Israel bans six groups for terror links/ Iran talks to resume?
Oct 29, 2021 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
Last Friday, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz announced a ban on six Palestinian NGOs for alleged close links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terror group, including supplying the PFLP with funding. Indeed, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has claimed that these groups are the “main source” of the PFLP’s funds.
AIJAC research associate Dr. Ran Porat has summmarised some of the open-source evidence for the links between these groups and the PFLP, but this Update features some analysis of the wider controversy over the Israeli decision.
In addition, it features a piece on negotiating strategy with Iran now that Teheran is saying it will resume nuclear talks by the end of November after a five-month hiatus (this also follows up on last week’s Update on the Iranian nuclear situation.)
Our first piece is by veteran Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner, who explains what the debate regarding the six NGOs comes down to. He notes that much of the government and media commentary focuses on the need for Palestinian rights groups and NGOs, and this misses the point – no one disputes this. The issue is about these particular groups being a front for terrorist activity. Rosner then discusses the reaction of Israelis, the Europeans, and the US to a claim that these groups are such a front – and the reasons for these reactions. For his valuable analysis, CLICK HERE.
Next up is American columnist Benny Avni who looks at the debate about these Palestinian NGOs in terms of the broader context of Palestinian NGOs in general. He argues that it is questionable whether Palestinian NGOs are NGOs at all, because they largely toe the Palestinian Authority line, and the “NG” in NGO stands for Non-Governmental. He also points out that the PFLP is actually a member in good standing of the PLO, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority. For Avni’s complete argument, CLICK HERE.
Finally, we offer some advice about the nuclear talks with Iran from Ambassador Dennis Ross, the doyen of Washington’s Middle East policy experts after having served in five different administrations. Ross makes a strong case that Iran appears to have lost its fear of the consequences of pushing ahead with its nuclear program, and the key to successful negotiations is restoring that fear. He suggests that only disabusing Iran of the belief that the US will not act militarily, and will also prevent Israel from doing so, will restore that fear, and suggests a number of measures to accomplish this. For all the insights from this renowned diplomatic expert, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Some additional comments on the banning of the six NGOs from Israeli columnist Ruthie Blum and American columnist Jonathan Tobin. Plus, a Jerusalem Posteditorial on the subject.
- More detailed evidence of the close links between the six NGOs and the PFLP from NGO Monitor.
- A blog detailing how the PFLP argues that Palestinian “human rights” includes the right to use terrorism against Israel.
- Israeli defence experts reportedly say that their evaluation is that Iran has no interest in a nuclear deal at present, and is merely stalling for time by agreeing to return to talks.
- Former US official Michael Singh offers a solid “Plan B” for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program if the current talks stall.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Allon Lee and Tzvi Fleischer offer some points everyone should understand about a controversial new booklet, “Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment”, by former Australian Middle East correspondent and current ABC executive editor of news John Lyons.
- AIJAC’s latest webinar with American Iran expert Behnam Ben Taleblu on the topic, “Iran: Is There a Plan B?”. A short video excerpt from the webinar is also available, discussing the “bare minimum” the US, Europeans and their allies should be doing to stop Iran’s current nuclear push, according to Taleblu.
- An upcoming webinar featuring AIJAC’s Jeremy Jones and renowned academic expert Prof. Dina Porat on the subject “Antisemitism 2021: Defined, monitored & tackled”.
Trust and Rights When It Comes to Israel
At the end of last week, six Palestinian organizations were designated by Israel as “terrorist organizations.” The U.S. State Department did not seem pleased with the move, nor did several Israeli leftist ministers and European governments and even some Jewish groups.
Jewish Journal (Los Angeles), October 27, 2021
The decision regarding the six groups was made by centrist Defence Minister Benny Gantz, known for being a non-ideological pragmatist, leading most Israelis to trust the information about the groups’ terrorist links. (Photo: Gil Cohen Magen, Shutterstock)
At the end of last week, six Palestinian organizations were designated by Israel as “terrorist organizations.” The U.S. State Department did not seem pleased with the move, nor did several Israeli leftist ministers and European governments and even some Jewish groups. The organizations are human rights organizations—well, that’s their official title. Israel claims that the title is misleading and that these organizations engage in supporting acts of terrorism. When the U.S. asked for proof Israel said the U.S. already has this information. But since the two governments didn’t seem to be in sync, and the US kept insisting that it was not informed in advance about the coming move, it was decided that an envoy carrying more details will visit the US in the coming days.
What is this debate all about?
Many of Israel’s critics made it sound as if the debate is about human rights. “We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said. But that’s just not true: Israel announced that the groups in question are a front for terrorist activities. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they do not also deal with human rights issues. It does mean that in addition to these important and legitimate actions they engage in illegitimate actions.
Now, there are three separate issues one must deal with. That is, except for an intra-Israeli political component: Defense Minister Benny Gantz irked his coalition partners by taking this decision without consulting them.
The first one is a question of trust. Do you trust the information provided by Israel? Do you trust the information provided by these groups? The Israeli public, in general, is going to trust its security forces. Not all of it, but most of it. Note that the designation of these organizations as terrorist groups did not come from a fringe, or highly controversial minister. Gantz of Blue and White is known for having mainstream views and pragmatic approaches to almost all things.
What about the rest of the world? Well, Europe funds most of these organizations one way or the other, and hardly troubles itself with verification of proper use of the money. Europe is skeptical of all Israeli security assertions and tends to automatically believe that Israel is the bad guy. Sadly, in this case the U.S. also seemed skeptical of Israel’s true motivation.
A still shot from a 2019 video of an official PFLP event that included representatives of at least four of the banned NGOs. The video is taken from the Palestinian Wattan Media Network.
Now, let’s assume that Israel has proof—that it can prove that some of these human rights organizations had meetings in which terrorist attacks were discussed, and efforts were made to recruit people to carry them out. What happens then?
Then we enter the debate of priorities and balance. On one side of this debate there are those who might say something such as “promoting human rights is important enough even if the price is toleration of some terror activities.” That’s the European stance even though they’d never express it in such way (in fact, many Israelis are going to suspect that the actual stance of some Europeans is principled support for Palestinian terrorism against Israel). On the other side of this debate there are those who might say that every hint of suspicion against a human rights organization is reason enough to shut it down. Admittedly, some rightwing Israelis would support such stance because they do not much care about Palestinian human rights.
Reasonable people are going to look for a middle ground in between these two extremes. Obviously, Israel must allow human rights organizations to serve the Palestinians. Obviously, Israel must not allow these organizations to use their access and funds as cover for terror activities. And this raises once more the question of trust: do you trust Israel’s security forces’ ability to both gather the information about these groups and strike the right balance as it ponders what measures should be enacted to deal with their extracurricular activities?
I do not always trust the official statements of Israel’s security forces. I know from experience that occasionally they would overstate their case, or overinterpret their information, as all offices in all countries do. Still, the question in this case is not about my or your belief in Israel’s version; it is about our belief in two versions: Israel’s version versus the version of the six human rights organizations. As every good Bayesian knows (Thomas Bayes introduced “Bayes Theorem” in the 1770s,) the way to assess a probability that a certain factual claim is valid begins with a credence:
In your judgment, and based on your prior experience, what are the odds that Israel isn’t telling the truth?
In your judgment, and based on your prior experience, what are the odds that the six organizations aren’t telling the truth?
I think the answer is quite obvious and clear. Does this mean that Israel should be believed without doubt? No, it shouldn’t. Does this mean that Israel should have the benefit of the doubt? It certainly does. Hence, the perplexed response of the government and the public amid the U.S.’s distrust and disbelief. Hence the answer to the question of why Israelis prefer the Trump administration (who instinctively believed Israel) over the Biden administration (who instinctively doubts Israel).
Where Did the ‘N’ in ‘NGO’ Go?
‘Nongovernmental organizations’ in the Palestinian territories toe the authorities’ line.
By Benny Avni
Wall Street Journal, Oct. 28, 2021
A PFLP flag flies over a demonstration in Italy. (Photo: Tinxi, Shutterstock)
What does the N in NGO stand for? Also known as “civil society,” nongovernmental organizations help keep rulers in check—especially in places where unelected governments fail to attend to citizens’ needs. The world’s most admirable NGOs are a thorn in the side of authoritarians.
Which brings us to the brouhaha about Israel’s designation of six Arab organizations operating in areas under the Palestinian Authority’s jurisdiction as terrorist groups.
“We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important for responsible and responsive governance,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, after Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced his government’s decision last week.
Mr. Price has been at odds with Jerusalem since, claiming in several press briefings that the designation caught Washington by surprise. “I certainly updated the U.S. about our intentions,” said Joshua Zarka, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general. He told Army Radio that ahead of the move he spoke about it with the State Department’s acting coordinator at the Bureau of Counterterrorism, John T. Godfrey.
Someone isn’t telling the truth, but hopefully the dispute will be resolved. A more difficult genie to return to the bottle is a near-universal negative global reaction, which the State Department joined almost gleefully.
European Union members, United Nations officials and organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International mounted their high horses in defense of the six organizations. So did left-wing Israeli politicians.
The Palestinian Authority also issued several strong rebukes. “This false and libelous slander is part of a systematic campaign against Palestinian civil society for daring to expose the occupation’s crimes,” wrote Riyad Mansour, the Palestinians’ permanent observer to the U.N., in a letter to members of the Security Council. The U.N. (but not the U.S.) considers Palestine a state and the Palestinian Authority its government.
Which brings us back to the original question: If the agenda of the six groups in question is all but identical to that of a body they consider their government, are they really “nongovernmental”?
From detailing real and imagined evils of the occupation to supplying the International Criminal Court with materials for prosecuting Israeli officials, there’s almost no daylight between Palestinian NGOs and the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also heads the PLO – of which the PFLP is a member in good standing (Photo: World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell, Licence details)
The Israelis say the six groups are a front for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, recognized as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada, the EU, Australia, Japan and Israel. But the PFLP is also a member in good standing of the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, is also president of the Palestinian Authority. The PFLP committed the headline-grabbing 2001 assassination of Israeli politician Rehavam Zeevi and in 2019 planted a bomb that killed 17-year-old Rina Shneb.
Details on overlapping membership, headquarters-sharing, and joint fundraising between the PFLP and the six organizations have been published sporadically in the Israeli press for years. Israel has dispatched a delegation of intelligence and Foreign Ministry briefers to Washington to convince American counterparts that the organizations’ fundraising finances PFLP terrorism.
Several Israeli organizations vehemently oppose the Israeli government’s policies. So do—surprise—most Palestinian counterparts. But a healthy civil society needs watchdog groups to expose malfeasance in its own government, not in the one it considers an enemy. Mr. Abbas’s authority more often prosecutes such Palestinian opponents than tolerates them.
Must America, then, so cavalierly join a false designation of six highly suspect groups as “nongovernmental” organizations?
Mr. Avni is a New York-based foreign-policy columnist.
The Threat of War Is the Only Way to Achieve Peace With Iran
Tehran no longer takes Washington seriously. To revive the nuclear deal, the threat of military escalation needs to be on the table.
By Dennis Ross
Foreign Policy, OCTOBER 27, 2021
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi: Iran’s leaders no longer fear the consequences of pushing ahead with their nuclear ambitions. (Photo Credit: Khamenei.ir).
The Biden administration’s approach to Iran has been predicated on putting the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program back in a box by restoring the 2015 nuclear deal and the limits it imposes on the Iranian nuclear infrastructure until 2030.
Once achieved, the administration believes, it will have time to negotiate a “longer and stronger” deal—one that would extend the sunset provisions that end the limitations on the size and quality of the program and one that would address the issues of Iran’s ballistic missiles and aggressive behavior in the region. Like a military plan that seems to work until it encounters the enemy, the plan required the Iranians to go along—and they have shown they will not be a partner to the White House’s plans.
Instead, they have made their nuclear program far more threatening and in the process have raised questions about whether there is a diplomatic answer to it. Not only have the Iranians denied the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to monitoring data of their enrichment activities, but they have been taking steps that have no justifiable civilian purpose: the enrichment of uranium to the 60 percent level and the production of uranium metal.
They declared these actions were a response to acts of sabotage, reportedly Israeli, against their facilities and plants at Natanz and Karaj, which operate and produce centrifuges that enrich uranium. But that was merely a pretext to take actions that have no relationship whatsoever to the peaceful use of nuclear power.
Although they reject the Iranian justification of actions that move Iran toward a nuclear weapon, Biden administration officials told the Israelis, as I learned recently in Israel, that there was “good pressure on Iran and bad pressure”—citing the example of sabotage at Natanz and Karaj as bad pressure because the Iranians seized on it to enrich to near weapons-grade and produce uranium metal whose primary purpose is to create the core of a nuclear bomb.
Like a military plan that seems to work until it encounters the enemy, Biden’s plan required the Iranians to go along—and they haven’t.
While it’s certainly true that Iran used these actions to cross dangerous thresholds, this argument misses an essential point. The Iranians understood the significance of these actions and weren’t afraid; they clearly expected little or no reaction, diplomatic or otherwise, from the United States or the other members of the P5+1, including China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom. And they were right—there was no consequence.
Veteran Mideast mediator Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has become one of Washington’s most respected policy experts on the region (Photo: Flickr | Licence details)
The loss of Iranian fear about what they can get away with on their nuclear ambitions is dangerous. It may produce a miscalculation on Iran’s part about whether the United States might ever respond militarily and for sure makes a diplomatic outcome less likely.
Are the Iranians pressing ahead now with near weapons-grade enrichment, uranium metal, and cascades of advanced centrifuges to pressure Washington into improving the terms of the nuclear deal, where they get more sanctions relief than they are entitled in exchange for fewer constraints on their nuclear infrastructure? Or are they doing so because they want to achieve a Japan-like threshold capability that would enable them to move very quickly to a nuclear weapon if they chose to do so? Or both, since these are not mutually exclusive options?
Regardless, unless the Iranians understand that the pathway they are on is dangerous for them, the probability of the use of force will go up. Certainly, the Israelis, believing the Iranian nuclear threat is existential, are more inclined to move beyond sabotage and militarily attack Iran’s whole nuclear infrastructure, particularly at a time when they see Iran approaching the tipping point for reaching a Japan-like threshold weapons capability—a capability that would give Iran the ability to present the world with a nuclear fait accompli at a time of its choosing.
If the United States wants to reduce the risk of a conflict and give diplomacy a chance to succeed, the Biden administration is going to have to restore Iran’s fear of a U.S. reaction and apply pressure far more effectively. (That, of course, would also affect the Israelis and reduce their perceived need to act independently.)
So how can the Biden administration alter the Iranian calculus, especially at a time when the Iranians have finally announced they will return to talks in Vienna? It will need to integrate and orchestrate a number of political, diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military moves. Politically and diplomatically, it needs to focus on isolating the Iranians. In withdrawing from the nuclear deal without a plan to replace it, the Trump administration mistakenly isolated the United States, not Iran.
Iranian leaders don’t see themselves as being like North Korea—isolation matters. But to isolate Iran politically requires American seriousness about diplomacy and working with others, even as it makes clear the consequences if diplomacy fails to prevent the Iranians from becoming a threshold nuclear weapons state. Threats and declaratory policy are part of this mix. For example, China, the world’s biggest importer of oil, needs a stable Middle East, not one disrupted by war, and an Iran on its current nuclear pathway toward a threshold weapons status risks precisely that.
(In 2009, during my time in the Obama administration, I was sent to Beijing, where I made the argument that neither country wanted to see a major conflict in the Middle East yet Iran’s nuclear program, if not contained, would produce that. To avoid that, China needed to be part of the effort to isolate Iran politically and economically—and it subsequently was.)
To be sure, neither the Russians nor the Europeans want to see Iran acquire or develop nuclear weapons and also understand the risks of a wider conflict in the Middle East if Tehran continues on its current path. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in particular, understands that if Israel feels compelled to strike Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite militias in Syria will hit Israel with tens of thousands of rockets and drones. Given the Russian presence in Syria, the last thing Putin wants is to be caught in the middle of such a conflict.
What binds the P5+1 together is both the desire to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons and the belief in using diplomacy to achieve that goal. In this sense, it is important to show Washington’s commitment to diplomacy but also what will threaten its continued use and Iran in the process. Striking that balance requires a declaratory policy that signals to Iran the danger it faces without alienating others. It is not enough to speak of considering other options, a line that has become routinized. Rather, the Biden administration, while emphasizing its commitment to diplomacy, should say that if Iran makes a diplomatic outcome impossible, it risks its entire nuclear infrastructure.
Before altering the U.S. declaratory posture, the Biden administration needs to share its plans with the other members of the P5+1. In addition, President Joe Biden should couple a tougher declaratory policy with humanitarian overtures to Iran, inviting Europeans and others to join the United States in offering COVID-19 vaccines and help in addressing Iran’s acute water problems—which are set to become worse because of climate change and mismanagement. Should Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, say no, as is likely, he will contribute to the country’s isolation on the outside and greater frustration on the inside.
Biden needs to disabuse Iran of the notion that Washington will not act militarily and will stop Israel from doing so.
Economically, the United States should not be lifting sanctions, but Biden could offer again to grant waivers for purchases of Iranian oil to select countries or access to some of Iran’s frozen assets in return for stopping enrichment above 3.67 percent (and shipping out of the country the amount stockpiled above that level), halting production of uranium metal, and ending the obstruction of IAEA monitoring.
Militarily, the United States should be using U.S. Central Command to run joint exercises with Israel and Arab states, including integrating defenses against ballistic and cruise missile attacks, using electronic means and cyberweapons to shut down missile launches, and simulating retaliation to small boat attacks. I know from experience that Iran pays close attention to U.S. exercises. (Unilaterally, the U.S. Air Force should also demonstrate its military reach on a regular, not symbolic, basis by having routine B-52H flights to the region.)
Beyond this, Biden needs to disabuse Iran of the notion that Washington will not act militarily and will stop Israel from doing so. Providing the Israelis with the mountain-busting Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound bomb that penetrates deep underground before the fuse ignites, is one option. Israel would need to be leased B-2 bombers to be able to use it, but the message that Washington is ready to provide it to the Israelis would be unmistakable to the Iranians: The United States is giving the Israelis the means to attack the Fordow enrichment site, built within a mountain, and is ready to support their use of it if that’s the only way to blunt the Iranian nuclear program.
If Washington wants to make the use of force against the Iranian nuclear program less likely, it is essential to restore deterrence. For that, Iran’s leaders must believe either the United States or Israel will act militarily to destroy their massive investment in the nuclear program if they stay on the current path and reject a negotiated outcome. Not for the first time, the credible threat of force is necessary to obviate its use.
Dennis Ross is a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and teaches at Georgetown University. He served in senior national security positions in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations, including as Clinton’s Middle East envoy. Twitter: @AmbDennisRoss