With Joe Biden sitting behind the president’s desk in the White House, the national security and intelligence relationship between the US and Israel is about to undergo a significant change.
Biden’s team will be led by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director nominee William Burns and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
Some things will not change much. Biden is lockstep pro-Israel in the sense of maintaining crucial US military and intelligence aid, which is part of the backbone of the IDF’s success and the country’s missile defense array.
In fighting terror and helping protect Israel from security threats, intelligence sharing will remain at a high level, as it was even during the Obama administration.
But there will be changes in strategic perspectives when differences sometimes filter down into aspects of strategic intelligence sharing and certain operations.
Haines and Burns, as well as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, have all said that the assassination of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani was a bad move for US interests.
Haines, who has a deep background in international law at the US State Department treaties division, has gone further and questioned its legality.
To recall, according to foreign sources validated by The Jerusalem Post, though the US fired the missiles which killed Soleimani, the Mossad assisted in aspects of intelligence related to the operation.
This means that the operation was run jointly.
The same joint US-Israel operational cooperation has been widely reported as true, according to foreign sources, regarding the assassination of Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh in 2008.
It is unlikely that Haines and Burns will support the US assisting with such assassination operations or with more risky and aggressive physical covert operations against Iran.
One wild card with Haines is that, while deputy CIA director and deputy National Security Advisor during the Obama administration, she did endorse an expansive use of drones for killing terrorists in Afghanistan and other areas.
Also, while not around during the 9/11 era in which the US tortured terrorists, she backed the CIA in battles with Congress over the consequences that intelligence agents who were involved should face.
All of this is to say that Haines is not squeamish about using force when she views it as justified.
Despite that twist, if Israel thinks it needs to carry out an aggressive operation, it is less likely to coordinate or ask America’s view in the first place, so that it will not risk being given a “red light.”
There may be other aspects where Israeli and US intelligence may operate almost in parallel, but sometimes without keeping each other updated.
It is anticipated that at some point, Biden will seek to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal despite objections by Israel and Gulf states.
Both before and after that point, US and Israeli intelligence sharing at a strategic level are likely to diverge.
Washington will not want to tip off Jerusalem about the exact timing and details of when it is going to make big moves, even if there is some more limited coordination to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Likewise, Israel and the Gulf states may end up planning various diplomatic, public diplomacy and security moves which may conflict with US goals regarding Tehran.
And sometimes, strategic and operational issues can become very interlinked.
Burns is highly regarded by US and Israeli diplomats and intelligence officials.
There has never been a CIA director whose only experience has been in the State Department, although there have been a few who crossed over in the other direction into diplomacy or politics, and his selection is a clear signal from Biden that he wants to relegate the CIA to serving diplomatic goals.
At the same time, former CIA director John Brennan has noted that Burns has been exposed to CIA operations while overseas.
While ambassador to Jordan and Russia, Burns would have been responsible for the standard CIA officers who are embedded within the staff of many countries’ embassies. He also has support from former CIA officials who are viewed as at least suspicious of Iran.
But other Israeli officials and former CIA officials have told the Post that Burns has shown skepticism in the past about Israeli intelligence and is considered a believer in rejoining the nuclear deal.
Further, some have said that he may be more hesitant about military covert action.
One issue Burns is known for was his highlighting the dangers of invading Iraq in 2003. He may very well have been right, but in context, it again presents him as someone who may be uncomfortable with Israeli covert actions against Iran or with flexing US muscle, an area where strategic operational options overlap.
Austin is harder to predict.
Traditionally, the secretary of defense is the biggest powerhouse on the national security team and overshadows both the DNI and the CIA, but this may differ under Austin.
Many have called him a perpetual team player who does not throw his weight around in high level policy disputes – and who mostly sees his role as carrying out orders once his direct commander, now Biden, makes a call.
In addition, in his first splash unveiling his new team, Biden named Haines as his first national security official to be appointed while Burns and Austin waited weeks until he got around to naming them.
There have been clear signals from Biden, Haines and others that as DNI, she will be returned to being America’s most senior intelligence official, with Burns reporting to her.
He will still be Israel’s key man on operational issues, as the DNI’s role relates more to strategy, budgets, sharing intelligence between the US’s many agencies, and long-term planning.
Burns is expected to be a solid supporter of Israel. He has had positive interactions with top Israeli officials in the past, and during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, he clearly labeled Iran’s regional behavior and nuclear program as threats.
Aside from being the head of US CENTCOM, Austin knows the Iranians up close from multiple tours in Iraq, where many Iranian militias operate. When he recommended a smaller withdrawal from Iraq, he watched as ISIS took over and the US had to go back in numbers.
He is no stranger to using force, both leading the coalition against ISIS, and in 2003, leading a US division during the invasion of Baghdad.
Still, his views on using force against Iran are unknown, and Haines and Burns will likely be more decisive about intelligence sharing and covert action.
With the agent known as “D” expected to take over as head of the Mossad in June, he will probably have less US backing for aggressive actions against the Islamic Republic than current spymaster Yossi Cohen has had.