Former IDF chief says ‘hysteria’ over Iran deal is unwarranted
If Israel 'needs to operate, then I guess it will operate'

Former IDF chief says ‘hysteria’ over Iran deal is unwarranted

Benny Gantz believes better accord could have been reached, but praises diplomacy’s success in preventing war, delaying bomb for 10-15 years

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Former IDF chief of General Staff Benny Gantz speaks to the Washington Institute, September 25, 2015 (Washington Institute screenshot)
Former IDF chief of General Staff Benny Gantz speaks to the Washington Institute, September 25, 2015 (Washington Institute screenshot)

WASHINGTON — Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz said Friday he was not more concerned about Israel’s security following the signing of the nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers, adding that he saw the benefits of the deal which he said had prevented war. The deal, he said, was a case of the “cup half-full.”

“I refuse to get hysterical” about the nuclear deal, he told a gathering of policymakers and analysts in Washington DC Friday morning, in likely reference to official Israel’s excoriation of the agreement.

While Gantz, who ended his tenure as IDF chief in February, said a better deal may have been possible, he also acknowledged the final agreement’s success in putting off a nuclear-armed Iran for at least 10-15 years. Diplomacy, he said, had prevented war from breaking out.

Gantz’s position appeared far removed from those expressed by the majority of Israel’s leadership since the signing of the accord in July. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a fierce and vocal opponent of the accord, and Israeli officials under his guidance have lobbied heavily against its implementation.

During the Ze’ev Schiff Memorial Lecture, delivered at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Gantz said he believed at that Iran was more of a threat to the world and the region than it was to Israel.

If Israel “ends up” concluding “that it needs to operate,” he said in a Q&A session after the lecture, “then I guess it will operate.” As a sovereign state, he noted, “Israel has the right to act.”

Former IDF chief of General Staff Benny Gantz speaks to the Washington Institute, September 25, 2015 (Washington Institute screenshot)
Former IDF chief of General Staff Benny Gantz speaks to the Washington Institute, September 25, 2015 (Washington Institute screenshot)

He said Israel and the US “share identical interests” where Iran is concerned, and recommended that Israel maintain the tightest connection possible with the US.

Speaking about the regional strategic picture, Gantz said that he was “not worried about Israel’s security situation” regarding the Iranian nuclear program, but rather that he considered it “a worldwide issue that affects the Bab al-Mandeb [strait between Yemen and Djibouti] and the other sea routes.”

“Then it is a regional issue, and only then an Israeli challenge,” Gantz emphasized.

While acknowledging that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached with Iran this summer was imperfect, the former IDF head said that he also could look at a “cup half-full,” citing what he described as “the achievement of keeping away the Iranians for 10-15 years in the future, stalling their capabilities and having a nuclear capability with a right price.”

Gantz emphasized that he would “look at the deal as a done deal, and look forward.”

In the new environment created by the deal, Gantz said that Israel must extend its intelligence capabilities, while continuing to build both defensive and offensive capabilities which “will be used either as deterrents or for operational need.”

In addition, Gantz asserted that “we must strengthen those around us and do everything in our capacity to prevent the need for a nuclear arms race.”

“Last but not least, I would even dare to say that there is a need to reach out to the Iranian people themselves which have a very large base with a westernized aspect,” he proposed. “Let’s turn it into a kind of a honeytrap,” he explained, suggesting that perhaps the Iranian public could drive policy toward a more moderate orientation.

While advocating that Israel should “let the world deal with” Iranian threats, Gantz continued to stress that Israel must “continue to promote our capabilities to face negative development if it arises in the future.”

The same flexibility that Gantz emphasized in his future strategy for working with Iran is also a cornerstone of what Gantz believes Israel’s security policy should be in a dynamic Middle East.

Facing what he described as “ambiguity,” the former military chief said “Israel needs to ask what is the defensive manner that you are going to have facing an unknown future.” In recent years, he said, Israel has successfully retained a defensive posture under changing conditions on both the Egyptian and Syrian borders.

Doing so, he said, requires serious defense and intelligence capabilities. “It was easier to do this with a state in front of you, but now there are a plethora of players. The levels of state [actors] versus players are changing, and so you must have a very high level of intelligence.” Israel, he said, should seek to increase cooperation with other state partners.

At the same time, he acknowledged what he described as the “exceptional” and “unprecedented” support that the United States has offered Israel, particularly through its legislated obligation to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge.

Even in discussing that edge, Gantz returned to his theme of operational dynamism.

“We must make sure that our forces are very hybrid. We cannot have forces that can deal with military stuff, and other forces that deal with terror stuff,” he explained “We must be very balanced between the air force, ground forces, cyber, and navy,” he argued.

“The scenarios that we are going to see are very different from what we have envisioned,” he went on. “We are going to have to adapt very quickly in the future.”

Regarding the Palestinians, he acknowledged what he called “coordination” rather than “cooperation” on security issues, and said the Palestinians had to know that “with sovereignty comes responsibility.” The Palestinian leadership needs to show that responsibility, “if they want Israelis to believe” there can be diplomatic progress.

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