IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s speech at the annual Institute for National Security Studies conference on Tuesday might have been in Hebrew, but it 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 Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons 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 drawing up plans for an attack scenario.
Kochavi is in step with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who espouses a similar approach regarding Iran. Biden and senior members of his administration certainly remember the disagreements between Netanyahu and Israel’s security leadership (former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Mossad head Meir Dagan) a decade ago regarding the possibility of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Now, they face a political-defense phalanx that at least outwardly includes not only Kochavi but also Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, among 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 dispute.
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 U.S. administration in an attempt to influence any future agreements it might reach with Iran.
Israel would prefer that the United States not return to any agreement with Iran and keep up the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure,” though hopes that the Iranian regime would collapse have not panned out, and the past year has seen Iran step up its nuclear program. As part of this activity, Iran has installed advanced centrifuges at its nuclear facilities in Natanz and Fordow, amassed a large quantity of low-enriched uranium and even started to enrich uranium to 20 percent.
U.S. President Joe Biden and senior members of his administration have already made it clear that they intend to go back to the 2015 nuclear deal while at the same time recognizing how dangerous Iran is 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 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.
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.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.