Analysis

As Israel Eyes Harsher Strikes on Iran Targets, End Goal Remains Murky

While Defense Minister Bennett openly talks about driving Iranian forces out of Syria, the army seems content with a more realistic option ■ Politicians embrace new IDF chief, but even he knows how quickly they could turn

Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 12, 2019.
AP Photo/Oded Balilty

In his speech at the memorial service for Shahak at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, military Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi highlighted Iran as a burning defense issue. His listeners got the impression that the chief of staff sees a more serious confrontation with Iran in the coming year as an almost unquestionable necessity. He listed Iran’s calculated violations of the nuclear accord. In Israel’s view, the most worrisome violation is renewed operations at the underground facility at Fordow, the most sensitive site that was addressed in the agreement.

At the same time, Iran has switched to a more aggressive policy in the Persian Gulf since last spring, systematically attacking vessels and oil installations. Kochavi said that these attacks were met with no response or retribution, demonstrating no deterrence at all. This applied to the Gulf states as well as the United States – although it wasn’t mentioned explicitly.

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It was Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who pushed for starting such attacks following the renewal of American sanctions after U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord in May 2018. Khamenei was furious at Iran’s president Hassan Rohani, blaming him for the fact that Iran gained nothing by making concessions as part of the deal. Iran started attacking after frustration over the severe sanctions and concerns that Trump would be reelected in 2020 to continue the economic pressure on Iran for four more years. The move so far has peaked in the serious assault on Saudi oil installations in September. The IDF says Iran’s overarching goal has not changed. Tehran want to persuade Trump, by force if necessary, to return to negotiate on the nuclear accord and lift the economic sanctions.

The Iranians have concomitantly changed their policy regarding Israel. In recent months Tehran decided that every significant attack in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon would be met with a military reprisal. “Their self-assurance is growing,” noted Kochavi, predicting a clash in 2020. The chief of staff vowed to continue acting judiciously and responsibly, but added that Israel would not let Iran dig in militarily north of Israel. Israel’s red line, he clarified, includes Iraq.

General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, which is handling Iran’s entrenchment in Syria as well as arms smuggling, is described in Israel as a calculated, deliberate and obstinate person. Soleimani is determined to continue with his project in the north, even if he has to present Khamenei with misleading reports regarding the extent of Israel’s opposition here and there.

Kochavi’s presentation and talks with senior military and political figures paint a unified picture: Israel will intensify its efforts to hit Iran in the northern arena. The ultimate goal of these operations is less clear. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett speaks openly of his wish to remove all Iranian forces from Syria. It seems that the army is looking at a more realistic goal of limiting the presence of Revolutionary Guards and Shi’ite militias in that area.

Israel believes it can harness the internal tensions within the axis that ensured Bashar Assad’s victory in the Syrian civil war to its advantage. Russia is not happy with the continued Iranian influence in Syria and the Syrian regime is unhappy that Israeli attacks leave it in constant confrontation with Israel (and also destroy Syria’s anti-aircraft missile batteries). Hezbollah is not interested in being sent on revenge missions against Israel only because of Soleimani’s loss of face in Syria.

In his talk, Kochavi stressed the tight military relations Israel has with Russia. In an interview with Army Radio two days ago, Netanyahu boasted that his friendship with President Vladimir Putin has on several occasions prevented aerial battles between Israeli and Russian jets over Syria. A cabinet member told Haaretz that “Moscow wants us to do the dirty work in Syria and expel the Iranians. [Putin] then takes care to condemn Israeli aggression.” These are interesting comments, but they are tied to a huge strategic gamble, which will be tested by the way Putin responds to an increase in Israeli strikes.

The tests facing new IDF chief 

In comparison to speeches given by his predecessor Gadi Eisenkot at the same venue, Kochavi devoted less time to questions related to the army’s relations with the rest of Israeli society. Eisenkot, in contrast to repeated attacks by the right, was involved in intensive offensive operations on and well beyond our borders, but his term was overshadowed to a large extent by the Elor Azaria trial and by his attempts to stem the influence of religious Zionist organizations on army matters, which required him to make frequent public comments on these issues.

Kochavi is trying to differentiate himself from his predecessor and is uninterested in these matters. He is seemingly worried about getting entangled with politicians, especially during the perennial election season we seem to be stuck in. He therefore makes do with general comments reflecting the national consensus, regarding the importance of the IDF in Israeli society. The army, he said, is not a start-up venture, but rather a national “build-up” serving society. Young men and women who finish their military service come out mature and more experienced before entering civilian life, he said. Right or wrong, such a statement will evoke no dispute and make no headlines.

The emphasis placed by Kochavi on the increased lethality of military operations, the vigorous marketing surrounding every operation in the Gaza Strip (which is always described in dramatic terms that inflate the real situation on the ground) and the fact that Netanyahu and Bennett do not see him as a future political threat at present work together in fostering Kochavi’s public status. The right embraces him and is delighted with him. Routine placements of officers wearing skullcaps, even with no promotions, garner praise in religious circles and are automatically compared to the alleged mistreatment of these same officers by his predecessor.

But Kochavi knows that this treatment could flip the first time he insists on preserving IDF values in combat. When that happens, someone will dig up the year he studied at Harvard under a Wexner Foundation fellowship (as do many IDF generals) or, heaven forbid, hold against him his wife’s work at the State Prosecutor’s Office, the heart of the imaginary deep state.

Over the last few months, the chief of staff has been described several times in these pages as someone whom the exceptional political circumstances have turned into the responsible adult. On the night of the rocket attack at Ashdod in September, it was mainly Mendelblit who at the last minute prevented a military operation which could have turned out to be dangerous. A month later, when Netanyahu was desperately looking for a pretext for getting Kahol Lavan into his coalition under his conditions, issuing a warning about an immediate strategic threat by Iran, the army went along with him.

When President Reuven Rivlin wanted to knock Netanyahu and Benny Gantz’s heads together and force them to join forces, the general staff indirectly assisted him by highlighting the need for urgent decisions on the defense budget and the IDF’s multi-year plan. The tests that will face Kochavi will soon become harder, given the friction with Iran in the north, Netanyahu’s impending trial and the approaching third election.