Analysis: Feeling out Gantz on Iran

US military commander Mullen, about to retire, worked closely with former IDF chief Ashkenazi.

Shamni and Mullen_311 (photo credit: Matty Stern / US Embassy)
Shamni and Mullen_311
(photo credit: Matty Stern / US Embassy)
The visit last week of Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Israel was a clear demonstration of the close relationship the American military chief has forged with the IDF.
Officially, it was pitched to the media as Mullen’s farewell from Israel, where he stopped on the way back to the US from similar trips to the Far East and Afghanistan. But it was likely a bit more than just that.
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Mullen is no stranger to Israel. In his almost four years in the post, he has visited the country six times, five of them during the tenure of then-IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.
Mullen and Ashkenazi met over a dozen other times in the US and Europe, and then-IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu was wont to speak of the duo’s weekly phone calls to discuss developments in the region and to update each other on various operations.
Leading to this close relationship were a number of factors, the first of which was clearly good chemistry.
In honor of Mullen’s first visit to Israel in December 2007 – the first by a chairman of the joint chiefs in a decade – Ashkenazi held a festive dinner in his honor at the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv.
It was during Hannuka, and Ashkenazi had the hotel place a menorah on the table. When he stood up to light the candles and explain the significance of the holiday to his guest, Mullen said that he was familiar with Hannuka. His wife, he pointed out, had Jewish roots and in their home they put up a Christmas tree in one room and a menorah in another.
In addition to the good chemistry, there was also the joint mission – to combat terror throughout the region with the understanding that Iran supports terror groups not just in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip but also in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This close relationship flourished even when Israeli-US ties took a dive as tension between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama grew. Mullen continued to maintain his relationship with Ashkenazi and vice versa.
For Israel, defense ties with the US have always been of critical importance and for the US, Ashkenazi was viewed as a key ally and as someone who – unlike Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak – was believed to be more moderate particularly with regards to Iran.
According to recent press revelations, Ashkenazi – together with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan – was apparently a strong opponent of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities despite the more hard-line approach taken by Netanyahu and Barak.
Ashkenazi’s stature in the US and his close relationship with Mullen were also said to be one of the catalysts behind the deterioration in the IDF chief’s ties with Barak, which following Operation Cast Lead in 2009 were already beyond repair.
That is why Mullen’s visit last week was probably more than just to attend a farewell dinner in his honor before he retires in October. It was likely also an attempt to get a sense of where the current Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen.Benny Gantz stands on Iran and to see if he is from the Ashkenazi or the Barak school.
These days in Israel, Iran seems to have fallen to the back burner as the price of cottage cheese, rent for students in Tel Aviv, doctors’ wages and boycott legislation take up the headlines.
On the one hand, this provides Israel with a semblance of normalcy. On the other hand, it is no secret that international pressure on Iran is waning and that the world is currently more focused on the ongoing demonstrations in Syria as well as the future of Egypt and Libya.
Iran stands to gain from these distractions and as recent announcements from the regime indicate, it already is.
It is installing new and advanced centrifuges in an underground facility near the Shi’ite holy city of Qom, but the world, for the most part, is quiet. It has announced plans to triple its capacity to enrich uranium to 20-percent levels, and again nothing is really happening.
Gantz does not underestimate the threat from Iran. As the son of Holocaust survivors, he speaks often about how the IDF was established to prevent a repeat of what happened to his parents, including stopping Israel’s enemies from obtaining nuclear weapons that could one day be used against the Jewish state.
But at the same time, his term began with one of the worst opening hands possible – an Egyptian revolution, a possible regime change in Syria, a Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon and the Palestinian plans to declare statehood in September.
The regional developments are likely to push Gantz to try and keep the situation under wraps on all of Israel’s various fronts – Gaza, Lebanon and Iran. At least, for as long as he can.