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IDF chief’s message to Biden: If necessary, Israel will act alone

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Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s speech was intended for both Washington and Tehran, but also for an Israeli audience, as the IDF needs a massive budget infusion for its plans.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s speech at the annual INSS conference on Tuesday might have been in Hebrew, but what he said was aimed at speakers of both English and Farsi.

In his speech, Kochavi presented a new and uncompromising approach – no to any nuclear deal with Iran, either in the original format or an improved one, and yes to contingency plans that would allow Israel to attack, if necessary.

These two messages were intended to echo from Washington to Tehran, from the Biden administration to the bureau of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The chief of staff wanted to make it clear to them both that Israel will continue to oppose Iranian nuclearization in any form. Israel would be happy to have the Americans at its side, but if needed, will be willing to take action alone, and is even making plans for an attack scenario, as Israel Hayom reported two weeks ago.

Kochavi was in step with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who espouses a similar approach on Iran and the possibility of going back to the nuclear deal. Netanyahu has already made it clear that he would oppose any improved plan, and the support of the IDF chief carries considerable weight in both political and diplomatic circles. Biden and senior members of his administration certainly remember the disagreements between Netanyahu and Israel’s security leadership a decade ago (former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Mossad head Meir Dagan) about the possibility of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Now, they are facing a political-defense phalanx that at least outwardly includes Mossad director Yossi Cohen, as well as others.

We can assume that Kochavi thought very carefully before choosing to insert himself – and thereby, the IDF – into what looks like an inevitable clash between Jerusalem and Washington over the Iranian issue. We should hope that his remarks won’t cast a pall over relations with the top American defense echelon, which have always been maintained even during times of diplomatic disputes. There are a number of Israeli defense officials who think that it would have been better if Kochavi had said what he did to the Americans behind closed doors to avoid conflict, especially at such a sensitive time. This is the opinion of, among others, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as many high-ranking IDF officials, all of whom think Israel should be in discreet talks with the new US administration in an attempt to influence any future agreements it might reach with Iran.

Israel would prefer that the US not return to any agreement with Iran and keep up the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure,” even though hopes that the Iranian regime would collapse turned out to be false and this past year Iran has even stepped up its nuclear program, considerably shortening the time it needs to develop a bomb. As part of this activity, Iran has installed advanced centrifuges at its nuclear facilities in Natanz and Fordo, amassed a large quantity of low-level enriched uranium, and even started to enrich uranium to 20%.

US President Joe Biden and senior members of his administration have already made it clear that they intend to go back to the nuclear deal while at the same time recognizing how dangerous Iran and promising not to allow it to develop a nuclear bomb. The current disagreement on the Israeli side has to do with the best approach to take with the new administration in an attempt to reach optimal results. Past experience shows us that a contrarian approach is unlikely to be the right tactic, especially when the new administration is focused mainly on domestic issues and less on the problems of the Middle East.

Nevertheless, Kochavi’s remarks were also intended for an Israeli audience. The Iranian challenge he presented – and the operational plans it demands – cost money. A lot of money. Readiness to counter the threat is the reason for the IDF’s request for billions of shekels more for its budget, which would go mainly to armaments, intelligence, and training. Netanyahu and Gantz support the request, so it’s likely it will pass, but at a time of economic distress and worse economic blows yet to come, they have an obligation to ensure that the IDF uses the money for its intended purpose and avoid wasteful spending, a mission in which the IDF has not always excelled.

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