Israeli Army's Scaremongering on Iran Is Back. Here's Why

Iran - not Hamas or Hezbollah - is the Israeli defense establishment’s biggest and most effective way of getting a higher spending increase

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Israeli soldiers take part in an Israeli air force drill, this year.
Israeli soldiers take part in an Israeli air force drill, this year.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

In pre-coronavirus Israel, the heat of July and August used to be the slow news season, lacking the dramatic events of the sort the country is accustomed to. This summer, though, it seems to have been replaced by fear-sowing season. Over the past few weeks, the army brass has been conducting briefings with journalists that once again paint a grim picture of war and conflict in the north, the south and with Iran.

The Israel Defense Forces have held several exercises along the Lebanese border, the Defense Ministry’s National Emergency Management Authority reported that it finished preparations for evacuating border towns and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi has spoken about the need to improve readiness as Iran continues to make headway in its nuclear program.

These words and actions, even if some of them were long in the works, are intended to do one thing, and that is to influence Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and treasury officials as they begin work on the state budget, which must be approved by the Knesset by November. My queries to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit about how large of a spending increase Kochavi is seeking went unanswered, but it’s safe to assume that it amounts to at least 5 billion shekels ($1.5 billion). There are three reasons – or to be more precise, three excuses – for seeking this increase:

A photo of an Israeli combat soldier, released by the IDF's Spokesperson's unit.Credit: IDF Spokesperson

* Fears that Lebanon may collapse, and that Hezbollah may be tempted to export the country’s problems by entering a conflict of some sort with Israel. There is a real danger that Lebanon will disintegrate, but Hezbollah has no interest in opening a front with Israel – over the past 15 years, it’s learned that its scope of action is limited. Moreover, it is not Hezbollah who will decide on any clash on Israel’s northern border, but Iran.

* Israel’s fragile and complex relations with Hamas. All it takes is one miscalculation for any minor incident in the south or in Jerusalem to spiral out of control. That was the case for Operation Guardian of the Walls in May, a war that neither side wanted. The IDF’s firepower by itself acts as a deterrent even without a ground operation, and Hamas admits that the damage done during the flare-up to Gaza’s already crumbling infrastructure is severe. While it’s true that Hamas and Islamic Jihad could resume their rocket fire at any moment, they are aware that they will sustain such painful blows that they will be unable to improve the quality of life for the two million Gazans living in squalor. Hamas exists for the sake of its rearmament and its continued struggle against Israel, but its leaders understand that they can’t press their luck too far.

* Both Kochavi and his supporter, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, realize that demands for spending increases will get them nowhere if they are dependent on the threats Israel faces from Hamas and Hezbollah alone. Iran is the defense establishment’s biggest and most effective bogeyman, even if there’s a new government that doesn’t see things quite the same way as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Like Netanyahu, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his defense minister have vowed not to allow Iran to attain military nuclear capabilities. But in contrast to Netanyahu, they aren’t threatening war, and say they favor a dialogue with the United States.

IDF soldiers on the Lebanon border during Operation Guardian of the Walls in May.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Bennett, Gantz, most of the security cabinet, senior Knesset members; new National Security Council head Eyal Hulata, most top defense officials including Kochavi – all of them know perfectly well, even if they won’t admit it publicly, that attacking Iran is not a viable military option for Israel. They know that the best way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities is through the 2015 nuclear accord. It is the lesser of the available evils.

Regarding Kochavi’s talk of IDF readiness, Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben Barak, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a former Mossad official, told Haaretz that he does not believe that Israel’s military preparedness has diminished in recent years.

Israeli and U.S intelligence agencies estimate that returning to the nuclear deal will set back Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb by a year, but even then, it will take them a few more years to arm a warhead. “Nothing will hold Iran back more than a good deal. The 2015 deal is not perfect, but it is still good for Israel, “said MK Yair Golan (Meretz), a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee who previously served as IDF deputy chief of staff. At the same time, he proposes that the United States “join us in creating a military threat” and to continue the Air Force and Military Intelligence’s covert operations.

A bulldozer on Israel's border with Lebanon, on Tuesday.Credit: Rami Shllush

Decoy provocations?

It is not certain that Israel has ever had a real military option against the Iranian nuclear program. Maybe in the first decade of the century, during the tenures of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. At the time, the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan and the centrifuge plant in Karaj were in early stages of operation. Sharon and Olmert preferred to sabotage, thwart, and delay the Iranian program, and then-Mossad head Meir Dagan focused all the power in his hands to achieving those means.

Dagan’s toolbox, the media said, included joint operations and close coordination with the United States, crippling international sanctions and covert cyber warfare, assassinating scientists and sabotaging facilities. These activities eventually forced Iran to enter negotiations with world powers about halting its nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar greeting Gazans after the cease-fire with Israel in May.Credit: John Minchillo/AP

Then-Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman told me in the past that Israel’s best window of opportunity for attacking Iranian nuclear sites was during the George W. Bush presidency. They did not seize this opportunity because, among other reasons, Olmert rightly ordered an even more important strike – the attack on the nuclear reactor in Syria.

Upon Netanyahu’s return to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009, I wrote an article in which I suggested that he attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and, at the same time, that he agree to a Palestinian state and work towards its establishment. It could have been a win-win. Most of the world, and especially Arab states, would have been glad to see an attack on Iran and would have welcomed an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Netanyahu established himself in office, and together with the then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, began to talk ceaselessly about the need to strike Iran. Netanyahu and Barak, with the help of the IDF and the Mossad, formulated operational plans. Some of them were bold and creative, but also risky. It is doubtful whether the two really intended to carry them out. In my assessment, they meant to create the impression that Israel was going to attack, but in practice launched provocations aimed at making the United States do the dirty work.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi at a ceremony at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, in June.Credit: Moti Milrod

I heard things in this vein from General Michael Hayden, who served as head of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Netanyahu and Barak also managed to deceive Dagan and then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who maintained open channels of communication with the U.S. administration. Ashkenazi himself admitted to me that he doesn’t rule out the possibility that Netanyahu and Barak pulled one over on him and Dagan in order to increase pressure on Washington.

The chances of attacking Iran are even lower today. Nuclear facilities are scattered throughout the Islamic Republic, and some are fortified dozens of meters underground. Israel does not have bombs that can penetrate such depths. It is also unlikely that operations attributed to the Mossad under Yossi Cohen – stealing the nuclear archive, sabotaging nuclear facilities, assassinating the “father of Iran’s nuclear weapons program” Mohsen Fakhrizadeh – have made Iran change course.

Although U.S. President Joe Biden assured former President Reuven Rivlin that the administration will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, he opposes military action and seeks to re-enter the agreement from which his country withdrew in 2018.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receives the second dose of the COVIran Barakat vaccine, last week.Credit: OFFICIAL KHAMENEI WEBSITE/ REU

It may be time for Israel to switch gears and try, through secret channels and with the aid of U.S., Chinese, or Russian mediators, to reach quiet understandings with Iran. Through such a “ceasefire,” both sides will end the covert operations attributed to them – from cyberattacks to strikes on ships, from attempting to target Israeli embassies to assassinations. The chances of that happening are not great, but it’s worth a try.

If there is a conclusion to all this, it is that there has been no adverse change in Israel’s strategic situation, and there is therefore no justification for increasing the defense budget. Israel was and still is the most powerful country in a region that stretches from Pakistan to the Mediterranean. It faces no existential threat, and should therefore prioritize investments in its education, health and welfare systems.

Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, during an official ceremony to kick-start works on a second reactor at the facility, in 2019.Credit: ATTA KENARE - AFP

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