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Will Oil Spill Conspiracy Theories Assist Netanyahu Victory?

In the past two weeks, sticky tar has blackened Israel's beaches. An unidentified ship reportedly dumped up to 1,100 tons of crude oil offshore. Israeli authorities have closed beaches and temporarily banned seafood sales in the affected areas, while shocking images of oil-covered turtles surfaced.

The spill affected more than 90 percent of the country's coastline. Environmental authorities declare an ecological disaster that will take years to resolve. Just as the Exxon-Valdez scandal demonstrated Exxon's lack of planning and ability to deal with an oil spill despite being one of the largest corporations in the world, so the current tragedy has exposed Israel's pathetic inability to deal with an environmental crisis, although it is usually considered among the world's leading nations in disaster relief.

Amid criticism of the government's lackluster cleanup by the Israeli public and media, Israeli Environment Minister Gila Gamliel has tried to deflect the blame. It issued a series of tweets on March 3 alleging that a "Libyan pirate ship," allegedly the oil tanker Emerald, had recently left Iran for Syria in an "act of environmental terrorism" against Israel.

Gamliel stated that those responsible "have to pay the price" and that the "operator of the ship has black blood on his hands". In Gamliel's hyperbolic narrative, the Emerald is a terrorist pirate ship that carries out the orders of the Iranian-Libyan axis of evil while violating United Nations sanctions by supplying the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad with crude oil and then cleaning up the mud pours the Zionist enemy.

While evidence against the emerald is only circumstantial, it hasn't stopped both Israeli and English-language mainstream media from pondering this poorly documented claim. In the background, Israeli defense sources have tacitly informed the media of Gamliel's conspiratorial thinking, stressing that the evidence points to an accident rather than a terrorist attack. They are undoubtedly aware that their heated rhetoric could undermine one of Israel's most important foreign policy achievements – its newly consolidated alliance with the United Arab Emirates, a country that has great interests in Libya.

It is common knowledge that we live in a time when fake news can circle the globe before the truth emerges. Gamliel had a number of possible motivations for sparking her Twitter frenzy – most notably, to distract the public from her ministry's failed cleanup three weeks before a national election. But their social media barrage – perhaps unintentionally – had a different effect.

As analysts with decades of experience in North Africa, we know that when Libya is tangentially involved, the reality is likely bizarre – even without the need to introduce conspiracy theories.

Formerly registered as Ebn Batuta, the Emerald is an aging Aframax oil tanker that until recently was owned by the Libyan state holding company, General National Maritime Transport Company (GNMTC). GNMTC sold the ship in December 2020 to a new owner, who operates in the Marshall Islands under the name Emerald Marine Ltd. was registered. Last week the journalist and intelligence community was hit by a series of rumors that the tanker was now in private Libyan hands and likely owned by someone affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA).

This alleged identification of the ship as affiliated with the LNA placed it at the center of Libyan and international political rivalries. The LNA is commanded by Khalifa Haftar, who is the main power broker in the eastern half of Libya. It is supported by Russia, Egypt, and especially the United Arab Emirates, and is likely to receive covert aid from Israel. Haftar is against rival authorities in western Libya, recognized by the United States as legitimate and with military support from Turkey.

Specifically, those rumors said that the emerald was in the possession of a person affiliated with the LNA-sponsored Military Investment Agency and Public Works Committee who are known to have been involved in illegal smuggling – especially scrap metal – for profit. The rumors suggested that the owner tried to use the emerald to illegally export urea and diesel from Libya but failed. According to this rumor, the Libyan shipowner, fearing that he would lose money by buying the emerald, chartered the tanker to Lebanese and Greek partners.

It is possibly credible that an East Libyan shipowner who has not received pirated copies of crude oil for smuggling from Libya itself would want to use a ship to transport Iranian crude oil to Syria via the Suez Canal. The latter is equally illegal – but far easier to do as the crude oil can be bought openly, does not have to be secretly loaded and the journey is easier due to inferior international enforcement procedures when leaving Iranian waters compared to strict legal controls, imposing the export of Libyan crude oil and in-depth scrutiny of all ships laden with crude oil leaving Libyan territorial waters.

Conducting the Iran-Syria smuggling trip would be the perfect test run for the ship to eventually return to eastern Libya and then try to earn a few hundred million dollars smuggling pirates from eastern Libya to the Assad regime – which has been one for a long time LNA is UAE and Russian destination. During its actual voyage, the fact that the emerald turned off its transponder off the Syrian coast almost certainly suggests that it dumped crude oil illegally. This adventure could have been used to build the skills required for the more complex journey from eastern Libya.

None of this suggests that the emerald's job was to purposely pollute Israeli waters and beaches. In fact, such an act would run counter to Iranian, Syrian and LNA interests as they would all prefer illegal crude oil supplies to continue secretly entering Syria, which would be jeopardized by massive publicity generated by a deliberate act of environmental destruction.

From this point of view, it seems more likely that the tanker, like so much of Libya's fleet and ex-fleet, is aging in poor condition and having a poorly trained crew. That's why GNMTC sold it after all. It is possible that the Emerald may have suffered a catastrophic leak, possibly during a ship-to-ship transfer off the Syrian coast, as is the practice of bringing pirated copies ashore rather than engaging in deliberate environmental terrorism.

However, rumors of a new Libyan private owner of a former GNMTC ship that sparked Gamliel's tweets were never substantiated. Confidential diplomatic sources in Libya told us that the Libyan secret service had processed an application for clarification of ownership of the ship last week. Records have been compiled showing that GNMTC rented the Ibn Batuta to a Cypriot company and sold it to an Iranian citizen for $ 2.5 million in December 2020. This investigation is consistent with data from Lloyd & # 39; s List, which states that the ship is certainly no longer Libyan owned and that Libyan units or individuals had nothing to do with its voyage from Iran to Tartus, Syria

Given Israel's discreet links with the LNA's Haftar, Gamliel clearly failed to make her dramatic and unlikely claims on social media in support of Israeli foreign policy. Like many neo-populist politicians who think short-term and transactional, a convenient conspiracy theory may just be too good to miss, even if it makes the allies look bad.

Since its groundbreaking agreement with the United Arab Emirates, Israel's main geopolitical imperative has been to maintain its ties to the axis of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as the cornerstone of its new Middle East policy, while also curbing Turkish expansionism in the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, Haftar fits perfectly into the new dynamic of Israeli foreign policy.

In contrast, Gamliel's vision of Israel surrounded by a largely hostile Middle East seems depressingly old-fashioned and conspiratorial. Regardless of its dubious veracity, there is a risk that one of Israel's most sensitive relationships in the region will be under the spotlight and undercut – backdoor support for Haftar.

Gamliel's intervention is clearly motivated by Israeli domestic politics. For the fourth time in two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party faces tough campaigning in an election on March 23. Despite a successful vaccine rollout, Netanyahu has received widespread criticism for how he handled the COVID-19 pandemic – not to mention the ongoing corruption against him and his wife Sara over lockdowns and heightened tensions between secular and religious Jews Misappropriation of public funds.

Gamliel is widely viewed as subpar and has been heavily criticized by the Israeli media for how it dealt with the spill. It seems, therefore, to indulge in a classic Likud pre-election tactic of raising public concerns about Israel's enemies in order to consider Likud voters who consider other right-wing parties.

This is a trick Netanyahu and his allies have used many times over the past two decades. Gamliel has added a new twist to the conspiracy by implying Libya as a way to occupy Israel further than it is surrounded by an axis of villainous terrorists poised to deploy new unconventional threats.

There is some political logic to this rhetoric, as Libya is still home to terrorist thought leaders in the minds of many older Israelis, Britons and Americans. Even before the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, producer Steven Spielberg accused the Libyans of stealing the plutonium in Back to the Future. As a result of this popular perception, Libyans of all political directions were falsely accused of various ingenious acts of terrorism over the years when no other apparent suspects emerged.

Gamliel's claims are also intended to distract the Israeli public from government failures while also subliminally increasing the perception that Likud's rivals do not have sufficient national security to respond to the multiple regional threats facing Israel, especially now that the Biden government probably trying to normalize US relations with Iran.

Traditionally, Israel is famous for its hasbara ("public diplomacy") and the culture of careful public utterance. But lately, right-wing politicians seem to have caught up with global norms and learned to ride the wave of good conspiracy theory – even if it means tossing the allies under the bus.

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