The Kurdish lesson for Israel

Added to his domestic exasperation, Kochavi and Israeli security chiefs face a much bigger problem – an external one. These are the threats posed by Israel’s enemies.

Aviv Kochavi (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Aviv Kochavi
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ten months have passed since Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi entered his office at the 14th floor of Hakirya (The Israeli Pentagon) in Tel Aviv, in his capacity as the chief of staff of Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
During that period, he has been in a limbo enjoying and suffering at the same time. He benefits from the lack of a permanent government. It provides him with more freedom and space to make decisions and gives him extra weight to influence Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister and defense minister who leads the transitional government.
But at the same time, the burden on Gen. Kochavi is heavier than on his predecessors. He finds it more difficult to share responsibilities with his political superior, who is preoccupied with repelling the corruption charges against him and with already two political campaigns and probably a third in a matter of 4-5 months. Thus, Kochavi’s margins of error are narrower.
Without a permanent government, Kochavi’s intention to launch a new longterm security plan, known as “Momentum” or “Leverage” to replace the 2015-2018 “Gideon” program has been hampered. 
The new plan is very ambitious. It aims to increase the security budget by $1.1 billion (or 4 billion shekels) every year until 2030, which means an annual rise of 7-8 percent. The main reason for his demand is apparently the need to reform the IDF. Kochavi wants to make it a more “lethal” military machine, improve the integration and cooperation between air force, navy and land forces, upgrade cyber capabilities and introduce artificial intelligence. All this, according to the chief of staff, is in order to meet a growing challenge from Iran.
Currently, the security budget stands at $20 billion (70 billion shekels) of which $3.8 billion annually is direct US military aid. The security budget excludes the Mossad and the domestic general security service known as Shin Bet. Both agencies spend additional 10 billion shekels annually on manpower, operations, technology and equipment.
But the IDF financial requirements have encountered strong opposition from Treasury officials. They argue that every shekel that goes to the IDF is at the expense of no less needed plans to heal the ailing health and educational systems, to support the elderly and Holocaust survivors – many of whom live in shameful condition in the Jewish state – as well as improving roads and public transportation. They also claim that Kochavi’s demand is part of a well-known ritual performed every few years by the security establishment in which it exaggerates and magnifies the threats against Israel in order to squeeze more money.
The routine but always emotional row between the Ministries of Finance and Defense, and the IDF is waiting for it to be resolved by a permanent government. However, Kochavi knows very well that Israel might be dragged into a third round of elections within 14 months. Thus, his plan and demands will have to be once again delayed.
Added to his domestic exasperation, Kochavi and Israeli security chiefs face a much bigger problem – an external one. These are the threats posed by Israel’s enemies. But the threats are almost a direct result of the actions and lack of them by Israel’s most valuable and important ally – the USA.
There is the decision of President Donald Trump to pull US troops out of Syria. As has become customary with the capricious Trump, he declared his decision on his Twitter account, surprising his own generals and White House officials and surely his allies, Israel included.
Trump promised already during his 2016 election campaign to bring US servicemen back home, from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and to stop America from continuing to serve as the “policeman” of the world. His campaign promise is rooted in the US’s longstanding isolationist tradition and not Trump’s original campaign slogan: America First.
But Trump being Trump, in the three years of his presidency, has changed his mind on numerous occasions about abandoning the Middle East, where according to his words “wars are about sand.” Above all, he was receptive to Israeli and Jordanian requests to keep at least a small contingent in Syria as a “trip wire” – a symbolic diplomatic policy that the US is committed to its allies and interests in the region.
In October 2019, however, Trump once again returned to his basic premise. During a phone call, he was persuaded by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to withdraw US troops from northeast Syria in order to allow the Turkish army to invade the area and establish “a security belt” of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) deep inside Syria.
Here too, Trump made a decision on a whim, consulting with no one. More than any act, measure or decision taken by Trump, this one sent shock waves among his allies around the Middle East. In a coldblooded and ruthless decision, the US had betrayed and abandoned the Kurds and left them on their own. For Erdogan, the Kurds – whether in Syria, Iran or Iraq – are also the enemy because, he claims, they incite their brothers in Turkey (there are 15 million Kurds) to rebel against the central government in Ankara and help create a Kurdish state.
Israel has a special sentiment regarding the Kurds. In the 1960s and ‘70s, it helped with military advisers, weapons and medical supplies to maintain the Kurdish rebellion alive in Iraq. After the US invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, Israel renewed its ties with the autonomous Kurdish region there.
It was reported that Israeli security experts helped the Kurdish army, and that Israelis bought Kurdish oil and invested there. Similar foreign reports claimed that under the cloud of the Syrian civil war, Israel found ways to establish ties also with Syrian Kurds.
The sense of Trump’s treacherous decision was magnified by the facts. The Syrian Kurds were the boots on the ground, spearheading American and European battles against ISIS. The Kurdish warriors had their own interests and aspirations to establish Kurdish autonomy in Syria. They were trained and equipped by the US but paid with their blood to crush ISIS and its threat to the Middle East, Europe and America.
Some 11,000 Kurdish men and women were killed in the Syrian war. Indeed, ISIS was crushed – and recently it was reported that US Special Forces had finally killed its leader and founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – and yet Trump is showing ungratefulness to the Kurds.
Instead of being praised for their courage and sacrifice, they now face the cynical reality of US troops departing in a hurry and leaving them to the mercy of Erdogan’s army and the Jihadist militia he backs who murder, rape and torture thousands of Kurds.
In addition, 150,000 Kurds have fled from the advancing Turkish army, becoming homeless refugees. In a way, the Erdogan-Trump collision can be compared to the despicable Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on the eve of World War II, which carved Poland into Nazi- and Soviet-occupied regions.
Like other western leaders, Netanyahu denounced the Turkish invasion but didn’t dare criticize his best friend and supporter – Trump. Yet in closed-door sessions, Israeli military chiefs understand the ramifications.
They know that with all his support for Israel, Trump can’t be trusted. His rhetoric and actions clearly prove that he loathes the never-ending troubles of the Middle East and wishes to get away from the region as far and as quickly as possible. Senior Israeli officials and even cabinet ministers whisper in private conversation that Trump is capable of betraying Israel as he did the Kurds.
The US departure and the vacuum it created has paved the way for Russia to take over as the dominant force in the region. Indeed, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and to a lesser degree Israel acknowledge the importance of Russian President Vladimir Putin as the emerging power.
The leaders of these nations maintain very cordial relations with Putin and some of them – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – have begun to purchase Russia weapons.
What is even more worrisome for Israel is how the US policy against Iran achieved the opposite results. It was Netanyahu more than any other leader who influenced Trump and persuaded him to walk away from the nuclear deal and impose economic sanctions on the Ayatollahs’ regime.
Both leaders believed that Iran would cave in to the pressure and agree to amend the nuclear deal and extend it to include limits on its missile production. But Netanyahu and Trump proved to be wrong. Instead of adopting a conciliatory and appeasing approach, Iran became even more aggressive. Iran downed a US state-of-the-art drone worth $180 million. To an amazed world, Trump didn’t respond.
The next step was when Iranian navy commandos bombed and sabotaged western oil tankers. Once again, Trump did nothing. Perceiving Trump as a weak leader who doesn’t have a clue about foreign policy and world affairs, Iran became even more daring. Its brinkmanship resulted in a sophisticated, combined attack with missiles, drones and minicopters against oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia sat by idly, hoping that the US would intervene to protect it. Trump was livid, but decided to contain the unprecedented Iranian aggression.
Now, Israeli intelligence estimates that with a tailwind blowing from the lack of action by Trump, Iran has changed its strategy. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Al Quds Force and the darling of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, changed his country’s strategy.
From now on, any Israeli attack against Iranian assets in Syria or anywhere would not go unanswered. Israel, which is determined to continue its attacks against Iranian efforts to deploy its forces near the Israeli border and equip Hezbollah in Lebanon with precision missiles, is preparing for the worst-case scenario.
At the end of October 2019, Kochavi – in a briefing with Israeli military journalists – warned that although neither Iran nor Hezbollah wishes to launch an all-out attack against Israel, they are ready to take bigger risks.
Some commentators argue that Kochavi’s warnings are just a spin to justify his demand to increase the IDF budget, but others believe that based on the Middle East reality shaped by Trump’s world, the Iranian threat is real. To choose between these two contradictory evaluations, Israel needs a full-time government.
Yossi Melman is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. He tweets at @yossi_melman