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Gantz appears to rebuke IDF chief over public criticism of US, threat to Iran

Defense minister says comments like those made by Aviv Kohavi in his Tuesday speech should be aired ‘in closed rooms’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi in Jerusalem on July 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi in Jerusalem on July 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz appeared to rebuke IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Wednesday over a speech he made the day before, in which he criticized the White House’s Iran policies and threatened potential military action against Iran.

In his remarks, Kohavi denounced US President Joe Biden’s stated intentions to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal as “bad” and said he had ordered the military to develop operational plans for striking Iran’s nuclear program.

While a number of Israeli politicians — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — have openly spoken out against Biden’s plan to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran and threatened military action against Iran, it is highly uncommon for an IDF chief of staff to make public comments critical of an American administration, which provides significant financial and logistical support to the Israeli military.

“With the changing of the administration in the United States, the Iranians have said they want to return to the previous agreement. I want to state my position, the position that I give to all my colleagues when I meet them around the world: Returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement or even to an agreement that is similar but with a few improvements is a bad thing and it is not the right thing to do,” Kohavi said.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank’s annual conference on January 26, 2021. (Screen capture/INSS)

It is unlikely that Kohavi would make such remarks without receiving approval from the Prime Minister’s Office. The PMO refused to comment on the matter.

Gantz on Wednesday indicated that he believed Kohavi should not have made such remarks in a public speech.

“A nuclear Iran is a danger to the world, to the region and is a challenge to the security of Israel. Of course Israel must be prepared to defend itself in any way, but red lines are drawn in closed rooms,” Gantz said.

The defense minister made his remarks at a press conference in which he unveiled his plan to expand the country’s conscription program to include ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis, who are currently largely exempt from military service.

Gantz was not alone in his criticism of Kohavi’s speech. Amos Gilad, a former head of Military Intelligence and former top Defense Ministry official, denounced the remarks as counterproductive.

Amos Gilad, former director of the Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau, speaks at the Herzliya Conference on May 9, 2018. (Gilad Kavalerchik/ Herzliya Conference)

“What are we getting from this? You excoriate the administration in the United States that has barely been in its position for a week instead of having a quiet negotiation to see how to limit the damages of the deal and get some compensation for the IDF,” Gilad said, speaking to the 103FM radio station.

Gilad, who criticized the Iran nuclear deal as “terrible,” said that Israel should nevertheless refrain from publicly criticizing the Biden administration in order to ensure that it can make the deal as good as possible and get commitments from the US to offset the potential damage to Israel’s national security.

“If you want to have a negotiation, with all due respect, the prime minister can have a quiet negotiation with the president of the United States. Why insult and excoriate? That’s not how you lead policy,” he said.

“The question isn’t what the chief of staff believes behind closed doors and what positions he takes. The moment the chief of staff says things that are so harsh, that contradict the position of the new American administration, this could be seen as defiance. This is not something that the chief of staff needs to do,” Gilad said.

In addition to his criticism of the US, Kohavi also indicated he had ordered the military to prepare plans to strike the country’s nuclear program to prevent it from obtaining an atomic bomb if need be.

“Iran can decide that it wants to advance to a bomb, either covertly or in a provocative way. In light of this basic analysis, I have ordered the IDF to prepare a number of operational plans, in addition to the existing ones. We are studying these plans and we will develop them over the next year,” Kohavi said.

He added: “The government will of course be the one to decide if they should be used. But these plans must be on the table, in existence and trained for.”

Gilad, who retired in 2017, said that he believed this to be “just words,” as it was highly unlikely that Israel would conduct such a strike without a green light from Washington.

“You think you would carry out a strike without strategic cooperation with the United States? It will never, ever happen,” he said.

Israel has twice conducted military strikes against the nuclear programs of its enemies — Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 — under what’s become known as the Begin Doctrine, which maintains that Jerusalem will not allow an enemy country to obtain an atomic weapon.

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