most likely — I don’t believe that Iran is going to target Israel in its retaliation.
But we are a global superpower. We’re not just about the Middle East. If our priorities were just the Middle East and we had nothing else to worry about, and we thought that it was a good idea to just keep fighting everything out in the Middle East, then I could see [this]. And for a regional player like Israel– sure, like that’s great, you’re going to make the Middle East better. But dragging us into a potential conflict that is going to cost American lives and a lot American resources when we have much bigger problems to worry about like China and Russia and climate change…
We need to stop fighting these wars in the Middle East and getting us sucked into one conflict after another. Iran is a two-bit player in world affairs… So our obsession with them and all the energy we’re spending on them and if we end up in a war with them– it’s just not in the American interest.
Speaking to the same point, Israeli security analyst Yossi Alpher explained yesterday why Israeli Jews are thrilled by the killing.
With the exception of Israel’s Arab sector, opinion is near unanimous that Israel is well rid of Soleimani. This is where the Israeli and American perceptions of Soleimani’s activities differ.
Israel perceived Soleimani solely as the mastermind of Iran’s drive to project power westward through Iraq and into the Levant (Syria, Lebanon), where the Quds force and its many proxies, along with Iranian missiles and drones, pose a direct security threat to Israel. Neither Trump nor Obama before him did anything about Soleimani’s activities in the Levant. Indeed, Obama concentrated solely on the nuclear deal and acquiesced in an active Iranian role in the Middle East. Trump went a step further, and has been reducing the US military presence in Syria and threatening to reduce it in Iraq, much to Israel’s dismay.
It is in this context, not that of the US Embassy in Baghdad or of nuclear issues, that Israelis view the removal of Soleimani as a positive move.
Notice that Alpher describes threats that Iran poses to Israel as a regional rival. If you can find an American interest there, let me know– however you characterize such interest, as material, reputational, populist, etc. And by the way, note Alpher’s emphasis on the need for American strength in the region, a cornerstone of American neoconservative beliefs (though Alpher is the go-to security expert for a liberal Zionist organization, Americans for Peace Now).
Neoconservatives — U.S. hawks who are utterly aligned with Israel — are exulting over the killing. Former national security adviser John Bolton calls for regime change to follow the assassination:
Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran.
Mark Dubowitz, the ceo of the thinktank that has had a large influence over the White House, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also is pushing regime change:
I’m more confident that I’ve ever been that Trump would use military force to take out the regime in Iran’s nuclear program. I really hope it doesn’t have to come to that.
FDD has been widely quoted in the US media to explain the alleged value of this killing. Eli Clifton of the Quincy Institute has urged journalists to provide context, including the Israel angle:
A couple helpful pieces of context journalists might want to include when quoting FDD experts. 1.) FDD receives one third of its funding from Trump mega donor Bernie Marcus who says “Iran is the devil.” 2.) FDD was founded to “enhance Israel’s image in North America.”
I don’t see many journalists retweeting Clifton’s message, or taking that advice. Though Clifton tweeted an image of a document:
As we noted the other day, Richard Goldberg, an FDD staffer who was on the White House National Security Council and who just returned to FDD– had his salary paid by FDD while he worked for Trump. (Per Bloomberg’s report.) Yousef Munayyer notes the double standard for scandal when it comes to Israel:
I mean can you even imagine the scandal if a Russian linked think tank was paying the salary of an NSC official responsible for Ukraine policy?
The New York Times continues to hold the brief for neoconservatives. Peter Baker of the Times quotes an FDD expert calling the assassination “genius.” An article about Iran declaring that it would not be bound by restrictions on some enrichment from the Iran deal, by David Sanger and William Broad presents American and Israeli interests as utterly conjoint.
Iran’s announcement essentially sounded the death knell of the 2015 nuclear agreement. And it largely re-creates conditions that led Israel and the United States to consider destroying Iran’s facilities a decade ago, again bringing them closer to the potential of open conflict with Tehran that was avoided by the accord…
Now, the United States and Israel must confront the big question: Will they take military or cyberwarfare action to try to cripple those production facilities?
Speaking of coordinated military actions, it should be noted that Israel has been attacking Syria and Iraq in recent months, two countries the U.S. is also attacking. Goldenberg on Syria:
The Israelis have managed to hit 1000 targets inside Syria within the last two years, Iranian targets, without triggering a lot of retaliation. Because they’ve done it quietly, because they’ve done it methodical. They’ve gone out of their way to not kill….to not cause major casualties.
Mustafa Salim of the Washington Post reports the Israeli attacks in Iraq:
“The United States told us that some of the attacks against PMU headquarters in the recent months were conducted by Israel” Iraqi PM said.
The PMU is a state-sponsored militia group.
Finally, let’s return to the Trump donors. Maggie Haberman of the NYT reports on Trump’s days in Florida, leading up to the decision to kill Soleimani. On Sunday Dec. 29, the same day the U.S. had attacked Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq, killing 25, and hours after the stabbings at the rabbi’s house in Monsey
Mr. Trump, from his golf club in West Palm Beach, called one of his oldest acquaintances and major Jewish supporters, the cosmetics billionaire Ronald S. Lauder, to yell that Mr. Lauder should be doing more to “support” him, according to three people briefed on the call.
Mr. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress… listened as Mr. Trump ticked off a litany of administration actions. Mr. Trump said that he had done more for Jews than any other president and that he could still lose the Jewish vote. The president never mentioned campaign contributions, but advisers and others briefed on the call said he left the clear impression that was referring to financial support.
In a statement, Mr. Lauder would say only that he has had “many candid, positive and forward-looking conversations with” Mr. Trump, who “deserves a great deal of support from the Jewish community for his fantastic record on Israel and his proven support of the Jewish people here at home.”
To be continued.
Thanks to Scott Roth, James North and Donald Johnson.