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Analysis'Why insult and excoriate? That's not how you lead a policy'

Picking a fight with US over Iran deal, IDF chief baffles even accord’s critics

Kohavi’s public denunciation of Biden’s intention to rejoin nuke agreement seen as needlessly antagonistic of a brand new White House, possibly motivated by domestic budget fight

Judah Ari Gross

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

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks during an Israeli Navy ceremony in Haifa, on March 4, 2020. (Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks during an Israeli Navy ceremony in Haifa, on March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

If nothing else, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi’s speech at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank this week, in which he denounced an incoming American president’s foreign policy plans and threatened Iran, was out of the ordinary.

Such remarks are normally left to politicians, not the head of the military, a position that is meant to remain as far from politics as possible.

In his remarks, Kohavi said returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — as US President Joe Biden has stated he plans to do — or “even a similar agreement with a number of improvements, would be bad and not the right thing to do.” The military chief then announced that he had ordered the Israel Defense Forces to come up with fresh plans to strike Iran’s nuclear program if necessary, something that had been reported in unsourced articles in the Israeli press in the weeks preceding the speech.

“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,” Kohavi said.

The Iranian nuclear issue is of the utmost concern to the IDF, which consistently ranks it as the most significant threat facing the State of Israel. Following former US president Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal in 2018, Iran has been ratcheting up pressure by incrementally violating the terms of the agreement. Most recently, this month the Islamic Republic announced it was beginning to enrich uranium up to 20 percent — far beyond the 3.5 percent permitted in the deal — and that it was beginning research into uranium metal, which is widely regarded as a step toward developing a nuclear weapon.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Yet even among those who generally agree with Kohavi’s criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, his speech was seen as inappropriate.

While there is general consensus among Israeli defense officials that a straight return to the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, would squander the additional leverage gained through the Trump administration’s sanctions campaign, there is by no means widespread agreement that the best way to prevent such a move is through a public fight with the White House, as evident by the criticism that Kohavi’s speech has garnered from center-left politicians in recent days.

US President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden watch a military pass in review ceremony on the East Front of the Capitol at the conclusion of the inauguration ceremonies, in Washington, January 20, 2021. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

“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,” said Amos Gilad, a former head of Military Intelligence and a former top Defense Ministry official, in an interview on the 103FM radio station the morning after the speech.

“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 a policy,” said Gilad, who called the 2015 nuclear deal “terrible.”

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, left, and the head of the US Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie plant a tree in honor of the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, on January 28, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Moreover, Kohavi had a pathway to voice his concerns directly to the United States, through the head of the US military’s Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who landed in Israel on Thursday night for a two-day visit chiefly to discuss Iran and the threat it poses in the region.

We’re good at knowing what we don’t want. We’re less good at stating what we do want and what can legitimately be achieved

Days after the explosive speech, it was still not clear if the Prime Minister’s Office had signed off on its contents. A request for comment by The Times of Israel was not answered.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz did not appear to have been in the loop that Kohavi intended to criticize the Biden administration’s policy, saying afterward that discussions about Iran should be held “in closed rooms,” which is to say, not on stage at a conference being watched around the world. Still, Gantz has since scaled back his criticism of his former subordinate, telling the Ynet news site on Thursday that Kohavi was an “excellent chief of staff.”

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi unknowingly criticized Kohavi’s speech in the subsequent portion of the INSS conference, saying he would “never recommend a contradictory policy against the Americans in the media.” (Ashkenazi actually made his remarks days before Kohavi’s speech, filming them in advance.)

It’s the budget, stupid

In the aftermath of the speech, some have speculated that the audience was not Washington or Tehran, but Jerusalem, specifically the Prime Minister’s Office and Finance Ministry, and that this was part of the ongoing fight over the defense budget, which Kohavi would like to see increased so that he can carry out his waylaid multi-year plan to revamp the military.

Former deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich. (Courtesy)

“He wouldn’t be the first chief of staff to raise various threats as a means of priming the budgetary pump,” Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser, told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

Indeed, the next section of Kohavi’s speech focused on the military’s need for a more than NIS 3 billion budget increase.

With his speech Kohavi would not only be outlining the challenges facing the military and the need for more funding, but he would also be clearly aligning himself with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has voiced and is expected to continue voicing staunch opposition to the Iran nuclear deal — famously speaking out against the matter in the US Congress in 2015, much to the chagrin of then-president Barack Obama — and who would be able to approve such a budget increase. Close allies of Netanyahu, such as Minister Tsachi Hanegbi and former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror, have also publicly indicated in recent weeks that Israel will eventually conduct a unilateral military strike on Iran if the US rejoins the accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Yet Freilich said that even if the army chief’s speech was meant to get on Netanyahu’s good side and drive home the need for a boost to the defense budget, there were far more elegant ways of detailing the threats facing the IDF, without condemning an ally.

“He could have said, ‘Iran is a nuclear danger, and we’re not convinced that the deal will resolve it.’ He could have found a different way to express it,” said Freilich.

The former deputy national security adviser supported the 2015 nuclear deal, though he believed it could have been more robust. He now advocates Biden using the leverage from Trump’s sanctions to negotiate a better, more robust deal.

A specific area of Kohavi’s speech with which Freilich took issue was a claim by the IDF chief in his speech that Iran would someday use a nuclear weapon against Israel.

“I don’t know of any serious person who thinks they are going to use it. Maybe they exist, but I don’t know them. But I think that’s fear-mongering, just unnecessary and inappropriate. Israel was basically established so that that wouldn’t happen,” Freilich said.

The general understanding among Israeli defense officials is not that Iran would use a nuclear bomb against Israel should it someday acquire one — knowing that it would likely face a far more punishing retaliatory strike if it ever did — but that it would use the immense leverage that such a weapon would afford it to advance a diplomatic and military agenda that it could never otherwise carry out, much to the detriment of Israel’s security. This is not, in any way, meant to diminish the threat posed by such a weapon, but rather more accurately predict how it would be used.

Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry’s political-security division. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Gilad also noted that the IDF currently depends on the United States for more than NIS 12 billion ($3.8 billion) of its budget from the military aid provided to Israel each year through 2028 under a memorandum of understanding signed under Obama.

Going forward, Freilich said Israel would have to fight just to preserve the existing military aid, let alone expand it, as the military hopes to do.

“And the way to do that isn’t biting the hand that feeds you,” he said.

A unilateral strike

Kohavi’s threat of military action against Iran was also deemed an empty one by Gilad, who said such a strike would never happen without American cooperation.

“You think you would carry out a strike without strategic cooperation with the United States? It will never, ever happen,” he said. “Understand that these are all just words.”

Amidror, who also threatened such a strike this month, contested this claim, noting that the 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor was carried out without American approval.

“I saw the American defense attache leaving [the office of] the head of Military

Outgoing national security adviser Yaakov Amidror with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a farewell ceremony in Amidror’s honor, on November 3, 2013. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Intelligence after they told him that Israel had attacked Iraq and he was white as a sheet, and the Americans even punished us for it,” Amidror told 103FM, referring to temporary sanctions placed on Israel by then-president Ronald Reagan.

But Iran in 2021 is not Iraq in 1981 or Syria in 2007, the other time Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor in the region.

There is no Iranian nuclear reactor to destroy in a single strike. Instead there are several heavily fortified and well-defended nuclear sites spread throughout the country, which maintains a host of proxy armies throughout the Middle East that collectively control arsenals of hundreds of thousands of rockets, missiles and mortar shells ready to be fired at the Jewish state.

For precisely that reason, this also marks a major departure from Kohavi’s past three predecessors, who opposed taking military actions against Iran without American support. This was especially true of the previous chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, who while acknowledging flaws in the 2015 nuclear deal publicly noted that Iran did abide by it and that it afforded certain opportunities to the IDF.

Kohavi has himself expressed some support for the US negotiating a deal with Iran, though this was back in 2013.

If the president decides that there will indeed be a deal, we’re not going to prevent it. But we can get compensations and offsets and improvements to the deal. If we insult them and don’t talk to them, we won’t get anything

Gilad said such open discord with the American administration could lead to Jerusalem being fully sidelined in the White House’s negotiations with Iran and limit the compensation in military aid that Israel could receive as compensation for a nuclear agreement that it views as insufficient.

“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 getting some compensation for the IDF,” he said.

“If the president decides that there will indeed be a deal, we’re not going to prevent it. But we can get compensations and offsets and improvements to the deal. If we insult them and don’t talk to them, we won’t get anything. That’s what happened then (in 2015),” according to Gilad.

The former top defense official, who worked closely with the United States during this period, alleged that Israel was completely shut out of the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran in light of Netanyahu’s vocal opposition, especially after his highly contentious speech in Congress in 2015.

According to Gilad, the memorandum of understanding that grants Israel $3.8 billion in military aid each year for 10 years “could have been bigger” if Jerusalem had maintained better ties with Washington.

Amidror, who served as Netanyahu’s national security adviser until 2013, denies this account somewhat, maintaining that the premier only gave his speech after the White House “tricked us” by not revealing that there were ongoing talks with the Iranians.

“Whoever says the last time we weren’t in negotiations with the American because we didn’t act nicely is wrong and is misleading, we had intimate negotiations,” Amidror said Wednesday.

To Freilich, the framing of Kohavi’s criticism was the central issue, expressing his concerns only in the form of what is wrong with the nuclear deal.

“Just to come out against it, that’s the wrong way. We’re good at knowing what we don’t want. We’re less good at stating what we do want and what can legitimately be achieved,” Freilich said.

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