News Digest — 12/18/20

Israeli-American Delegation To Visit Morocco Next Week

An Israeli-American delegation is set to take off for Morocco next Tuesday (22nd) on the first-ever direct Israeli airline flight between Tel Aviv and Rabat.

Last week President Donald Trump announced that the US would recognize Morocco’s claim over the disputed territory of western Sahara.

Morocco has since agreed to normalize relations with the Jewish State, and the Israeli-American delegation will travel to the country to discuss the next steps.

Senior American officials, including White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, will arrive in Tel Aviv next Monday (21st).

White House envoy Avi Berkowitz and International Development Finance Corporation CEO Adam Boehler are also expected to join Kushner in Israel.

Kushner and others from the American delegation will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to discuss the agenda for the trip.

While Morocco and Israel previously had no formal diplomatic relations, the countries have a long history of intelligence sharing and cultural exchange.

Some one million Israelis have family roots in Morocco, and while there are no direct flights between the two nations, hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists have visited Morocco.

Tourists are allowed to enter Morocco using an Israeli passport.

Morocco is the fourth Arab country since August 2020 that has announced a Trump-brokered normalization agreement with Israel, after the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.  

On Tuesday (15th), Israel Hayom reported that a senior government official from a large Muslim-majority Asian country recently visited Israel, despite the two countries having no diplomatic relations.

In an Army Radio interview this week, Israel Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen suggested the country may be Indonesia.



Gulf Normalization Isn’t Just About Fearing Iran, It’s About Embracing Israel – Haviv Rettig Gur

→ There is no shortage of benefits that have accrued to the countries that normalized relations with Israel.  But these benefits don’t explain the Emirati government’s order that hotels offer kosher food, or the eagerness of the UAE and Bahrain for direct flights to Tel Aviv, or the decision by one sheikh to buy into Jerusalem’s Beitar soccer club.  They don’t explain Morocco’s move to introduce a curriculum about the history and culture of the country’s Jews into state schools.

→ One explanation for the new warmth involves self-reliance.  The Emiratis are convinced that the lack of an American response to the Iranian missile assault on the Aramco facility in Saudi Arabia earlier this year means that America will not come to their rescue in case of war.

→ They cannot help noticing, too, that Israel is not protected by American troops.  Even when Israel buys expensive military technologies from abroad, it’s not because it is unable to produce its own.

→ There is a strategic shift underway in the broader Arab thinking about Israel.  Some in the Arab world now seek to study Israel’s strengths, and win for themselves the safety and security Israel has managed to eke out in a chaotic, conflict-prone region.  For that, they need Israel’s entrepreneurs and scientists.

→ There are two ways to hold at bay an enormous and aggressive Iran perched on one’s doorstep.  One can rely on stronger friends, or one can become one of those stronger friends.    



Satellite Images Show Iran Expanding Nuclear Facilities At Fordo

Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the US over its nuclear program, satellite photos show.

Iran has not publicly acknowledged any new construction at Fordo, whose discovery by the West in 2009 was known before world powers struck the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

While the purpose of the building remains unclear, any work at Fordo likely will trigger new concerns in the waning days of the Trump administration.  Already, Iran is building at its Natanz nuclear facility after a mysterious explosion there in July, that Tehran described as a sabotage attack.

“Any changes at Fordo will be carefully watched as a sign of where Iran’s nuclear program is headed,” said Jeffrey Lewis, and expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, who studies Iran.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors are in Iran as part of the nuclear deal, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The IAEA as of yet has not publicly disclosed if Iran informed it of any construction at Fordo.  

Satellite images from Maxer Technologies show the construction taking place at a northwest corner of the site, near the holy Shiite city of Qom, 55 miles southwest of Tehran.

The construction site sits northwest of Fordo’s underground facility, built deep inside a mountain to protect it from potential airstrikes.  The site is near other support and research-and-development buildings.

Shielded by the mountains, the facility also is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications.  It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead US officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site in 2009.

Among those buildings is Iran’s National Vacuum Technology Center.  Vacuum technology is a crucial component of Iran’s uranium-gas centrifuges, which enrich uranium.

Experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium stockpiled for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chose to pursue them.

Meanwhile, an Iranian scientist who created Iran’s military nuclear program 20 years ago was recently killed in a shooting outside of Tehran.  Iran blamed Israel, which has long been suspected of killing Iranian nuclear scientists over the last decade.  Israel has never commented on the attacks.



Iran Races To Update Its Arsenal As Arms Embargo Is Lifted

With an international arms embargo lifted, Iran plans on buying advanced military systems, including armed drones, air-defense systems, fighter jets and tanks, Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami told local media on Wednesday (16th).

The Islamic Republic has previously shown interest in Russia’s Su-30 and Yak-130 jets, T-90 tanks and the S-400 air-defense system.  It has also expressed interest in several Chinese defense systems and the J-10 and J-20 fighter jet, but was prevented from purchasing such items under the 2015 nuclear deal.

Hatami noted that Iran entered negotiations “with several countries” even before the arms embargo was lifted earlier this year, adding that the talks were now in their “advanced stages.”

Tehran is also in talks to sell several domestically produced weapons systems, including anti-tank missile systems, he said.

Earlier on Wednesday (16th), Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that his country had yet to “fully retaliate” over the January 3 killing of Quds Force Commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Iraq.



Israel, India Pursue Joint Water Irrigation Ventures

The Water Resources Ministry on Wednesday (16th) called on Israeli tech companies to design irrigation solutions for India’s agricultural sector.  The project will benefit dozens of communities in northern India that suffer from an irregular water supply.

The bid, which is part of the strategic cooperation between Israel and India, will also see an Israeli company oversee the project in the Bundelkhand region of the northern India state of Uttar Pradesh.

Home to about 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh is the most populated state in India as well as the most populated country subdivision in the world.

Some 70% of the population there works in agriculture but the area suffers from an increasing water shortage and near non-existent water-delivery infrastructure.

According to the agreement between Jerusalem and New Delhi, an Israeli company will find suitable planning solutions for the area, which will include locating water sources, storage, and cost-effective irrigation, in order to enable these villages to exhaust their farming potential.

The Israeli companies that will qualify for the project under the ministry’s criteria will then present their suggestions to Indian officials, who will have the final say on which company will carry out the project.

The agro-irrigation project is slated to be one of the flagship ventures pursued by Israel and India.  Once completed, its model will be duplicated to other areas in the subcontinent.

“One of the ministry’s main objectives is to promote Israeli water technologies worldwide,” Water Resources Minister Ze’ev Elkin told Israel Hayom.

“We see our growing cooperation with India as a reflection of the deep friendship between our two countries and as an opportunity for Israeli companies and the Israeli economy.”



Menorah At Dartmouth Shot With Pellets In Latest Hanukkah Attack

A public menorah at Dartmouth College was shot with a pellet gun in the latest anti-Semitic incident during the holiday of Hanukkah.

Rabbi Moshe Gray, who runs the campus Chabad center with his wife Chani, said he discovered the vandalism on Wednesday evening (16th) as he prepared to turn on the menorah’s electric lights for the holiday’s seventh night.  Holes from a pellet gun had broken seven of the menorah’s nine lights.

He said he knew it was a targeted attack on the menorah, which stands in a central location on campus, because a nearby Christmas tree was left unharmed.

“Nothing like this has ever happened,” in the couple’s 17 years on campus, he told the Jewish Telegraph Agency Thursday (17th).  “Dartmouth is pretty quiet when it comes to things like this.  It was pretty shocking to come to the realization that somebody, on purpose, shot the menorah.”

There are about 400 Jews amid a total Dartmouth population student body of 4,000, according to the school’s Hillel.

In a letter to the school community, Dartmouth President Philip J. Hanlon called the vandalism “an affront to all.”

“To the Jewish members of our community, at Dartmouth and beyond, we stand with you in anger and sadness at this despicable act, which is much more than vandalism or a prank, for it seeks to dismiss the rich culture and history of the Jewish people,” he wrote.