Analysis |

Israel Is Encouraging the West to Push Iran Into a Corner

But the question remains whether the latest moves against Iran are coordinated and focused enough ■ On women’s service in combat units, the rabbis may be too late

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A demonstration of a monitoring camera used in Iran during a press conference of Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna on Thursday.
A demonstration of a monitoring camera used in Iran during a press conference of Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna on Thursday.Credit: Joe Klamar/AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Iran was displeased with resolutions adopted this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Meeting in Vienna, the agency’s board of governors rebuked Tehran for not providing adequate explanations on the “open files” – undeclared sites where traces of enriched uranium have been found.

In principle, this constitutes a basis for referring the discussion on Iranian violations to the UN Security Council, though it’s unlikely this would lead to new international sanctions on Tehran. The Iranians responded with a move of their own: They removed two IAEA surveillance cameras at Natanz and are considering doing something similar at other sites.

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said the Iranians severely restricted the agency's ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear sites. If this situation isn't turned around within three or four weeks, “this would be a fatal blow” to reviving the nuclear deal, he said. To put it another way, Iran could use that time to produce enough enriched uranium for one bomb.

Rafael Grossi.Credit: Joe Klamar/AFP

Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies says the new situation isn’t necessarily to Tehran’s detriment. “Since the parties don’t want a crisis, they’ll keep moving slowly on resuming negotiations,” he said.

“This is another incredible show of the Iranians’ ability to haggle over everything. There will be preliminary talks on reinstalling the cameras, shutting them off, deleting the footage, and so on. Meanwhile, the world will be minding its own business, avoiding difficult decisions, and the Iranians will be able to move forward if they want.”

But Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz welcomed the agency’s statement of “profound concern” about Iran’s behavior and explanations. Israel's political and military leaders increasingly believe that the obstacles blocking a renewed nuclear agreement between Iran and the powers are significant.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Tehran regime also has to cope with disturbances around the country protesting the slashing of subsidies for basic commodities, alongside the ongoing impact of the U.S. sanctions. The impression is that the West, with Israel’s active encouragement, is pushing the Iranians into a corner. The question is whether these moves are sufficiently calculated and coordinated, and what exactly the goal is.

The Israeli media's extensive coverage of the incidents in Iran in recent weeks could create the impression that Israel is contributing to the pressure on Tehran in other ways as well. After the assassination of a Revolutionary Guards colonel in Tehran (which U.S. sources attributed to Israel), four more mysterious incidents occurred where, according to the reports, another officer, an engineer and two scientists working in Iran’s arms and nuclear industries were killed. The details remain vague, and it’s doubtful whether all the incidents are linked to Israel.

But Bennett, his governing coalition at the mercy of backbenchers' extortion, desperately needs good headlines. That’s probably why Bennett is taking pride in getting tougher with Iran, with whispered hints about responsibility for mysterious operations.

This week, defense officials wistfully recalled another prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who would end discussions on assassination plans by pounding the table and ordering: “Liquidate and shut up.” The other side will tell the story.

Not that Sharon was always a saint when it came to blabbing, but this approach might be worthwhile, especially as it’s known that the Iranians are planning reprisal operations. Besides the unusual travel alert for Israeli tourists in Turkey, some former defense officials are talking about possible cyberattacks and attempts to lure Israelis into traps abroad.

For the Iranians, the campaign has just begun, and for Israel it’s too soon to declare victory. The impression is that everyone involved is trying to raise the temperature in a way that could lead to an escalation.

Despite Bennett's well-founded allegations against Benjamin Netanyahu – whom he claims neglected the military option against Iran also in the three years after the United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement – Bennett isn't really taking a line different from his predecessor.

Bennett is talking about the Iranian octopus' head and tentacles? With Netanyahu, it was a cat's paws and claws. Netanyahu was against the nuclear agreement? So is Bennett. Netanyahu boasted about secret operations that achieved unprecedented deterrence? So does Bennett. He's more than 20 years younger but there has been no real shift in Israel’s security approach on Iran.

Both have promised us blood, sweat and tears, though Bennett, to his credit, isn't clashing with the Biden administration.

Weighing the options

Since the army's reply to the High Court of Justice – detailing its plans to integrate women into several additional combat roles – was made public late last month, the religious Zionist movement has been up in arms.

It seems that rabbis of different outlooks have agreed to try to foil the army's plans. The rabbis want a meeting with the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Aviv Kochavi.

But the rabbis might be too late. The IDF has changed a lot, especially in the past decade. The army expects that this year alone more than 4,500 women will be drafted into combat roles, a 25 percent surge in three years.

Female IDF combat soldiers.Credit: Jack Guez/AFP

The transformation was forced from below; more and more young women want to be classified for combat duty, including many hundreds of religious women. The High Command acceded to the demand, partly because assigning women to these roles (like air defense, artillery and the Home Front Command's rescue battalions), frees up men for the infantry and Armored Corps.

The rabbis are worried that women will soon be in the infantry as well, and even in the special forces.

The pilot programs will show that there are suitable women to whom the IDF will gradually open more battalions in every corps. The four young women who petitioned the High Court to let them compete for spots in the special forces (and thus also in the infantry, where the requirements are lower) want to lift the last significant barriers after dozens of other posts in combat units and elsewhere were made accessible to women over the past decade.

The IDF is against opening the leading special forces units such as Sayeret Matkal, Shaldag and the naval commandos, so it suggested a compromise: Consider the integration of women into Unit 699, the airborne rescue unit, and the Engineering Corps' elite unit, Yahalom. It's also launching a pilot program to integrate women into the infantry's units that carry ammunition and rescue wounded soldiers.

In its reply to the High Court, the IDF didn't mention a weighty issue: what effect women on the front will have on combat capabilities, and whether rifts will send religious men migrating between units. The rabbis’ argument is that Israel will have “an army of tribes.”

On the other hand, remember that it's religious combat soldiers who have their own homogeneous units, like the Netzah Yehuda battalion of ultra-Orthodox soldiers, where women are verboten, even as secretaries.

When Kochavi chose Unit 699, not Sayeret Matkal, as the venue for the next trial, the major argument was that the unit’s troops don’t need to spend many days across the border. But two issues should be noted. First, according to the Palestinian media, the Israel special ops unit that got entangled in Khan Yunis in Gaza in 2018, in the incident where Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din was killed, included women.

Second, the latest Sayeret Matkal commanders support the integration of women; among them is Col. H. (the unit's commander during the Khan Yunis operation), who wrote a High Court opinion backing the petitioners.

So it was interesting to hear what former Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz told Kan public radio on Thursday. Mofaz, a former deputy commander of Sayeret Matkal who retains strong links with the special forces, said the warnings about a decline in quality after the entry of women are “excuses aimed at delaying an inevitable process.”

Kochavi preferred Unit 669 as the experimental arena, but there was a hitch that the reporters played up, of course. The Medical Corps was concerned about the high number of injuries among female combat troops compared to men in similar roles, stemming from differences in things like muscle mass and the angle of the knee, which creates a different load on a woman's pelvis. Thus to be in a rescue unit, a woman must weigh at least 78 kilograms (172 pounds), which would disqualify a lot of women.

As far as I could tell, this isn't an attempt to foil the project from the start. At the same time, there's no doubt that the three justices who will hear the petition, all of them women headed by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, haven't missed the media’s coverage of this demand that's very hard to meet.

The IDF may discover that this argument will tilt the High Court’s ruling against it on the grounds that the army didn't provide a good alternative for the young women. The army is falling into a ditch it dug itself.

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