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Israel-Iran Collision Almost Inevitable, IDF Chief Makes Clear

In resolute speech on Mideast threats, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi implied Israel attacks Iranian weapon convoys smuggled through Iraq. He also warned of a conflict up north

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Military hardware on display at an exhibition in Tehran, Sept. 25, 2019.
Military hardware on display at an exhibition in Tehran, Sept. 25, 2019.Credit: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Over the years, the annual lecture at the conference in memory of the late Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak has become a kind of initiation ceremony for new IDF chiefs. Aviv Kochavi delivered it on Wednesday at nearly the end of his first year as chief of staff.

In a long, comprehensive and eloquent address at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, Kochavi presented a thorough analysis of the regional situation. The bottom line – was it ever any different? – is not optimistic: Kochavi identifies more threatening activities against Israel, more hostile organizations, more missiles and rockets and improvements in the level of precision of the missiles in enemy hands.

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Like his predecessor Gadi Eisenkot, Kochavi reiterates that none of Israel’s enemies want to start a war with it. But even more than Eisenkot in the latter’s speech in this same place last year, Kochavi sounds almost fatalistic in his assessment that military friction between Israel and Iran is expected to increase over the next year and could, under extreme circumstances, even deteriorate into war.

Here are some of Kochavi’s key points in his hour-long lecture:

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi at an event, December 2019.Credit: David Bachar

* The Middle East: Kochavi stressed the connection between the various arenas – Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians in the territories – and the possibility that a flare-up in one area will affect the others. He sees Iran and its proxies as the main threat against Israel. To Kochavi, the Gaza Strip is a secondary arena, in which attainment of long-term calm will help the army focus on the conflict with Iran.

The IDF chief hinted at the possibility of deepening connections with some of the Sunni countries in the region; unusually, he stressed the good military ties with Russia, but quickly added that Israel’s key strategic asset, along with its security forces, is the strong backing it has from the United States. Kochavi frequently mentioned offensive operations by the IDF, some of them secret (in Syria, along with other operations), in all the arenas and in points distant from Israel. He clarified for the first time almost directly that Israel is thwarting Iranian arms shipments while they are being smuggled through Iraq. Israel, he said, will not allow this to go on.

* Iran: While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stresses the nuclear threat from Iran, the army continues to emphasize Iran’s missile program, the increased military presence of the Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Tehran’s involvement in terror in the region. Kochavi hinted at the inaction of the Gulf states and the United States in the face of Iranian strikes on oil installations and ships. “It would be better if we weren’t alone,” he remarked.

* The Gaza Strip: On this issue Kochavi reflected for the first time the message conveyed by the IDF General Staff for five weeks now, since the end of the last escalation in the Strip. The IDF is certain that Hamas is heading for long-term calm and sees an opportunity for a comprehensive agreement with the organization. “Hamas is a terror group. But it has been preoccupied over the past two years with one key issue, improving the economic well-being of the population,” the chief of staff said. “Major improvement can be reached in the security situation in Gaza by means of relief measures. This is the government’s policy – and I support it,” he added. Kochavi described the opportunity as “fragile,” and a “unique moment,” that is, a brief period that he believes should be taken advantage of quickly and efficiently.

* The role of the IDF: The army, according to Kochavi, must provide security and a sense of security to Israel’s citizens (in the Gaza border area, he conceded, the army has had difficulty with the second task). If war breaks out, the army must come out of it with a clear victory so that the resulting deterrence attained will create a longer period until the next war (the possibility of peace was not mentioned in his speech). The IDF provides a deterrent because of its strength, but also because Israel conveys a willingness to use it. The army’s main function under his command, Kochavi said, will be to upgrade its ability to achieve a greater victory in a shorter time.

* Coordinating expectations: This will not be easy, Kochavi conceded. With this point as well, he seemed to go further than his predecessors in similar speeches. Kochavi went into quite some detail about what the Israeli home front can expect in a war that includes massive rocket fire from the north. He warned that the public will have to realize that the IDF will have significant losses in such a conflict; he explained, a few days after the announcement of the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, that in a clash in Lebanon Israel will act with force to disperse civilians from areas of fighting in the south.

Kochavi added that Israel will use major firepower in densely populated urban areas and said that in any clash with a terror group, the IDF would strike national infrastructure of the host country. These are also ideas that have been raised in the past, during the time of IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi and thereafter, but it seems that Kochavi worded them more strongly.

Kochavi’s effort could clearly be seen in these remarks to coordinate expectations with the Israeli public, to explain how hard and how costly a future war would be, in which the home front will come under fire like no other time in the past. This is admirable frankness, but it apparently had a secondary goal: to lay the groundwork for battles over the budget that are expected if a government is finally formed after the coming election in March.

The steps the chief of staff wants to advance in the framework of the multiyear program dubbed “Momentum,” will cost tens of billions of shekels. To that end a substantial budgetary addition will be needed. Netanyahu has made somewhat vague promises to upgrade the security budget, but the Finance Ministry, as is to be expected, vehemently opposes this – and no one can say whether Netanyahu will remain in office after the election, on the assumption that he intends to keep his promises to the army.

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