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Gantz rejects Netanyahu attempt to box defense officials out of Iran policy

Premier sends letter to security heads asserting only his office will form policy on Biden’s bid to reenter nuclear deal; defense minister says others must be consulted

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend a graduation ceremony for new Air Force pilots at the Hatzerim air base near Beersheba, June 25, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/ Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend a graduation ceremony for new Air Force pilots at the Hatzerim air base near Beersheba, June 25, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/ Pool/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz are reportedly sparring over the government’s strategy for responding to US President-elect Joe Biden’s plans to reenter the Iran nuclear deal.

Last week, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat sent a one-line letter to Gantz as well as Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and Ambassador to the US Ron Drummer, the Walla news site reported Thursday.

“The following is a directive from the prime minister: The Israeli government’s position on the nuclear agreement with Iran will be formulated by the prime minister alone on the basis of consultations with the National Security Council staff in the Prime Minister’s Office,” the letter stated.

A Netanyahu aide told Walla that the letter was sent against the backdrop of the premier’s frustration over an interview that Dror Shalom, the IDF’s Military Intelligence’s Research Division outgoing head, gave in October asserting that US President Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal may not have improved Israel’s strategic position.

US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk to a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, January 27, 2020. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Netanyahu has heaped praise on Trump for withdrawing from the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

In addition, the Netanyahu aide said that the prime minister had been upset with comments about the Iran deal made by Gantz and other senior officials in the security establishment in meetings with US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, which the premier claimed were too moderate.

According to the report, Gantz was shocked by the letter sent on Netanyahu’s behalf and chose to respond with a message of his own two days later.

Gantz wrote back asserting that while Netanyahu ultimately gets to determine policy, he has no authority to bypass the defense establishment and the security cabinet.

“The issue of security, especially with regards to the Iranian issue, is not a one-man affair,” Gantz wrote.

The defense minister added that policy prep should be carried out by the entire security establishment and not just the National Security Council, which is under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister’s Office.

From left, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Minister Benny Gantz meet in military headquarters in Tel Aviv on December 18, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The spar takes place as relations between Netanyahu and Gantz are at an all-time low, with their coalition agreement having fallen apart in late December, dragging the country to a fourth election in two years.

On a number of security issues in recent years, Netanyahu has preferred to give sole authority to the National Security Council, leaving Gantz, the Defense Ministry and the IDF in the dark. This has included the normalization agreements signed with neighboring Arab countries, as well as the related US sale of F-35s to the UAE and Germany’s sale of military submarines to Egypt.

The Prime Minister’s Office and the Defense Ministry declined to comment on the Walla report.

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