Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Israel-US-Iran (February 1, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Israel-US-Iran: complicated even before Kochavi’s strategic surprise


Q. Last week, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi warned publicly of the danger of a new US-Iran nuclear deal and stated that Israel must have its own military option ready for preventing an Iran military nuclear breakout. Why Kochavi? Why now? Is this indeed Israel’s policy?

A. Kochavi’s speech, delivered by Zoom at the annual strategic affairs forum of Israel’s preeminent think tank, INSS, was in a number of ways unusually aggressive and outspoken. It appears not to have been coordinated with either the political security echelon, meaning PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Gantz, or the rest of Israel’s security establishment. Nor is it clear whether Kochavi’s remarks were intended primarily to deter Iran or to place the Biden administration on notice. 

But Kochavi is Israel’s chief soldier. So one way or another, both Tehran and Washington took notice. So did Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where virtually no one, including Netanyahu who is known to oppose a renewed JCPOA Iran nuclear deal, backed the chief of staff publicly. 

A number of senior Israeli serving and former security officials told the media that Kochavi’s stand could severely complicate Israel-US relations. Kochavi’s remarks, the officials noted, painted Israel as arrogantly trying to drag the US toward war with Iran. They warned against any Israeli attempt to openly challenge the Biden administration and/or to ‘go it alone’ against the Iran nuclear program.

Kochavi’s remarks were a bombshell. They caught Israel at a time when it is preoccupied with an acute covid crisis and extended lockdown. The entire political establishment is maneuvering frantically to put together election lists before a filing deadline this Thursday, February 4 at midnight. Elections are set for March 23.  

And the remarks caught Washington at a time when the Biden administration ‘Iran team’ is still being formed and no firm policy regarding Iran has as yet emerged. General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Central Command that has just taken responsibility for US military coordination with Israel (mainly against Iran), was on his way to Israel for a brief visit.

So who needed Kochavi’s intervention?


Q. Let’s break this down. What did Kochavi say that was so controversial?

A. “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 a number of improvements, is a bad and wrong thing to do. . . . The IDF is reviewing and updating operational plans to curtail the Iranian nuclear program. . . . I have instructed the IDF to draw up a number of operational plans in addition to the existing plans.”

Everything in these few sentences is controversial. If Iran is a global problem, why does Kochavi volunteer Israel alone to deal with its nuclear program? Is Israel capable of doing this on its own, particularly after it has alienated the Biden administration? Why is Kochavi presenting an assessment of the JCPOA that contradicts what virtually the entirely security establishment, including himself when he headed IDF Intelligence, has been stating for years: that the JCPOA is flawed but is better than nothing; that the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy toward Iran, that scuttled the JCPOA, failed and moved Iran closer to a military nuclear capability?

Was Kochavi’s new and aggressive position designed to endear him to PM Netanyahu, whose support for Trump’s JCPOA folly and opposition to even an improved JCPOA is well known? Or was the IDF chief of staff trying in his own clumsy way simply to deter Israel’s Islamist enemies--not just Iran but Hezbollah and Hamas too? 

Netanyahu thus far has been very careful to avoid antagonizing President Biden over Iran. The deterrence explanation gains greater credence when we examine some of the other provocative statements Kochavi made last week in that same INSS speech.

Pointing to the Hezbollah and Hamas tactic of ignoring international law by embedding their missiles in populated areas, Kochavi argued that “because of this, we must alter combat patterns, thought patterns and even international law to the way we need to fight.” To my understanding, he is putting our Iran-proxy non-state neighbors on notice that attacking Israel will draw fire that kills large numbers of their civilians.

The idea, voiced in the past by IDF leaders, is presumably to generate civilian pressure on Hamas and Hezbollah to leave Israel alone. But is there a civilian echelon in Gaza and Lebanon that is capable of acting as Kochavi wishes? Can Israel get away with overtly ‘altering’ international law in response to missile attacks on its civilians? Should it?

Kochavi’s boisterous statement that Israel is part of an “alliance” linking Greece and Cyprus to its west via neighboring Egypt and Jordan all the way to the Emirates on the east is equally problematic. Yes, there are arms deals, intelligence sharing and joint maneuvers. But I know of no formal alliance and no commitment by any other country to fight alongside Israel against Iran. Are Cyprus and Bahrain comfortable being labeled Israel’s “allies” by such a high-level Israeli strategic leader? Did anybody ask them?


Q. Are joint US-Israel strategy sessions on Iran being held at this early stage in the formation of the Biden administration’s Middle East strategic team? Is there as yet even a clearly enunciated US policy on the Iran nuclear issue?

A. It appears to be too early. In other words, Kochavi’s statements could not even have been based on knowledge of a firm and known Biden administration policy. Even Biden’s key Iran advisers are not yet on the same page.

Thus, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated that it will take time to crystallize a policy toward Iran and that the new policy must deal with additional Iran-related issues besides the nuclear. Presumably he was referring to Iran’s missile arsenal and its hegemonic aggression in the Levant region. 

In contrast, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan wants to hurry the process and focus exclusively on the JCPOA as a “critical, early priority”. Then there is Rob Malley, appointed by Biden as his Iran envoy, who is under attack from conservative circles in the US and Israel for tilting too much toward Iran and being too critical toward Israel. 

Despite March elections and overflowing hospital corona wards, there are Israeli strategic planners who hang on every word uttered by Blinken, Sullivan and Malley. Yet without a clear American policy, there is as yet nothing for Israel to address. And when the US policy does emerge, Israel should address it discreetly, not by Zoom to the entire world. That’s why Kochavi’s remarks are so problematic for both Israel and the US.


Q. Leaving Kochavi’s remarks aside, what is Israel doing about the Iran issue at this stage?

A. The IDF continues to successfully prosecute its grey zone ‘Campaign between Wars’ (Hebrew acronym: Mabam) against Iran and its allies and proxies in Syria and to a limited extent in Iraq and Lebanon as well. Kochavi has directed this military effort skillfully. Coordination with Russia (in Syria) and with the US has been working well. There is no problem here. Nor, for that matter, is there any problem with the clandestine operations on Iranian soil that are occasionally attributed to the Mossad.

These are undoubtedly key issues on the agenda of outgoing Mossad head Yossi Cohen when he visits Washington on Netanyahu’s behalf sometime in the coming month. Cohen’s visit was announced before Kochavi’s speech, but its significance has now been doubled. It is Cohen who has coordinated Israel’s Iran strategy in recent years and it is he who is seen as ‘Netanyahu’s man’ in this regard: not Kochavi, and certainly not Defense Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, who are Netanyahu’s political rivals.

Cohen has let it be known that he disapproves of Kochavi’s premature pronouncements, made at a time when Biden’s Iran policy has not yet been firmed up. Israel’s US contacts in this regard, Cohen insists, should be clandestine, not public. 

Cohen is leaving the Mossad in June. Netanyahu has reportedly offered to appoint him coordinator of Israel’s ‘Iran project’. (Cohen appears to have political ambitions in the direction of the Likud, but needs to undergo a mandatory three-year cooling-off period.) The last thing Cohen and Netanyahu need right now is a premature crisis in Israeli-US relations.  


Q. Bottom line?

A. Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen and Iraq constitute the only real current strategic threat to Israel. Yes, there are issues with Turkey and the Palestinian Authority, but they are minor by comparison. Despite Kochavi’s remarks about a regional alliance, the United States and the American Jewish community remain Israel’s only real allies.

Over the past decade, PM Netanyahu has repeatedly manifested a readiness to jeopardize and compromise US-Israel strategic coordination regarding Iran. Recall Netanyahu’s push for a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran a decade ago and his March 2015 anti-Obama, anti-JCPOA speech to a joint session of the US Congress. Factor in Netanyahu’s readiness to ally himself exclusively with the Republican party and endanger Israel’s key links with the American Jewish mainstream, which is by-and-large not Republican.

If Netanyahu survives the coming Israeli election, and if he somehow survives or evades his trial on multiple corruption charges--and as a proven political survivor he may just win on both counts--he has his work cut out for him in repairing Israel-US-American Jewish relations. This applies to Iran, the Palestinians and a host of other issues. Kochavi just made Netanyahu’s task harder, whether by design (Netanyahu’s design? Kochavi’s?) or by dint of a colossal mistake.

Nachum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot summed up the impact of Kochavi’s provocative speech: “The words were spoken by the wrong person at the wrong time. In the best case, Kochavi did not understand the ramifications of his words on Israel’s relations with the new administration; in the worst case, he did understand.”   

One way or another, Kochavi’s audacity and poor judgment are symptomatic of Israel’s now-chronic weakness at governance. And that is one-hundred percent Netanyahu’s responsibility.