The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani came as a strategic surprise. President Trump’s gamble surprised even the U.S. intelligence community. Iran promised “fierce revenge” and Trump responded with threats of “disproportionate” retaliation against vital Iranian targets. Heightened escalation scenarios and drums of war flooded the American discourse.
In Israel, perhaps surprisingly, the reaction was muted. The political leadership and the high military echelons preferred to keep their public statements low profile. But this is probably a temporary, essentially tactical, quiet — a wish not be involved at this stage in the exchange of blows between Iran and the U.S. Indeed, in the months that preceded the Soleimani crisis, there had been an intense discourse regarding an imminent war with Iran, and the response required.
The war discourse in Israel regarding the Iranian threat took place on two levels, occasionally becoming entangled, which created confusion in the accompanying commentary. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set the tone. The imminent existential threat posed to Israel by the Iranian nuclear program as a result of the “bad nuclear deal” was a recurring motif in Netanyahu’s statements: Iran who calls for Israel to be wiped off the map is racing towards the bomb. The deal will enable Iran to create its first bomb in a short time, and then to leap forward to “an arsenal of one hundred bombs.”
The military leadership’s threat concept, however, looks very different. In a lecture at an academic forum, Chief of Staff Lt. General Aviv Kochavi presented his strategic perception of the threats facing Israel. Kochavi spoke of an intensification of threats in a fragile multi-threat environment, especially on the Syrian-Iran front, in which a deterioration in one arena could affect the other areas. The next war, which could take place soon, is inevitable, he said, and holds the potential for huge losses on the Israeli home front. It is therefore absolutely necessary to prepare and plan for this war. In concrete terms, Iran has recently become more aggressive (for example, the attack on the oil facilities in Saudi Arabia) and it is devoting significant efforts to developing long range ballistic missiles (in addition to the missiles and rockets that it has supplied to Hezbollah) that are capable of reaching population centers and important facilities in Israel. Therefore, in the Chief of Staff’s view, one cannot exclude the possibly of “a limited confrontation with Iran.”
The military echelon speaks mainly in terms of deteriorating into war and unplanned escalation as a result of an entanglement with Iran in Syria or Lebanon. The emphasis in the Chief of Staff’s lecture was on deterring the other side. We can hear in his words echoes of Carl von Clausewitz’s classic theory of war being a political activity to be used as a last resort. Apart from an ambiguous sentence about the Iran nuclear deal in the context of “diplomatic dialogue” with the U.S., Chief of Staff Kochavi focused on the increasing threats of conventional war in the northern arena and did not address the Iranian nuclear threat. This is in contrast to Netanyahu who speaks of a concrete nuclear threat — an existential threat facing Israel.
It would seem that the military echelon does not see eye-to-eye with the prime minister on the subject of the Iranian nuclear threat. It is unfortunate that the Israeli Defense Forces Military Intelligence — which is the agency responsible for the Israel National Security Assessment — does not publish an unclassified version, as its U.S. counterpart does, of the annual intelligence assessment of the Iranian nuclear threat presented to the political leadership.
Instead we are obliged to rely on partial leaks and selective briefings. According to a briefing to military correspondents, the Israeli National Intelligence Assessment for 2020 is that Iran is not interested in a “quick breakthrough” to obtain nuclear weapons. According to the Military Intelligence Assessment, Iran’s recent violations of the nuclear agreement were for negotiating purposes and applying continued pressure to the other signatories to provide economic benefits — or alternatively to amass bargaining chips for a future nuclear agreement. From this, we can implicitly conclude that Military Intelligence sees the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is formally known, as having a positive contribution to Israel’s security. Because in their eyes (as opposed to Netanyahu’s) there is meaning to Iran’s commitment through the JCPOA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty not to develop nuclear weapons. This is a commitment anchored in the intrusive inspection regime that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) applies to all Iran’s nuclear facilities, and which was not harmed by Iran’s recent actions.
Support for the military echelon’s moderate realistic position regarding the JCPOA can be found in remarks made in Hebrew by the former Chief of Staff Lt. General Gadi Eizenkot (today a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies or INSS) in a INSS panel discussion last December in which he repeated the assessment that was made during his period as Chief of Staff: the JCPOA was a strategic turning point that while it created risks, it also created positive opportunities for Israel’s security. In the former Chief of Staff’s ranking of threats, the Iranian nuclear program is only in third place —‚ after Hezbollah’s missiles and rockets, and the future threat posed by the recovering Syrian army. Even after the latest Iranian violations — “scraping” the agreement in his words — the former Chief of Staff referred to the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapons program as a “vision.” A vision is not exactly an operative program, and it has a connotation of a distant and not necessarily certain future.
The difference in the threat perception held by Netanyahu and that held by the military is significant and likely to points to a strategic disagreement between the prime minister and the military echelon which has implications for the “next war” and on the means of dealing with it. The military which is waging a covert war against Iran and its proxies who are armed with missiles and rockets in Syria and Lebanon is aware of the dangers of a miscalculation and a slide into escalation — and of the possibility that a “preemptive strike” could be necessary. According to military doctrine, a preemptive strike is a last resort and a defensive action against a certain imminent threat in the immediate future. But the question is how do you prove that the threat is imminent, and how do you prevent an expansion of the “limited confrontation” in Syria to a larger war?
Netanyahu, on the other hand, speaks of launching a “preventive strike” against nuclear facilities in Iran. The definition of a “preventive strike” in the strategic literature is a war against preparations for uncertain threats as the result of possible changes in the balance of power in the distance and unclear future. The prime minister publicly discussed operative scenarios for a preventive strike during the annual memorial ceremony for the Yom Kippur war. He discussed “preventive war” in spite of the detailed IAEA reports since the entry into force of the JCPOA at the beginning of January 2016 until today that have not identified the development of nuclear weapons in Iran. It is possible that Netanyahu later understood that the international arena perceives preventive war as illegitimate and has therefore removed this paragraph from the official text of the speech that was distributed by the Prime Minister’s Office.
The disagreement between Netanyahu and the military leadership and the discussion of offensive scenarios brings us back to the “hot summer” of 2012. Netanyahu and then-Minister of Defense Ehud Barak pushed for an attack on Iranian nuclear sites. The Israeli security establishment opposed the idea. The plan was dropped following a U.S. veto: you do not attack a non-nuclear country that is signatory to the NPT when the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate assesses that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The difference between then and now are the main players. Today we have the Trump-Netanyahu duo that is working to destroy the JCPOA. Then, we had to the Obama administration that successfully worked for and promoted the JCPOA to block Iran’s route to nuclear weapons.