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As Iran Nuke Deal Seem Unlikely, Israel Must Adapt to a New Strategic Reality

Washington has signaled a willingness to take a tougher stance on Iran. But tensions with Israel over the West Bank could have a detrimental effect ■ Inexperience on security issues could be the hallmark of the new bloated Netanyahu gov't

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israel's security cabinet in Jerusalem, in October.
Israel's security cabinet in Jerusalem, in October.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

For all practical purposes, the likelihood of a new nuclear agreement between Iran and Western powers in the coming months seems like an impossibility. If the Iranians hadn’t already painted themselves into a corner with their decision to violate the present agreement by enriching uranium, they did so in other ways: The violent suppression of the hijab protests, and the extensive exports of drones to Russia – the aggressive and wicked face of the war in Ukraine – were taken in the West as a deliberate attempt to put a spoke in the wheel of the talks.

These circumstances require Israel to adjust its behavior in the face of a strategic reality that doesn't include a renewed agreement. About a year ago, Bennett had already instructed the IDF to accelerate preparations for a possible attack on Iran's nuclear sites, after claiming those efforts had been neglected under Netanyahu. At the same time, Israel also examined additional steps that would pose a more concrete military threat to Iran, preferably with American involvement.

That possibility was discussed during IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi’s visit to the Pentagon last week, as well as in the ongoing strategic dialogue the countries' defense establishments currently maintain. The connection established between Israel and CENTCOM, U.S. Central Command, last year has contributed to the Americans' willingness to translate this into moves on the ground. CENTOM's commander, Gen. Michael Kurilla, has visited Israel four times since taking over the post six months ago.

Aviv Kochavi at the graduation ceremony of the officers' course this December.Credit: Ilan Assayag

On Wednesday, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit announced that Israel and the United States had conducted a joint air force exercise and had simulated an attack on nuclear sites in Iran. Dozens of Israeli air force planes did in fact execute a kind of mirror-image exercise – a complex flight westward, simulating the aerial distance to Iran, in order to attack multiple targets. The American contribution was relatively small: one aerial refueling aircraft that hooked up with the Israeli planes.

It is impossible to infer American readiness for a joint attack on the nuclear sites, as Netanyahu dreamed of in the past, just from the bilateral exercise. But the Biden administration’s consent to broadcast a joint threat towards Iran is an apparent indication that Washington also sees a need to toughen the public line toward the regime in Tehran. Israel will try to leverage this to carry out bigger joint exercises in the future, and for an increased militant attitude toward Iran.

Joint drill between Israeli and American air forces, Wednesday.Credit: Israel Defense Forces Twitter

Even though Iran announced last month that it was also starting to enrich uranium at 60 percent in its fortified underground facility at Fordo (in addition to Natanz), the impression within the IDF is that the project's progress remains cautious. Tehran’s growing strategic connection with Moscow could exacerbate the tension with the European Union and endanger its goals of having the international sanctions placed upon it removed. If one of the European partners to the nuclear agreement – Britain, France or Germany – decides that Iran’s enrichment violations require its withdrawal from the accord, the full scale of the sanctions as they existed before the agreement will automatically snap back.

The arms supply provided to Russia amidst its war in Ukraine are advancing this possibility and Israel would like to heighten the pressure on Iran by rebuilding a credible military threat against it. However, a possible problem is the tensions that will likely be created with the Biden administration over events in the Palestinian territories, and will have a deleterious effect on coordination in the Iranian sphere. Two senior State Department officials in past Democratic administrations – Dan Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller – this week wrote in an article in the Washington Post, “Having brought to life the radical, racist, misogynistic and homophobic far-right parties, Netanyahu is now stuck with them… This coalition’s agenda could be marked by increased settlement activity and land confiscation.”

Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces in Hebron this week.Credit: Mahmoud Illean/AP

In their view, “the unprecedented nature of this coalition… should prompt the White House to send clear messages to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Arab states. First, Israel should be told that, while the United States… will not provide offensive weapons or other assistance for malign Israeli actions in Jerusalem or the occupied territories. The United States specifically should warn against efforts to change the status of the West Bank and the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount.”

No confidence in the security cabinet

The next Netanyahu government is also expected to include an astronomical number of ministers as he tries to massage the egos and satisfy the ambitions of both his coalition partners and Likud members. Apart from Gallant and Arye Dery (Shas), the government will have a marked lack of ministers with rich security or diplomatic experience. This is not just a question of ideological extremism, but also one of inexperience. Anyone who’s counting on the security cabinet as a reasonable substitute, is liable to be disappointed. Some of its members will be there for the first time and others lack any relevant background.

The weakness of the security cabinet is nothing new, it’s an ongoing development. Dr. Eyal Hulata, the national security adviser in the outgoing government, said this week in a conference of the Israel Democracy Institute that he and his staff recently conducted a study that analyzed “what happened to the security cabinet, that very important institution, the only one that is authorized to make a decision to go to war. There is no other institution [for this] in Israel. But when one examines the data for the past four-five years, there is a systematic decline in the number of discussions by the security cabinet, and the number of decisions made.”

Dr. Eyal Hulata this at the Israel Democracy Institute this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Hulata admitted that the security cabinet meets only once every two or three weeks and that “a dynamic [has developed] in which prime ministers prefer other forums for consultation and looking deeper.” The interviewer, Dr. Eran Shamir-Borer, asked whether this was due to fear of leaks, given the desire to maintain secrecy on sensitive and classified issues. “I say with regret that the fact that this important forum has become one where prime ministers are apprehensive that what is said in it will make its way outside, definitely affects the ability to make use of it,” Hulata noted.

Itamar Ben-Gvir at the President's Residence last week.Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon

The problem is not a legal one, he added. The authority remains in the hands of the security cabinet. “It has no substitute. The decisions arrive there. What happens perhaps less is the deep process of consultation that is required. That has to do with the depth of the discussion, with the accumulated experience of the participants. It is not a legal or substantive flaw in decision-making… On the face of it, what is the problem? After all, the ministers can be convened in the dead of night to approve an operation… But the depth is missing. A discussion of strategic alternatives cannot be carried out in a night meeting before embarking on an operation in Gaza,” he said.”

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