Analysis

U.S. Worried Israel Will Strike Iran. Israel Is Worried About Something Else

With Netanyahu's legal woes and a new defense minister looking to score political points, Israel's security establishment has one responsible adult

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Naftali Bennett visit an army base in the Golan Heights overlooking Syrian territory, on November 24, 2019. 
Haim Zach / GPO

Israel has hosted a series of senior defense officials in recent weeks, climaxing in Sunday’s visit by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, who was hosted by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi.

Both countries took care to stress that ties between their respective defense establishments are particularly close. But two other considerations that aren’t talked about publicly are also apparently motivating this aerial convoy of senior American officials. Both have to do with calming fears – Israel’s fear of American abandonment and America’s fear of unilateral Israeli action.

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The Israeli fear stems from the Trump administration’s recent moves: It has refrained from responding to Iranian attacks in the Gulf, including one that did serious damage to Saudi oil facilities, another that downed an expensive American drone, and has withdrawn American soldiers from the Kurdish regions of northeast Syria, opening the way for a Turkish ground invasion. Israel is scared by America’s apparent desire to quit the region, which leaves Iran with more room to maneuver.

The Americans, in contrast, are apparently worried about decisions Israel might make in the future. Senior Israeli officials speak ceaselessly about the dangers posed by Iran’s efforts to entrench itself militarily in southern Syria, smuggle advanced weaponry to Hezbollah and bolster its presence in Iraq and Yemen. Increased military friction between Israel and Iran plus its satellites could drag the Americans into a regional war, which, judging by his public statements, U.S. President Donald Trump doesn’t want.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley shaking hands with IDF chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi after landing in Israel, November 24, 2019.
Israel Defense Forces

This is somewhat reminiscent of the series of senior Pentagon officials who visited Israel in the summer of 2011 and again the following summer. At both junctures, as we later discovered, Israel was considering attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities on its own. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak favored such an attack; the American generals were sent to take the pulse of their Israeli counterparts who opposed it.

As far as we know, no such attack is currently on the agenda, since Iran is still committed in principle to its nuclear deal with five major powers (the sixth, America, quit the deal in May 2018), and its recent violations of the deal haven’t yet crossed the line that Israel deems intolerable.

Nevertheless, Israeli officials’ recent statements about Iran have been unusually aggressive.

On Sunday, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett toured the Syrian and Lebanese borders. Netanyahu announced that Israel would work to thwart arms smuggling from Iran to Syria and block its efforts “to turn Iraq and Yemen into bases for launching missiles.” Bennett added that Iranian forces in Syria “have nothing to look for here.”

Monday, at the official memorial ceremony for soldiers who died in the 1956 Sinai war, Bennett said, “it’s clear to our enemies that we’ll respond to any attempt to prevent us from living. Our response will be very precise and very painful. I’m aiming these remarks not only at those who threaten our lives on the southern front, but also at those in the north.”

Senior Israeli officials have also referred to the domestic woes the Iranian regime is facing – a massive wave of protests in Iraq and Lebanon that has taken on an anti-Iranian flavor, and last week’s violent protests in Iran in response to a hike in gas prices. The warnings about possible Iranian moves against Israel aren’t a false alarm. But it’s impossible to completely separate Israeli officials’ considerations from the domestic situation, primarily the decision to indict Netanyahu and the impasse in efforts to form a government

For years, Netanyahu was justly praised for showing responsibility and restraint in employing military force, especially his stubborn refusal to bow to populist pressure for another pointless war in the Gaza Strip. On the northern front, too, he generally acted with finesse which prevented a full-scale clash with Iran.

But he has had one documented slip: A week before September’s election, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit had to intervene (with the army’s encouragement) to stop him from an operation in Gaza that could have forced a postponement of the election, and which he planned to launch without vetting it with the security cabinet.

A person who in recent years was in the know about the “campaign between the wars,” the IDF’s operations beyond Israel’s borders, was asked last week about how much the continued conflict between Iran and Israel depended on actions taken by the latter. The answer was: “20 to 80,” in other words Israel is the one who will dictate to a great extent how things develop. This situation will require all the oversight bodies – the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, attorney general, the media – to be on heightened alert. And mostly, it places particular responsibility on Kochavi, who testified after the recent targeted killing in Gaza that all the decisions were made in a business-like manner and were not influenced by political considerations.

Given the circumstances in which Netanyahu is preoccupied with his own personal fate and the new defense minister needs to take advantage of the relatively short time he has at his disposal to make himself stand out politically, all eyes are on Kochavi. He pushed to take an aggressive line in the recent operations in Gaza and Syria, and he is now the responsible adult. In addition, a number of other senior defense officials are identified more with Netanyahu than Kochavi is, or are examining the events mostly from the tactical viewpoint, which emphasizes the need for continuing with counter-operations. The previous IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, demonstrated an especially strong backbone – sometimes it seemed as If he was almost roaring for battle with the politicians. Now Kochavi is facing, against his will, a similar test.

The military cannot be completely protected against the political considerations that preoccupy the establishment. The General Staff is not a monastery and its generals are well aware of what is going on in the country. But the commanders of the division that Bennett and Netanyahu visited on Sunday, and the pilots who undertake their night-time missions, must be certain that the security decisions about life or death matters are made for the right reasons. Given Netanyahu’s apocalyptic mood, reflected in the last few days in the vicious attacks against prosecutors and the police, the doubts about his decision-making have been growing.

At the beginning of the decade, the defense establishment was rocked by the Harpaz affair, which was mainly an unrestrained conflict between then chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and Barak. Netanyahu, as prime minister, showed zero interest in the affair. He suddenly remembered it only in the course of the last year when Ashkenazi entered political life and Mendelblit – who as Military Advocate General was almost court martialed for criminally delaying the handling of a forged document – began to be perceived, as far as Netanyahu was concerned, as a real threat. During this period, the question came up of how the military could preserve its moral and professional compass, while the defense leadership wallowed in mudslinging. This question is now even more resounding when the prime minister is in trouble and the security crisis can ruin all the politicians’ plans.