Drama, euphoria and apprehension: A memorable month of May

The first fortnight in May was dominated by four major events, each one of them almost inconceivable a few years ago.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
THE FIRST two weeks of May witnessed an unprecedented series of dramatic diplomatic and security events, one after another in quick succession, leaving the Israeli public in an almost euphoric state, but with apprehension over what may be coming next.
By mid-May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was riding high in the polls, taking credit for the remarkable developments and cementing his image, at least for now, as Israel’s undisputed leader with no challenger in sight, as well as being a major player on the world stage.
The first fortnight in May was dominated by four major events, each one of them almost inconceivable a few years ago. The drama began on April 30, when the Prime Minister’s Office declared that Netanyahu would be making an important announcement concerning Iran to coincide with Israel’s prime time evening news broadcasts.
Prior to the event, which followed another strike against Iranian facilities in Syria attributed to Israel and an emergency meeting of the security cabinet, there was speculation on social media that the prime minister was about to declare war on Iran.
But there was no declaration of war. Instead, Netanyahu, during a theatrical presentation against a backdrop of shelves of files and a CD display case, revealed that the Mossad intelligence agency had raided a warehouse in a Tehran suburb to steal the entire top-secret Iranian nuclear archive and bring it back to Israel.
Mossad agents infiltrated the warehouse in January in an overnight operation, removing the half ton of material, and smuggled the files to Israel the same night in one of the most remarkable operations ever carried out by the renowned spy agency.
Netanyahu presented information from the 55,000 pages of documents and 183 CDs, which he claimed proved that Iran had lied for years to conceal its plans to build a nuclear bomb.
The archive was old, containing only material before Iran and the international powers signed the landmark 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal. Critically, there was no smoking gun to provide evidence that Tehran had violated the nuclear deal, but the revelations nonetheless provided ammunition for President Donald Trump less than two weeks before he was due to make his decision on whether or not to pull the US out of the JCPOA.
Trump, who spoke publicly 30 minutes after Netanyahu's speech, said the presentation “showed that I was 100 percent right” in criticizing the nuclear deal.
He pulled America out of the Iran nuclear deal on May 9, reimposing sanctions on the Tehran regime.
“It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of this deal,” Trump said. “The Iran deal is defective to its core.
If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen. In just a short period of time, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapon.”
For Netanyahu, the decision marked one of his greatest diplomatic achievements.
The seduction of Trump was complete and the message the president delivered was almost identical to the warnings on Iran the prime minister has been telling world leaders for over a decade.
While European leaders were trying to persuade the US president to stick with the agreement, Netanyahu repeated the mantra “fix it or nix it.” Netanyahu won and he was quick to welcome Trump’s decision, saying he “fully supports” the president’s “bold” withdrawal from a “disastrous” deal.
“All those who at the time attacked the prime minister for his determination to fight against the agreement, and argued there was no chance the agreement would be rescinded, have to eat their hats today and apologize to Netanyahu,” senior Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin said.
The next dramatic event came the following day.
In the early hours of Thursday, May 10, units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards fired 20 rockets at Israeli military positions on the Golan Heights. Four of the projectiles were successfully intercepted and the rest fell short, landing inside Syria, but the failed attack prompted an unprecedented Israeli retaliation.
Operation House of Cards was the largest Israeli operation in Syria since 1974. The 90-minute air strike hit 50 targets, including Iranian intelligence sites, military camps, and logistical targets and arms depots.
“Nearly all the Iranian infrastructure in Syria was hit,” said Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. Several dozen anti-aircraft missiles were fired from Syria, and as a result, the Israel Air Force also destroyed five Syrian anti-aircraft batteries.
Netanyahu said Israel would not allow Iran to establish a forward base in Syria.
“Iran crossed a red line, and we responded accordingly.” Military officials said it would take many months for Iran to recover from the devastating setback.
Despite the tension in the north, the prime minister still had time to squeeze in a trip to Moscow, where he was the only Western leader at the annual May 9 Victory Day military parade on the Red Square, as a personal guest of President Vladimir Putin.
The fourth dramatic event took place on May 14, with the dedication ceremony marking the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, reversing seven decades of American policy, and marking the formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by its most powerful ally.
The move is largely symbolic. Although US Ambassador David Friedman will now work out of the new embassy – based in what was the US consulate at the edge of the capital’s southern Arnona neighborhood – only a few dozen staff at this juncture are actually relocating from the Tel Aviv embassy.
But the move is still replete with historical significance and has prompted anger throughout the Arab world, led by the Palestinians who called for a Day of Rage to coincide with the event.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat urged foreign diplomats to boycott the embassy’s dedication ceremony, attended by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, along with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and US special envoy Jason Greenblatt.
The US State Department tried to allay Palestinian concerns by stressing that the embassy move does not predetermine the final status of Jerusalem’s “contested” borders.
The events in the first half of May led to a surge in popularity for both Netanyahu and his ruling Likud party. A poll commissioned by the Ma’ariv newspaper showed that if elections were held today, the Likud would receive 36 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, up from the 30 seats it currently has. Its nearest rival, the centrist Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, was way behind with a projected 17 seats. The overwhelming majority of the public, 69 percent, is pleased with the way the prime minister has been conducting policy regarding the Iranian presence in Syria, and 65 percent is pleased with the way Netanyahu has been conducting Israeli policy regarding the Iranian nuclear project.
Despite the public approval, apprehension remains over how Iran may react to the crushing military blow it received in Syria and the US pulling out of the nuclear deal.
Iran said it was preparing to restart uranium enrichment, if the nuclear deal collapses.
Tension also remains high on the Gaza border, where Israeli troops have killed more than 40 Palestinians and wounded thousands during the weekly March of Return protests orchestrated by Hamas, which began on March 30.
On the diplomatic front, Israeli officials are bracing for the unveiling of the US peace plan, dubbed the “deal of the century” by Trump, which is likely to require major concessions from Israel.