Over the past few days, Israeli leaders including a senior minister and army chief of staff have offered bellicose threats to attack Iran should the U.S. re-enter the JCPOA nuclear agreement. Pres. Biden promised this during the campaign, and his Secretary of State Tony Blinken re-affirmed it during his recent confirmation hearing.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and former Pres. Trump did their best, before Biden assumed the presidency, to restrict the incoming administration’s maneuvering room regarding Iran. They collaborated on both the assassinations of the founder of Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and al Qaeda leader, Abu Muhammad al-Masri. A year earlier, a similar joint intelligence collaboration led to the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani. All of these were designed to wreck any potential rapprochement between Iran and the U.S.
Now that Biden has declared his intent to rejoin the original nuclear deal (and to propose expanding it based on new provisions), Netanyahu realizes he must keep pulling new rabbis from his magician’s hat. The result is the increasingly strident noises emanating from Israeli officials. It began with Bibi confidant, Tzachi HaNegbi declaring war was inevitable if Biden returned to JCPOA:
“If the United States government rejoins the nuclear deal — and that seems to be the stated policy as of now — the practical result will be that Israel will again be alone against Iran, which by the end of the deal will have received a green light from the world, including the United States, to continue with its nuclear weapons program,” Hanegbi said in an interview with Kan news.
“This of course we will not allow. We’ve already twice done what needed to be done, in 1981 against the Iraqi nuclear program and in 2007 against the Syrian nuclear program,” he said, referring to airstrikes on those two countries’ nuclear reactors.
Then former national security advisor, Yaakov Amidror, made similarly hawkish noises:
“In a situation where the United States returns to the old nuclear agreement with Iran, Israel will have no choice but to act military against Iran to prevent it from manufacturing a nuclear weapon.”
But yesterday brought an even more astonishing development. Netanyahu was joined in a public appearance by the IDF chief of staff, Avi Kochavi, who pronounced the existing nuclear deal a travesty which the IDF could never accept:
“A return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, or even if it is a similar accord with several improvements, is bad and wrong from an operational and strategic point of view. In light of this…I have instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare a number of operational plans, in addition to those already in place,” Kochavi said.“It will be up to the political leadership, of course, to decide on implementation but these plans need to be on the table.”
This statement was unprecedented on two counts: first, it is traditionally not the place of Israeli army officers to declare the foreign policy of Israeli allies to be treif; second, each of Kochavi’s three predecessors in his military role had declared their support for JCPOA (Hebrew), as had the IDF intelligence unit, AMAN. It must have either taken an extraordinary act of courage and omniscience from Kochavi to break with this precedent; or something else was afoot.
The answer comes from an confidential Israeli government official who is privy to internal policy discussions. He declared the entire exercise a feint:
“It’s simple math: (Bibi + Barak in 2012) = (Bibi + Gantz in 2021).
Bibi and Gantz believe that what worked so well then [falsely threatening to strike Iran, in order to convince US to pressure the Iranians] will also work now. But they know they can’t use the same trick [“Bibi’s secret war plan“] again, so they decided to recruit Kochavi himself to make the false threat. They promised him that the government will increase the defense budget by billions of shekels for the [fake] military option against Iran. All three of them know that the IDF will use the extra money for other purposes.”
Anyone who knows Netanyahu’s modus operandi, understands that he is not averse to grease the skids when it comes to getting people to do his bidding. He needs a threat to intimidate Biden, and Kochavi is the most credible threat he can find. So he bribes the chief of staff with billions in new army funding in return for breaking with IDF consensus over a decade or more, and endorsing the false claim that the nuclear deal poses a security threat to Israel.
Haaretz reinforced this impression, quoting an unnamed “Israeli official” :
… The official hinted that Kochavi may have had reason to change his mind… “I don’t know what all the reasons were for his timing, but it’s very difficult not to think that it is connected with the budget for which Kochavi is waiting for two years, and he understands that in light of the economic crisis he’ll have great difficulty getting additional funding and implementing his program,” a senior government official said.
The brilliance of Bibi’s campaign is that even if Biden knows it is a head-feint on Bibi’s part, if there is the slightest chance that Israel would nevertheless attack Iran, Biden must take this into account in all his dealings with the Iranians. In the back of his mind, he will always be thinking that he might wake up the next morning and find that multiple sites in Iran are in flames after a coordinated Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear and military installations. Then, it will be left to him to clean up the mess. And it will be a considerable one.
Based on the Israeli source I quoted, this is highly unlikely. But there remains the possibility that Netanyahu could choose the Samson option, gambling that such an attack will both ensure years more political life as prime minister; and that the Iranians will be paper tigers in terms of the level of retaliation they can muster against Israel.
The only reason Netanyahu can afford such a gamble is the power of the Israel Lobby and its strangle-hold on U.S. policy toward Israel. Every U.S. president going back three decades or more has been constrained in his dealings with Israel. This permits it to get away with murder (sometimes literally) and suffer little more than a slap on the wrist.
יממה אחרי דברי הרמטכ”ל כוכבי נגד המדיניות המוצהרת של ממשל ביידן בנוגע לגרעין האיראני, משוחח שר החוץ אשכנזי עם מקבילו אנתוני בלינקן ואומר: נדע לפעול יחד נגד הטרור העולמי והאיום המובל על ידי איראן
— Gili Cohen (@gilicohen10) January 27, 2021
האם אפשר להבין כי שה”ח אשכנזי ניסה בשיחתו עם שה”ח האמריקני בלינקן – לתקן את הרושם מנאום ההשתלחות הבלתי אחראי של הרמטכ”ל כוכבי אתמול נגד ביידן ונגד תכניתו לחזור בהקדם להסכם גרעין איראן המקורי JCPOA ?
— Shemuel Meir (@ShemuelMeir) January 27, 2021
Just as the military and intelligence echelons broke with Netanyahu in the past regarding the Iranian “threat,” there is discord even now among the highest ranks in the government. An Israeli foreign affairs reporter tweeted that foreign minister Ashkenazi had been in contact with Antony Blinken, U.S. secretary of state, telling him that “Israel knows how to act together with the U.S. to address the global terror and the Iranian threat.” Despite the hawkish impression, the most important element of the tweet is the emphasis on Israel working together with–rather than divorced from–the U.S.
Israel’s most astute Iran analyst, Shemuel Meir, responds with a telling question in his own tweet:
Is it possible that Ashkenazi in his conversation with Blinken was trying to correct the impression created by the reckless, irresponsible statement from chief of staff Kochavi against Biden and against his intent to return to the original JCPOA agreement?