In Reversal, Israeli Military Chief Backs Sealing Defense Pact With U.S.

Yaniv Kubovich
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Israel's Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, left, U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., center, and Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv
Israel's Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, left, U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., center, and Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Tel AvivCredit: Ariel Hermoni / Israel's Defence Ministry
Yaniv Kubovich

After years of the Israel Defense Forces’ opposition to a defense pact with the United States, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi was finally persuaded to support the idea last year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing this idea for years despite the defense establishment’s opposition.

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During a meeting last year, senior military officers told Netanyahu, with Kochavi’s approval, that they would accept such a pact. But many senior officers remain opposed to the idea, which in any case has been on ice since the election last March.

Signing a defense pact with the United States was a component of Netanyahu’s campaign before the September 2019 election. This was part of his effort to depict himself as a leader of global stature who was close to then-U.S. President Donald Trump.

The issue received even more prominence ahead of the March 2020 election, with Netanyahu saying such a pact would be “a huge deal” and Trump publicly confirming that they had discussed the issue. Nevertheless, Netanyahu also acknowledged the reservations of senior defense officials.

A defense pact generally results in closer defense ties among the signatories and obligates each signatory to come to the other’s defense. But it also requires them to coordinate military action with each other.

Consequently, defense officials have argued for decades that such a pact would constrain Israel’s military operations. Defense cooperation with America is already close in any case, they said, and the downsides of the pact would therefore outweigh the upsides.

Israel's Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

This professional assessment remained unchanged during last year’s discussions, according to both political and defense officials involved in them. Nevertheless, senior defense officials agreed to grant the idea their seal of approval, and a document was sent to the Prime Minister’s Office expressing a positive view of such a pact.

Defense officials didn’t deny that a positive view was voiced during the discussions, but did deny that any such document was sent to Netanyahu. Moreover, they insisted, the view expressed orally was not an official position.

A former senior defense official said no such view would have been expressed without the chief of staff’s approval. He also said Kochavi likely changed his position only because he was pressured to do so.

“The IDF’s freedom of action has always been treated as sacred,” he added. “So it’s hard to understand how and why people were led to change their position.”

Defense officials warned during last year’s discussions that a defense pact with America might be seen as a provocation by Russia, which might well respond by constraining Israel’s aerial operations in Syria. Moreover, they argued, such a pact would force Israel to take America’s interests in Iraq into account, and could therefore prevent airstrikes on Iranian targets in Iraq of the type that foreign reports have attributed to Israel in recent years.

Yet another concern, they said, was that the United States might forbid the IDF from using American weaponry during any Israeli operation that it viewed as contradicting its interests in the Middle East.

Kochavi’s predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, said in December 2019 that “Israel, today and for the foreseeable future, doesn’t need a defense pact, and this isn’t something we need to cultivate.” All three of the former chiefs of staff who ran against Netanyahu in the last election – Benny Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon – also publicly opposed the idea, warning, as Gantz wrote, that it would “limit the IDF’s ability to defend Israel against the threats it faces.”

Netanyahu’s aides insisted during the discussions that the pact would effectively be unilateral – it would require America to defend Israel without requiring the IDF to participate in American military operations. But senior defense officials warned that a future U.S. administration might well insist that the pact be bilateral and ignore any commitments to the contrary given by the Trump administration.

Because the coronavirus took over the public agenda immediately after the election last March, Netanyahu stopped talking about a defense pact. Meanwhile, Trump lost the U.S. presidential election in November, and the victor, Joe Biden, entered the White House last month.

Consequently, a political official involved in the matter said, “There has been no discussion of the issue for a year already. Nobody has even raised it as an option.”

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