Jenin, Pelosi, sanctions and al-Qaeda: Four stories, one denominator - analysis

The denominator in each of these cases is that decisions to act were made even though non-action would have preserved the quiet.

 US President Joe Biden addresses the nation on the killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a U.S. drone strike, in Washington, US August 1, 2022. (photo credit: JIM WATSON/POOL VIA REUTERS)
US President Joe Biden addresses the nation on the killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a U.S. drone strike, in Washington, US August 1, 2022.
(photo credit: JIM WATSON/POOL VIA REUTERS)

Four unrelated stories dominated the news over the past 48 hours, yet a common theme ran through them all: taking strong action despite considerable risks and the inevitability of critics asking why to stir up a hornet’s nest.

The first story, and the one that hits closest to home, was the IDF action in Jenin overnight Tuesday that lead to the arrest of dozens of members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organization, including the head of its operations in Samaria, Bassam al-Saadi, and the death of a Palestinian youth.

Many Israelis undoubtedly awoke to the news of the IDF action in the Jenin refugee camp, and the accompanying decision to close roads near Gaza, cancel in-person classes at Sapir College nearby and halt train service from Ashkelon to Netivot in anticipation of revenge rocket fire from Gaza, and asked themselves, who needs it? Why, some surely thought, cause problems now – after a relatively calm period – with the arrest of the 61-year-old leader of PIJ? Why invite attacks? Why not just leave well enough alone?

Why not? Because the relative respite Israeli is enjoying from Palestinian terrorism is deceiving.

The nation’s memory, because of the dizzying pace of events, is extremely short. It is worth remembering that in April and May, Israel suffered a “mini” wave of terrorism during which 19 people were killed in seven brutal attacks. This wave of terrorism remained “mini” because it was contained. It was not that the terrorists did not want to carry out more attacks, pick up more “momentum” and produce fear and trembling throughout the land; it was just that the IDF took determined and forceful action to prevent just that.

Night after night, in operations reminiscent of the days of the Second Intifada, troops went into the Palestinian cities and arrested suspected terrorists.

This did two things.

It put the terrorists on the defensive, having to worry as much about where they would sleep that night as trying to plan future attacks.

The arrests also helped create a tremendous intelligence picture. Israeli security officials have long said it is better to apprehend terrorists than to kill them, because if you kill them, they are gone, but if you apprehend them, you can extract information that – taken together with information extracted from other arrested suspects – provides an unparalleled intelligence picture.

Tuesday morning’s action needs to be seen within the framework of that activity. By arresting Saadi in the middle of the Jenin refugee camp, Israel signaled to terrorist organizations that there has been no let-up, they still need to be on never-ending alert, and the IDF will hunt them down.

Are there risks? Certainly. But the benefits outweigh them. It is not a given that things are relatively quiet. Actions such as those on Tuesday ensure they remain so.

Second story

THE SECOND story – somewhat similar – was the US announcement of the killing Saturday by drone strike of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul.

There, too, the risks involved in the killing were not insubstantial for US President Joe Biden. Beyond the ever-present risk that al-Qaeda will take revenge by attacking American targets, there is a political risk for Biden in this as well.

 A militant attends the funeral of a Palestinian Islamic Jihad gunman, who was killed by IDF in Jenin in the West Bank March 1, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/RANEEN SAWAFTA) A militant attends the funeral of a Palestinian Islamic Jihad gunman, who was killed by IDF in Jenin in the West Bank March 1, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/RANEEN SAWAFTA)

The killing of Zawahiri shows that the understandings reached with the Taliban – the Doha Agreement that paved the way for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan – have been honored in the breach. Under this agreement, the Taliban was to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for al-Qaeda.

While Americans will for the most part applaud the killing of the al-Qaeda leader, Zawahiri’s presence in the middle of Kabul will once again raise questions about the Doha Agreement and how the US withdrew haphazardly from the country last August.

Biden and his advisers certainly weighed this consideration, but decided that killing Zawahiri was more pressing than the political risks of highlighting for the American public the shortcomings of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The third story

The third story with a variation on this theme is US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, despite China’s warnings of dire consequences – including military ones – as a result of the visit.

Many commentators are asking why Pelosi needed to go to Taiwan at this time of peak international tension over the Russian-Ukrainian war and already high tension in US-Sino ties.

According to this school of thought, nothing will be gained by this trip at this time, Taiwan’s independence will in no way be strengthened, and it will unnecessarily provoke the Chinese at a time when the last thing the US needs – as it is already in open confrontation with one world power (Russia) – is to open up second front against another.

Yet Pelosi, a long-time critic of China and its human rights record, was intent on visiting anyway. Why? To show solidarity with Taiwan, which is increasingly feeling under threat by Chinese President XI Jinping, who has made China’s “unification” one of the top priorities of his tenure, and to show that the US Congress will not be intimidated by authoritarian leaders.

The risks involved in this visit are tremendous. Yet Pelosi believes that the risks would be greater – in terms of showing that the US will bow to Chinese pressure, in terms of showing weakness on the Taiwan issue – if she had canceled. This is another example of an action that, if avoided, would have ensured that the current quiet would continue. But for how long?

The fourth story

And the final story in which this common thread was woven was the US decision to sanction Chinese and UAE firms for allegedly selling US-sanctioned Iranian petrochemical products.

These sanctions on six companies, four in Hong Kong, one in Singapore, and another in the United Arab Emirates, will further antagonize an already deeply antagonized China, and may also irritate the UAE at a time when the US is hoping to get the Emirates to increase oil production in order to lower gas prices in America.

Some may ask why go after a UAE firm at this time when the US needs UAE cooperation to bring down gas prices? The answer is the belief that this is necessary – despite the risks – to place more pressure on Tehran to curb its nuclear program. It might have been easier to leave the UAE off this list, but adding it sends a signal of America’s intent in keeping Iran from going nuclear.

The common denominator in each of these cases is that decisions to take action were made even though non-action would have preserved the quiet. The lesson: While quiet is a blessing, short-term quiet need not always be the ultimate goal.