Amir Oren / Netanyahu-Obama spat harming IDF capability on Iran
Tension over settlements may drive a wedge between Israel and the U.S. in coordinating an Iran strategy.
In the summer of 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the Israel Defense Forces hastily conceived a plan - without precise intelligence and with no developed, operational plans - to raid the missile sites in western Iraq that threatened Israel, Benny Gantz was the commander of the elite air force commando unit Shaldag. The military coordination with the region's overlords, the Americans, was minimal if not non-existent. Deputy chief of staff Ehud Barak expended much of his energy in maneuvering for the removal of Gen. Doron Rubin, who headed the headquarters for special operations.
In the summer of 2010, with Barak (perhaps still) defense minister and Gantz as the deputy chief of staff, the missile threat from the east will loom larger, though on the other side of the equation, both our capability to act from afar and our relations with the American army will have improved.
Of the U.S. army's 10 unified combatant commands, five are preparing for a possible confrontation with Iran. These include U.S. Central Command, whose forces control much of the Middle Eastern theater; U.S. European Command, which borders Centcom and whose jurisdiction includes Turkey and Israel; U.S. Special Operations Command, which is responsible for building and deploying commando units; U.S. Strategic Command, which deploys bombers and missiles from land bases and submarines; and the U.S. Joint Forces Command, which builds forces on land, sea, and in the air.
Officers who are studying methods for thwarting nuclear programs are analyzing how the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor was destroyed in the Israel Air Force raid in 1981. According to official U.S. army publications, the American military and the IDF have cooperated in drawing up joint study plans, held conferences, and taken part in joint symposia. Gantz - who is Israel's military attache in Washington and whose deputies include the attaches to land, sea, and air forces as well as intelligence and research and development - also relies on the services of a liaison officer to the special forces and the Marines, Lt. Col. Avi Gil, who was the operations branch officer in the Paratroops Brigade during the height of America's war on terror. Gil commanded the Paratroopers' reconnaissance battalion as well as the undercover unit Duvdevan.
Two months, ago, the American military hosted the current head of the operations branch, Gen. Tal Russo, whom they knew from his experience in the Shaldag special forces unit, Sayeret Matkal and Maglan. At the Pentagon, Russo met his counterpart, Lt. Gen. John Paxton from the U.S. Marines. During his visit to the special forces bases in Florida and North Carolina, Russo met with Admiral Eric Olson; his deputy, Lt. Gen. David Fridovich; and Vice Admiral William McRaven, who commands the secretive JSOC special forces headquarters. Olson and McRaven served as commanders of the Navy SEALs. Olson, who visits Israel on occasion, was also a UN observer in Israel and Egypt, and when McRaven wrote a research paper on six impressive commando operations during and after World War II, he dedicated the last, and most instructive chapter, to the Entebbe raid.
Last year, GOC Southern Command Yoav Gallant - who during the 1990s was McRaven's and Olson's counterpart as commander of Shayetet 13 - paid a visit to the American Special Operations Command. Gallant was joined by Col. Hertzi Halevy, the commander of the Paratroopers Brigade and the former commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit.
The IDF and the American special forces have been engaged in a long-running initiative which includes information sharing, joint training exercises and intelligence upgrades. The American reports often quote Brig. Gen. Itai Brun of the operations branch.
Brun heads the Dado Center for military thinking in Glilot. He is known to take part in American war games that focus on "hybrid threats" posed by semi-guerilla and semi-military groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Brun lectures on the lessons learned by the IDF in Lebanon and Gaza within the context of the West's struggle with countries like Iran, Syria, and Iraq.
One can surmise that American officers are careful not to reveal any more information than what the civilian echelons above them say. At the same time, it is reasonable to assume that the professional dialogue, which is held in conjunction with various military bodies, yields an important basis for understanding the needs and solutions required for times of crisis. Even if the talks are limited to exchanges of opinions and brainstorming without getting entangled in joint operational planning, nobody wants to be surprised if there is escalation in the region, with Iran inching closer to attaining nuclear weapons and after a confrontation. If the discussions only deal with the day before and the day after, then it will be possible to bypass the day itself.
The weakness in Israeli-American relations stems from the rift at the top. Without prior planning by the military bodies, diplomatic coordination will be of no benefit, not even the partial, limited coordination that we saw during the 1991 war. But the Israeli prime minister's bickering with the U.S. president over the nonsense surrounding the settlements is harming the IDF's capability in dealing with its most vital missions.