Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi made haste to present a firm opinion of U.S. President Joe Biden’s declared intention to return to the nuclear deal with Iran, which the United States withdrew from in 2018. “This is bad and wrong strategically and operatively,” Kochavi said at a lecture Tuesday at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. According to Kochavi, the agreement “will allow the enrichment of quantities [of uranium] and develop centrifuges to the point of hurtling toward a bomb. … It will apparently lead to regional nuclearization in the Middle East,” and therefore it “must not be allowed.”
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If Kochavi were not IDF chief of staff, his opinion might be considered a legitimate assessment, or an educated guess. The agreement itself, it should be recalled, includes precise and detailed clauses with methods of invasive inspection to which Iran agreed, and lengthy periods of between 10 and 30 years, in which it would not be permitted to enrich uranium to a high level. According to reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency and American and Israeli intelligence, Iran met all its obligations until 2019 – a year after the United States withdrew from the pact – before it began to breach some of the restrictions imposed on it in a measured way.
The problem and the damage in the chief of staff’s remarks are not his predictions. When the chief of staff reveals that he has directed the army to prepare an operative plan against Iran, “in addition to existing ones,” he greatly exceeds his authority. His words are an intentional shot at Biden and an open threat that Israel’s military might act independently against Iran. In addition, his words restrict any strategic discussion meant to take place in Israel – even before the special team that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to establish has come into being to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue, and before the defense minister has even declared his position.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz made clear back in 2015 when he was chief of staff: “A better agreement could have been achieved, but I refuse to go into hysterics. The agreement has distanced Iran 15 years from the bomb.” His position must be heard before the chief of staff presents an operative plan, or states a position that could place Israel in conflict with the new American administration.
Israel’s response to Biden’s policy will test its relationship with the United States not only on the Iranian nuclear issue. Its formulation requires good judgment, diplomatic wisdom and military caution. The chief of staff’s statements do not attest to the presence of these features. It is hoped that Kochavi did not mean to be Netanyahu’s mouthpiece when he spoke against the nuclear agreement.
The prime minister and defense minister must put the chief of staff in his place, make their positions clear and retain the power to conduct policy, not deliver it into the hands of someone unauthorized to wield it.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.