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With Gaza Simmering and Iran Deal in Works, Israeli Army Chief (Finally) Heads to Washington

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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FILE - Iranian women form a human chain at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility in support of Iran's nuclear program
FILE - Iranian women form a human chain at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility in support of Iran's nuclear programCredit: VAHID SALEMI/אי־פי
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi was scheduled to leave to the United States late Saturday night for a visit that’s been postponed three times already, the last time at the end of April. This time, too, Kochavi leaves behind a tense and unstable situation on the border of the Gaza Strip. Unlike the visits that were canceled, this time Kochavi will enjoy much broader room for maneuvering in talking to his hosts about the ways to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

The Americans were understanding about the repeated cancellations of Kochavi’s visits. Whereas the U.S. is currently contending with relatively scarce security issues, the Israeli chief of staff’s timetable is rife with unplanned developments. Kochavi is scheduled to meet with most of the top defense and political officials in Washington, including the national security adviser, the defense secretary, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of U.S. Central Command.

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Although this is Kochavi’s first trip in his present capacity, he is well acquainted with most of his intended interlocutors from his previous posts and from their visits to Israel. On this visit Kochavi will be accompanied by several senior officers such as the head of the general staff’s Strategy and Third Circle Directorate, Maj. Gen. Tal Kalman, and the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence research directorate, Brig. Gen. Amit Sa’ar.

File photo: Aviv Kochavi holds a press conference in Tel Aviv. Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

Kochavi will be the first senior Israeli official to visit the U.S. since the swearing in of the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government a week ago. Last April, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dispatched Kochavi and other senior officials, including the head of Mossad and the head of the national security council, to conduct talks in Washington. The Israeli officials were constrained by impossible conditions: They were forbidden to talk with their American counterparts about the new nuclear accord with Iran taking shape at the time, due to the Biden administration’s decision to resume negotiations with Iran.

Kochavi was excused from that trip at the last minute due to the deteriorating situation in Gaza, which indeed escalated into an Israeli operation two weeks later. On that trip, his fellow travelers wasted their time: When all you’re authorized to do is to preach to your hosts, you have no way of impacting an impending agreement, which the administration has apparently already decided to sign.

As reported in Haaretz on Friday, several senior officials in the defense establishment have warned recently that Israel must try to exploit a remaining narrow window of opportunity before the accord is signed in order to go over some details with the American and European signatories. It appears that Prime Minister Bennett is receptive to this criticism. Kochavi was told that this time, he is empowered to present Israel’s reservations regarding the accord, as well as some suggestions for improving it.

Along with that, Kochavi will discuss ways to preserve, consolidate and expand the military ties between the two countries. In earlier talks, the Americans expressed their concerns over the aggressive stance taken by Iran in the Middle East and over the risks facing their forces in the region. The most salient example of this is in Iraq, which has recently seen drone attacks launched by Shi’ite militias against joint Iraqi-American military bases, as well as sporadic rocket fire.

For years, the Iranians have been waging a similar successful campaign against Saudi Arabia through the Houthi rebels, who’ve been launching attack drones against the Saudis. Israel and the U.S. share technology and operational methods with the aim of thwarting the drone threat. The extensive operations undertaken by Israel against Iran and its delegates in the so-called campaign between the wars often necessitate tight coordination with the Americans in order to avoid friction with their forces. Israel estimates that a U.S. return to the accord, as well as a lifting of international sanctions against Iran, will boost Tehran’s confidence, allowing it to channel more funds to militias and terror organizations that operate in the region on Iran’s behalf.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, ThursdayCredit: Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Another urgent issue that will be on the agenda during this visit relates to the IDF’s urgent need to rapidly replenish its armaments, including missiles and bombs for the air force and interception missiles for the Iron Dome defense system, due to their widespread use during the recent operation in Gaza. The administration has already responded positively, in principle, to the Israeli request, which was presented by Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a snap visit to Washington, right after hostilities ended.

The Americans are also interested in operational lessons learned by the IDF in the last Gaza operation. The battle arenas they might encounter in the Middle East – confrontations with terror organizations operating in dense urban areas while blended into a civilian population – are very similar to what the IDF has been contending with for years.

During his visit, Kochavi will have to receive constant updates regarding developments in the Gaza Strip. Last Thursday night, in response to the continued launching of incendiary balloons from Gaza, the air force struck targets in the Strip for the second time in two days. This time, too, fighter jets struck Hamas military compounds in Gaza City and Khan Yunis. Over the weekend, it appeared that the launching of these balloons subsided somewhat.

Prior to his departure, the chief of staff ordered IDF officers to speed up preparations for a possible new campaign in the Strip, in the event that the escalation continues. In practice, the army is not keen on this possibility. It seems that Hamas is not eager to renew the fighting either. This time, is seems that it is the senior members of the organization’s military wing who are more cautious, preferring to halt the escalation in order to try and repair the damage incurred in the last operation.

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