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IDF chief didn’t coordinate speech criticizing US on Iran with PM, Gantz: report

Kohavi’s intended audience for inflammatory address was Tehran and the Israeli public, military officials tell broadcaster

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)
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)

IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi did not coordinate with the prime minister or defense minister ahead of a controversial speech he gave earlier this week that criticized the Biden administration’s Iran policies and threatened potential military action against Iran.

Military officials told the Kan public broadcaster that Kohavi had carefully scripted the speech, but its timing — as the Biden administration was taking office — was not meant to send a message to Washington, DC, according to a Friday report.

Kohavi’s intended audience for the Tuesday speech was mainly Iran and the Israeli public, and less the US, the officials said.

Kohavi considered it his duty to raise the alarm about what he considered dangers to Israel’s security, and in a meeting with a US general on Friday he reiterated the same points, the report said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi address the media at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on November 12, 2019. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Channel 13 reported Friday that Kohavi was unrepentant about delivering the speech in personal conversations afterward.

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 fresh 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.

It was seen as unlikely that Kohavi would have made such remarks without receiving approval from the Prime Minister’s Office. The PMO has refused to comment on the matter.

Kohavi made his remarks during a livestreamed speech at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank’s annual conference, which was held this year entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Gantz on Wednesday indicated that he believed Kohavi should not have made such remarks in a public speech. His comments also seemed to reveal he had not been aware of the speech beforehand.

“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.

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

Gantz later scaled back his criticism of his former subordinate, telling the Ynet news site on Thursday that Kohavi was an “excellent chief of staff.”

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, also denounced the remarks as counterproductive.

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.

Gantz and Kohavi met with the head of the United States military’s Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie in Tel Aviv on Friday.

Kohavi briefed McKenzie on Israel’s defense policy and the defense chiefs reviewed priorities and challenges shared by the two militaries, including regional threats such as Iran, Gantz’s office said.

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