On January 20, 2016, just six months after agreement was reached on the Iranian nuclear deal, a deal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had long blasted and worked so hard to prevent, then-chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot addressed the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) annual conference.
“Without a doubt the nuclear deal between Iran and the West is a historic turning point,” he said. “It is a big change in terms of the direction that Iran was headed, and in the way that we saw things.”
While the deal had many risks, Eisenkot said, it also presented “many opportunities.”
“In the 15-year time frame that we are looking toward, we are still keeping Iran high on our priority lists because we need to monitor its nuclear program. But this is a real change. This is a strategic turning point.”
Those who had heard Netanyahu’s passionate address against the deal in Congress just 10 months earlier, and who had listened for years as the prime minister described Iran and its nuclear program as an existential threat, could only scratch their heads in wonder at Eisenkot’s comments.
These words stood in stark contrast with what Netanyahu said in Congress: “We’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”
Eisenkot’s comments indicated that he and Netanyahu were not aligned on this cardinal issue, that the political echelon – headed by the prime minister – and the security echelon, headed by Eisenkot, had different views of the Iran deal.
While Netanyahu viewed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a disaster of historic proportions, Eisenkot’s view was that, while not the greatest agreement in the world, it had its upside and was something Israel could learn to live with and even extract benefit from.
This dissonance between what Netanyahu was saying, on the one hand, and what Eisenkot was saying, on the other, was highlighted by those in Washington interested in promoting the deal, and who could now argue that “even senior Israeli security officials” agree that there were benefits to it.
As Graham Allison wrote in The Atlantic monthly in March 2016, citing Eisenkot’s speech, “Having recently returned from a week of off-the-record discussions with leaders of Israel’s security establishment, I can confirm that Eisenkot’s assessment is not an exception: Israel’s security professionals see a dramatically different threat environment in the wake of the nuclear agreement.... They now believe that threat has been postponed for at least five years, and more likely a decade or more, which allows them to address other serious challenges.”
Allison buffeted his argument with similar quotes highlighting potential benefits of the deal from Amos Yadlin, the head of INSS and a former head of Military Intelligence, as well as former Mossad head Efraim Halevy.
Similar articles, with other sanguine quotes about the deal from former Israeli security officials, appeared throughout the media.
Which is important to keep in mind when listening to what the current chief of staff, Lt-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, said Tuesday night at the same INSS conference that Eisenkot addressed five years earlier about the same nuclear deal.
“If the Iran deal, from 2015, would have materialized, at the end of the day Iran could have obtained a bomb, because the deal did not include limitations to stop it at the end,” Kochavi said.
Kochavi warned that a return to the 2015 deal – which former president Donald Trump pulled out of – or even a return to a deal that would be somewhat improved, would be a strategic and operational mistake.
“Going back to the Iran deal from 2015, or even to a similar deal with a few improvements, is a bad, wrong thing. It is bad operationally and strategically.”
Operationally, he said, it would enable Iran to “enrich large quantities of uranium and to develop centrifuges and weapons capabilities, and then race toward a bomb.”
And at a strategic level, he said, returning to the JCPOA would present Israel with an “intolerable threat,” and fuel a regional nuclear race.
Therefore, he said, “anything that is similar to the current deal is a bad thing, and we cannot allow it.”
He then added, “I have directed the IDF to prepare a few operative plans, in addition to what they have already, and we are working on those plans and developing them.”
In other words, Kochavi is no Eisenkot. His message Tuesday was clear: There is absolutely no daylight between the top security echelon and Netanyahu when it comes to Iran. Both view the JCPOA as deeply flawed and something that the US should not reenter.
But why deliver that message a mere week after US President Joe Biden’s inauguration, in such a forum?
US Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of CENTCOM, which is responsible for all US troops in the Mideast, is scheduled to arrive in Israel this week, and Kochavi, who will surely meet with him, could have relayed his position there.
Why make the position known at such a public event, creating the perception that Israel was already engaging in megaphone diplomacy with the new US administration, less than a week after it took office?
The reason, it appears, is that Kochavi wanted to make it clear for all to see – the new administration, the Europeans, the Iranians – that this time there is no daylight at all between the security establishment and Netanyahu on Iran.
Kochavi wanted it to be unequivocal that this time the top military echelon is completely in line with Netanyahu on the nuclear deal, and that 2021 is not 2015. And it was obviously important for him to get that message across before the US actually begins to engage with Iran.
In addition, there was importance in getting that message out before the upcoming Israeli elections, in order to stress that Israel’s strong stand against reentering the JCPOA is not just the caprice of Netanyahu, but something supported by the country’s top generals.
Kochavi’s comments should not be seen as a challenge to the Biden administration, but, rather, as an attempt to stamp out any effort to identify and possibly exploit any difference on the matter between the prime minister and the head of the army, as was done in the past. Because, as Kochavi made perfectly clear, this time the two are in agreement.