As Iran suffers a host of mysterious mishaps, Israelis are at arms over press leaks of sensitive military information. Are Israeli officials too eager to brag about their battlefield success, or are Americans, in an effort to appease the ayatollahs, trying to sabotage Israel’s military efforts?
At issue is a leak to the New York Times on last week’s attack on an Iranian ship. And even as Israelis debate the consequences of that leak, the headlines were grabbed by a new operation in Iran — at the nuclear facility at Nantaz. Who is whispering to reporters, spilling details that according to Israel’s official policy should remain secret?*
Sunday morning’s damage to the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz, described by Tehran officials as “nuclear terrorism,” was immediately seized-on by the Israeli press. Newspapers described the event in remarkably uniform language, indicating reporters were briefed from on high within the Israeli government.
According to these reports the damage at Natanz was much more extensive than the Iranian officials let on. Several papers — hint-hint, wink, wink — ran sidebars documenting past Israeli operations like the now famous Stuxnet cyber attack on Natanz, widely reported at the time as an America-Israeli joint effort.
If Israeli officials indeed brief their press off the record, as the Sunday coverage indicates, they’re likely using the event as part of psychological war with an Iranian regime. The Islamic Republic is seen by nearly all Israelis as the country’s top threat.
Then again, too, Israeli commentators smell politics, suspecting lieutenants of Prime Minister Netanyahu are taking credit for each mishap in Iran — including events caused by that country’s crumbling infrastructure.
After all, anyone watching “Tehran,” the Israeli fictional television series, can’t help but be impressed with the wiles displayed by Tamar Rabinyan, its main character. She is a fictional Jewish woman raised in Tehran and working for the Mossad. So what’s the downside of portraying yourself as a real-life operator in the shadow Israeli-Iranian wars?
On Friday, though, the left-of-center Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that a leak to the New York Times could have sabotaged a complex Israeli attack on an Iranian vessel in the Red Sea. “A sensitive high-risk operation by an elite Israeli military unit in an enemy country was leaked to foreign media a day before it was carried out,” the newspaper reported.
The Times had earlier reported that “an Iranian military vessel stationed in the Red Sea was damaged by an apparent Israeli mine attack on Tuesday.” It went on to helpfully explain, in the second paragraph, that the attack on the ship, Saviz, “came as progress was reported on the first day of talks to revive American participation in the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers.”
According to the Haaretz account, the leak to the Times was made one day before the naval attack — a complex operation that involved top Israeli commando units — was to take place. (The paper described the attack against the Revolutionary Guards-owned intelligence-gathering ship as an attempt “to curtail the Iranian foothold in Syria and other countries in the region.”)
Once Israeli officials became aware of the leak the operation was postponed, so as to avoid IDF casualties. The leaker, according to the Israeli paper, then asked the Times to hold the story. And the story was indeed published only several hours after the operation took place.
Over the weekend, Hebrew-language social media was filled with speculation as to the identity of the leaker, with the chief of theMossad, Yossi Cohen, as prime suspect. If so, it is a “scandal,” a widely followed Israeli-based reporter, Barak Ravid, opined on Twitter.
Yossi Melman, a veteran intelligence reporter, issued several tweets lashing out at the leaker, whom he didn’t identify. Such an operation, he noted, would be approved by Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. It would be known to only a small number of top security officials, among them the Army Chief of Staff and the heads of three intelligence units, including the Mossad’s Mr. Cohen.
And, he added, the Israeli Attache in Washington would perhaps be in on it too.
In a Hebrew-language radio interview, Ronen Bergman, one of the reporters in the Times’ story timeline, noted the newspaper reported that the American administration was notified only after the attack took place. “We don’t lie to our readers,” he maintain. In the Times story, Israeli officials declined comment. The only sources cited — and they were anonymous — are American officials.
Sure, it’s entirely possible the leaker was Mr. Cohen, who is said to be friendly with the Times’s Mr. Bergman. Some ISraelis suspect his motivation was to help his boss, Mr. Netayahu, who is under much pressure after failing to secure a majority in last month’s election and last week’s start of a trial on corruption charges.
Then again, it’s not hard to imagine the Biden administration playing a role in such leaks. In 2013, Israel complained, publicly and in direct messages to top officials of the Obama administration, about press leaks from the White House regarding IDF air attacks in Syria. Those leaks, Jerusalem said at the time, endangered Israeli pilots. Now the Biden administration is swinging against Israel and toward Iran.
And remember: Back in 2013, American diplomats were then already involved in the secret negotiations that led to the 2015 nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.
So yes, it wouldn’t be out of character for top Israeli officials to brag about military successes. Yet, considering that the Times framed last week’s story as an attempt to undermine the Biden administration’s efforts to revive that 2015 deal, it is also possible the leak came from America’s side of the ocean.