Despite Yediot Aharonot’s report on Sunday that there is a current fight between IDF intelligence and the Mossad over whether the US returning to the 2015 JCPOA Iran nuclear deal is a good idea, the situation is more complex.
The truth is, there are wars within the IDF, and wars within the Mossad.
In fact, the Israeli political class – where outgoing prime minister Naftali Bennett, incoming prime minister Yair Lapid and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu all agree that a return to the deal would be bad – may be the only place where there is consensus.
Even the report itself acknowledged that IDF Chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi is against the deal, despite his own military intelligence chief, Maj.-Gen. Aaron Haliva is in favor of a return to the deal.
The majority of the current and former IDF brass are in favor of a return to the deal – former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin and former IDF intelligence analysis chief Dror Shalom have all said that pushing off Iran’s nuclear threat until at least 2025 was a good idea.
But Kohavi, who is opposed, is far from isolated with support from former IDF intelligence analysis chief Yossi Kuperwasser and former IDF Maj. Gen. and National Security Council chief Yaakov Amidror.
The Mossad is also hardly monolithic in opposing the deal.
Mossad Director David Barnea and his predecessor, Yossi Cohen, are both vehemently opposed to a return to the deal.
But former Mossad chiefs Tamir Pardo, Shabtai Shavit, Danny Yatom, Efrayim Halevy and former Mossad Iran desk chief Sima Shine all criticized the Trump administration for pulling out of the deal, with Pardo calling it a “catastrophe.”
Cohen’s own former deputy, Ehud Lavi, has questioned the wisdom of pulling out. And even if many of the current Mossad division chiefs who were hand-picked by Barnea or Cohen would be more likely to oppose the deal like their sponsors, the sentiment is that there are plenty of current Mossad officials who quietly believe rejoining the deal is the least bad option currently available.
In fact, this is probably the most split the defense establishment has been in over a decade, in every institution and at all levels.
An earlier debate placed then IDF chiefs Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz and then Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo against then-defense minister Ehud Barak and Netanyahu.
Barak and Netanyahu at least publicly said they wanted to strike Iran’s nuclear program preemptively during the 2010-2012 period, whereas the Mossad and IDF were mostly against it at the time.
But with Cohen’s ascendancy to chief of the Mossad, the clandestine agency shifted to a more pro-attack and anti-JCPOA position. This was continued by Barnea, even without Netanyahu’s influence.
When Haliva entered office, he positioned the IDF into not shaking the boat with the US if a deal was inevitable, even if it was imperfect. His declaration of support for the JCPOA came shortly after an interview by IDF air force chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar guaranteed that his pilots could eliminate Iran’s nuclear facilities if so ordered.
Since February, and even more since last month, Barnea has kept Tehran on the run with alleged round after round of operations setting back the nuclear program and Iran’s IRGC – regardless of the status of the nuclear talks.
With the defense establishment split, it is Bennett, Lapid, Netanyahu and now Defense Minister Gantz who will make the fateful call on supporting, criticizing or trying to pulverize the JCPOA.
There is some speculation that a Lapid-Gantz alliance could lead to a much quieter criticism of the US and maybe a reduction in covert hits as compared with either a Bennett- or Netanyahu-run government.
Yet a deal would probably mean lowering Israel’s attack profile on Iran while keeping the big aerial and smaller covert military options ready and available to roll out at any moment should the need arise.
If there is no deal, Israel’s shadow war with Iran may continue to escalate in the near future. If there is a deal, with major nuclear limits due to expire in 2025, those options may return to the forefront sooner than later.