Why Is the Chief of Staff of the IDF Warning Against Another Bad Iran Deal?

Kochavi made the speech not in spite of who he is but rather because of who he is.
January 27, 2021
IDF Chief Aviv Kochavi (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

When the chief of staff of the IDF speaks about the Iran nuclear deal, knowing full well that a new American administration is looking to renegotiate it — that’s a big deal. When the chief of staff of the IDF, Aviv Kochavi, said that had the 2015 deal materialized, Iran would have obtained a nuclear bomb — that’s a clear message concerning future expectations.

Yesterday, at the Institute for National Security Studies’ annual conference, General Kochavi did not mince words. And there’s no doubt that he knew what he was doing and why. Any return to the 2015 deal would be a bad idea, he said. Any return to the deal with slight improvements would also be a bad idea, he said. He did not say “no” to any deal. He said “no” to any deal that resembles the previous deal.

Two things stand out here.

One: Kochavi is clearly and unequivocally attacking a parable that has become common among some Israelis and foreigners who write about Israel and the United States and Iran. The false story is about a radical prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose views are incompatible not just with those of the U.S. administration but also with those of his own generals. You can read such stories in publications such as The New Yorker, Haaretz, The Boston Globe, Bloomberg and many others. Some accounts are more cautious and admit that there is a debate within Israel. Some are less cautious and plainly state that Netanyahu is the lone alarmist who would not listen to his military experts’ sound advice.

Such a parable can no longer fly. Kochavi is Israel’s top general, and his words were clear. Naturally, his position is going to make him a target of criticism. More than one of his critics will mention the fact that Kochavi just started his third and last year as chief of staff — that is, unless the government decides to give him a fourth. So, for Kochavi, there could be a personal interest in keeping no daylight between him and the prime minister. But most criticism will be by the generals who disagree with him, and they will censor him because for thinking what he thinks and for expressing his thoughts in such a public way.

There could be a personal interest in keeping no daylight between him and the prime minister.

The second thing that stands out is the timing. The Biden administration just began its term, and a high-ranking Israeli official is already drawing a line in the sand that the administration must not cross. One of Kochavi’s early critics, General Amos Gilad, who has vast experience as a Defense Ministry official, asked this morning, “What good is it to attack President Biden? In the past, we have attacked Obama and created tensions. Who said it is the chief of staff’s job to say such things?”

Gilad poses two good questions. Kochavi did not “attack” the new administration and certainly did not attack President Biden. But he did step into a political minefield by publicly revealing his position when a sensitive process of negotiations is just beginning. Is it good to have such a position aired at this juncture? Is it good to have it aired by the professional military chief rather than by the political leadership? General Gilad was highly critical of this move. “The question is not what the chief of staff thinks. As soon as the chief of staff uses such strong language, critical of the policies of an incoming U.S. administration, this could be perceived as defiance. It is not the place of the chief of the IDF to say such things. The prime minister is the one who ought to formulate a policy and decide whether to have a public confrontation with the new president who is barely a week in office.”

So, was Kochavi wrong to make the speech? One way to defend his decision is to argue that Kochavi made the speech not in spite of who he is and the position he holds but rather because of who he is and the position he holds. He made the speech because he wanted to clarify that Israeli opposition to a renewed deal is not some caprice of the prime minister but rather the product of a professional process in the IDF. He made the speech not because he wanted to step into a political minefield but rather because he wanted to remove Iran from being politicized as a serious topic of discussion. In essence, Kochavi said, forget about political maneuvering, forget about U.S. mistrust of Netanyahu, forget about Israel having another election, forget about the United States having a Democratic administration that wants to reverse Trump’s policies. Forget about all these, and let me tell you how I see this matter when I examine it with the seriousness of the professional soldier.

Will Biden’s team listen to what he said rather than get annoyed by the fact he said it? If it does, Kochavi made the right choice. If it doesn’t, Kochavi is appropriately concerned.

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