Will Oil Spill Conspiracy Theories Help Netanyahu Win?

Israeli voters face a toxic sludge and dubious propaganda about Libya and Iran as they head to the polls.

Israelis clean oil spill off Haifa’s coast.
Israelis clean tar from the beach after a suspected oil spill off Israel’s coast in Haifa on Feb. 25. Amir Levy/Getty Images

For the last two weeks, sticky tar has been blackening Israel’s beaches, with reports that an unidentified vessel dumped as much as 1,100 tons of crude oil off the coast. Israeli authorities have shut down beaches and temporarily banned the sale of seafood in the areas affected, while shocking images emerged of turtles covered in oil.

The spill has impacted more than 90 percent of the country’s coastline, with environmental agencies declaring an ecological disaster that will take years to remedy. Just as the Exxon Valdez scandal showcased Exxon’s lack of planning and capacity to deal with an oil spill even though it was one of the world’s largest companies, the current tragedy has laid bare Israel’s woeful inability to handle an environmental crisis even though it is usually considered among the world’s foremost nations at disaster response.

Amid criticism of the government’s lackluster cleanup efforts by the Israeli public and the media, Israeli Environment Protection Minister Gila Gamliel has tried to deflect blame. She issued a series of tweets on March 3 claiming that a “Libyan-owned pirate vessel,” supposedly the oil tanker Emerald, had recently left Iran bound for Syria, seeking to commit an “act of environmental terrorism” against Israel.

Amid criticism of the government’s lackluster cleanup efforts by the Israeli public and the media, Israeli Environment Protection Minister Gila Gamliel has tried to deflect blame.

Gamliel stated that those responsible “must pay the price” and that the “operator of the ship has black blood on their hands.” In Gamliel’s hyperbolic narrative, the Emerald is a terrorist pirate vessel carrying out the orders of the Iranian-Libyan axis of evil, while also violating United Nations sanctions by supplying Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime with crude and then dumping the sludge on the Zionist enemy.

Yet while evidence against the Emerald remains only circumstantial, this has not prevented both Israeli and mainstream English-language media outlets from going agog over this poorly documented claim. Meanwhile, in the background, Israeli defense sources have been quietly briefing the media against Gamliel’s conspiratorial thinking by stressing that the evidence suggests an accident rather than a terrorist attack. They are no doubt aware that her heated rhetoric risks undercutting one of Israel’s major foreign-policy accomplishments—its newly consolidated alliance with the United Arab Emirates, a country that has major interests in Libya.

It is common knowledge that we live in an era where fake news can circle the globe before the truth emerges. Gamliel had a range of possible motives for unleashing her Twitter frenzy—foremost among them was distracting the public from her ministry’s failed cleanup efforts three weeks before a national election. But her social media barrage has—perhaps unwittingly—had another effect.

As analysts with decades of experience working on North Africa, we know that when things tangentially involve Libya, the underlying reality is likely to be bizarre—even without the need to introduce conspiracy theories.

Formerly registered as the Ebn Batuta, the Emerald is an aging Aframax oil tanker that was owned until recently by the Libyan state-owned shipping-focused holding company, the General National Maritime Transport Company (GNMTC). GNMTC sold the vessel in December 2020 to a new owner registered in the Marshall Islands under the name of Emerald Marine Ltd. Last week, a range of rumors swept the journalism and intelligence communities alleging the tanker was now in private Libyan hands and likely owned by an individual linked to the Libyan National Army (LNA).

This supposed identification of the vessel as linked to the LNA placed it at the heart of Libyan and international political rivalries. The LNA is commanded by Khalifa Haftar, who is the key powerbroker in Libya’s eastern half, and is supported by Russia, Egypt, and primarily the UAE, while also likely receiving covert aid from Israel itself. Haftar is opposed to rival authorities in western Libya, which are recognized by the U.N. as legitimate and receive military support from Turkey.

Specifically, these rumors claimed the Emerald was owned by an individual connected to the LNA-aligned Military Investment Authority and Public Works Committee, which is known to have engaged in illegal smuggling—especially of scrap metal—for profit. The rumors indicated that the owner attempted to use the Emerald for the illegal export of urea and diesel from Libya but did not succeed. According to this rumor, afraid of losing money by purchasing the Emerald, the Libyan shipowner then chartered the tanker to Lebanese and Greek partners.

It is potentially credible that an eastern Libyan shipowner, having failed to obtain any pirated crude to smuggle out of Libya itself, might wish to employ a vessel to transport Iranian crude via the Suez Canal into Syria. This latter endeavor is equally illegal—but far simpler to conduct because the crude can be overtly purchased, it doesn’t need to be surreptitiously loaded, and the voyage is easier due to inferior international enforcement procedures when leaving Iranian waters compared to strict legal controls imposed on exporting Libyan crude and intense scrutiny on any vessel loaded with crude exiting Libyan territorial waters.

Undertaking the Iran-Syria smuggling voyage would serve as the perfect trial run for the vessel to finally return to eastern Libya and then try to make a couple hundred million dollars smuggling pirated eastern Libyan crude to the Assad regime—which has been a long standing LNA, UAE, and Russian goal. During its actual voyage, the fact that the Emerald turned off its transponder while off the Syrian coast almost certainly indicates that it did make an illegal offloading of crude. That adventure could have been used to build up the skill set needed to make the more complex voyage from eastern Libya.

The vessel is most certainly no longer Libyan-owned, and Libyan entities or individuals had nothing to do with its voyage from Iran to Tartus, Syria.

None of this suggests that the Emerald was tasked with deliberately polluting Israeli waters and beaches. In fact, such an act would run counter to Iranian, Syrian, and LNA interests as they would all prefer illicit crude deliveries to continue to reach Syria surreptitiously, which would be jeopardized by massive publicity generated by an intentional act of environmental devastation.

From this standpoint, it seems more probable that the tanker, like so much of Libya’s fleet and ex-fleet, is aging, in bad condition, and has a poorly trained crew. This is why GNMTC sold it after all. It is possible that the Emerald suffered a catastrophic leak, possibly during a ship-to-ship transfer off the Syrian coast, as is the common practice for getting pirated crude ashore, rather than engaging in deliberate environmental terrorism.

However, rumors of a new Libyan private owner of a formerly GNMTC vessel, which led to Gamliel’s tweets, were never substantiated. Confidential diplomatic sources inside Libya told us that over the last week the Libyan Intelligence Service processed a request for clarification of ownership concerning the vessel. It compiled documentation showing that GNMTC had been renting out the Ibn Batuta to a Cypriot company and then in December 2020 sold it to an Iranian citizen for $2.5 million. This research aligns with Lloyd’s List’s data that the vessel is most certainly no longer Libyan-owned and Libyan entities or individuals had nothing to do with its voyage from Iran to Tartus, Syria

Given Israel’s discreet links to the LNA’s Haftar, Gamliel clearly didn’t make her dramatic and improbable claims on social media to support Israel’s foreign policy. Like many neopopulist politicians who think in the short term and transactionally, a convenient conspiracy theory may have been simply too good to pass up, even if it makes one’s allies look bad.

Since its game-changing deal with the UAE, Israel’s main geopolitical imperative is to maintain its ties to the UAE-Saudi axis as the cornerstone of its new Middle East policy, while containing Turkish expansionism in the Eastern Mediterranean. As a result, Haftar fits perfectly in the new dynamic of Israeli foreign policy.

By contrast, Gamliel’s vision of Israel surrounded by an overwhelmingly hostile Middle East seems depressingly old school and conspiratorial. Independent of its dubious veracity, it risks throwing a spotlight on, and hence undercutting, one of Israel’s most sensitive relationships in the region—its backdoor support of Haftar.

Gamliel’s intervention is clearly motivated by domestic Israeli politics. For the fourth time in two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is facing a tough electoral battle in an election on March 23. Despite a successful vaccine rollout, Netanyahu has faced widespread criticism over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, rebellions in the ultra-Orthodox sector against lockdowns, and heightened tensions between secular and religious Jews—not to mention the ongoing corruption against him and his wife, Sara, for misappropriation of public funds.

Gamliel is widely perceived as having underperformed and has faced severe criticism from the Israeli media over her handling of the spill. She therefore, appears to be indulging in a classic Likud pre-election tactic of raising the public’s anxieties about Israel’s enemies to bring Likud voters considering other right-wing parties home.

Israeli politicians are learning to ride the wave of a good conspiracy theory—even if it means throwing its allies under the bus.

This is a ploy that Netanyahu and his allies have employed many times over the last two decades. Gamliel has added a new twist to the plot by implicating Libya as a way of further casting Israel as encircled by an axis of rogue terrorists willing to deploy new unconventional threats.

There is a certain political logic to this rhetoric because Libya is still the home of terrorist masterminds in the minds of many older Israelis, Brits, and Americans. Even prior to the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, producer Steven Spielberg blamed the Libyans for stealing the plutonium in Back to the Future. As a result of this popular perception, over the years, Libyans of all political stripes have been falsely accused of various ingenious terror acts when no other obvious suspects emerged.

Gamliel’s assertions are also designed to distract the Israeli public from government failures while subliminally reinforcing the perception that Likud’s rivals lack the sufficient national security gravitas to respond to the multifaceted regional threats that Israel faces, especially now that the Biden administration is likely to attempt to normalize U.S. relations with Iran.

Traditionally, Israel has been famed for its hasbara (“public diplomacy”) and culture of careful public statements. But lately, it seems its right-wing politicians have caught up with global norms, learning to ride the wave of a good conspiracy theory—even if it means throwing one’s allies under the bus.

Jason Pack is the founder of the consultancy Libya-Analysis and was previously the executive director of the U.S.-Libya Business Association. Twitter: @JasonPackLibya

James Roslington has a doctorate in North African history from the University of Cambridge and is the director of operations at Libya-Analysis.

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