Analysis |

Israel’s Top General Is Confused. He’s Not Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser

By attacking the United States' still-unformulated Iran policy, IDF chief Aviv Kochavi is ingratiating himself with Netanyahu – and irritating the new White House

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Alon Pinkas
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IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi speaks on the ISS Magen ship in the Haifa port, December 2, 2020.
IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi speaks on the ISS Magen ship in the Haifa port, December 2, 2020.Credit: rami shllush
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

In a normal, constitutionally-functioning democracy, where civil-military relations are clear and the chain of command is respected, the IDF Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, would have been summoned Tuesday night to the prime minister’s office.

There, Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz would have severely reprimanded him and instructed him to find the opportunity to retract his remarks on the United States’ Iran policy. A policy which, by the way, doesn’t even exist yet.

But this can't happen in Israel. Not while Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister.

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The IDF chief of the general staff said in a speech delivered at the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv on Tuesday that “Iran is a global problem. No one has any doubts that Iran has military nuclear ambitions and plans to use that weapon. Returning to the Iran nuclear deal, or even a similar agreement with improvements, is a bad and wrong thing to do”.

Kochavi went on to add a practical policy statement, saying that “the IDF is reviewing and updating operational plans to curtail the Iranian nuclear program.”

Here are a few questions for Lt. General Kochavi: If Iran is a global problem, as you said, why are you “Israelizing” it by giving this kind of high-profile speech?

On what basis do you determine that Iran “plans to use the weapon?” Is this the official and up-to-date intelligence assessment of the IDF and the Israeli intelligence community?

How are your statements consistent with those of several former chiefs of staff, including your immediate predecessor, Lt. Gen. (Res.) Gadi Eisenkot, who thought that the agreement, while flawed, was better than the alternatives, and even somewhat beneficial to Israel?

The headlines in Israel framed Kochavi’s speech as “a message to the Biden administration.” But while the chief of staff’s generosity in imparting his foreign policy wisdom to the new administration is commendable, it is doubtful that it will be effective. In fact, it may prove to be counter-productive. This direct criticism of a new U.S. administration, presented by Israel’s top soldier acting as a proxy for Netanyahu, threatens to repeat the mistakes of 2014-2015. Then, Netanyahu preferred bickering with then-President Barack Obama over getting a seat at the table in Washington, where the Iran deal was being crafted.

Kochavi and Netanyahu in November 2019. Credit: CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS

By inserting himself so publicly into internal American deliberations a week after a new administration was inaugurated, Kochavi most probably did more harm than good.

Kochavi is not the first high-ranking Israeli to utter inappropriate and unbecoming statements on U.S. policy. Over the years, there have been quite a few instances in which Israeli officials casually expressed ludicrous and reckless remarks with impunity, all for domestic consumption. Such comments were usually dismissed as just another case of the Israelis’ tendency to run their mouths. Nothing to see here, carry on.

For example, in 2009, following the Obama administration’s pressure on Israel and conflicts with Netanyahu on settlement expansions, Yossi Peled, a minister without a portfolio in the Netanyahu government, distributed a two-page brief entitled “Proposed retributions against the United States.” Yes, you read that right.

In 2014, when then-Secretary of State John Kerry launched his shuttle diplomacy in an effort to start an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Israel’s then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon lashed out, saying that Kerry “is messianic and obsessive. He should take a Nobel Prize for himself and go away.” Ya'alon, in his defense, quickly apologized ahead of a planned trip to Washington.

But Unlike Peled, Yaalon and of course Netanyahu himself, who went behind Obama’s and Biden’s backs and invited himself to speak out in Congress against their policy in 2015, Kochavi isn’t a politician. He’s a soldier. For him, speaking publicly against a possible U.S. policy, which is still being crafted, is inexcusable. Not because he is necessarily wrong, but because it’s unnecessarily irritating to the new White House.

Here is a novel idea for Lt. Gen. Kochavi: Just do it the right way. It’s simple.

Compile all the relevant intelligence and analyses on a possible U.S. policy and on Iranian options and intentions. Go to see the defense minister and the prime minister. Tell them you have serious reservations about the direction Biden is leaning towards, and that Israel must convey them forcefully and robustly to the United States before a policy takes form.

Invite yourself to a discreet meeting with General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is not only your counterpart and interlocutor, he is also, by law, the principal military advisor to the president, The National Security Council and the secretary of defense. Present him with the most compelling case possible, explain why re-entering the agreement is a bad idea, and tell him you’d be willing to share relevant intelligence.

Do not play politics, do not meddle in U.S. policy, do not grade American policy makers, do not make threats.

If that presentation, coupled with an upcoming visit by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to Washington, fails to influence U.S. policy, then the prime minister can decide how to confront the new administration. Certainly not the IDF chief of the general staff.

Speaking at the INSS is a great maneuver to endear yourself to Mr. Netanyahu, particularly if you want another year leading the military, but it won’t help you make friends, or influence policy, in Biden’s Washington.

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