Why Kochavi picked a fight with Biden and why it's not good for Israel

Israel’s focus now should be on getting a seat at the table and ensuring that the White House takes Israel’s security needs and concerns into account when negotiating a new deal with Iran.

Did Aviv Kochavi attack a future deal with Iran to score political points with Benjamin Netanyahu? (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
Did Aviv Kochavi attack a future deal with Iran to score political points with Benjamin Netanyahu?
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
A few years ago, when IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi was the head of Military Intelligence, he met Joe Biden, then vice president of the United States. It was at a small gathering during one of Biden’s visits to Israel, and the two exchanged pleasantries and small talk. Nothing formal.
But it left an impression on Kochavi, who was appointed chief of staff in 2019. It gave him a firsthand sense of Biden’s positive sentiment toward Israel, which was reinforced in recent weeks in two profiles the chief of staff read about Biden that were prepared by the IDF’s Planning Directorate. While Biden is definitely a progressive democrat – the diversity of his cabinet is one illustration – there is little questioning his fond feelings for Israel.
That is why it was strange to hear Kochavi launch a public onslaught on Tuesday night against a possible new deal between the United States and Iran. Since he took office two years ago, Kochavi has not given a single media interview, and rarely gives policy addresses.
Despite Israel being a democratic state with a compulsory military service, the chief of staff does not like speaking to the public. That is until this week, when he broke from his longstanding habit and told an INSS conference that a return to the 2015 JCPOA or a deal that is even “slightly better” is “wrong and will be bad.”
It was a harsh and rare statement by an IDF chief of staff. Kochavi’s predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, did not publicly attack the deal back in 2015. Neither did the chief of staff who preceded him – Benny Gantz – who, shortly after stepping down in 2015, said that while he would have preferred a better deal, the JCPOA was a case of a “cup half-full,” and that diplomacy had prevented war.
Kochavi took a different approach on Tuesday night and volunteered to become the first senior Israeli official to openly challenge the new American administration. He did so in public without skipping a beat.
The question is why.
One explanation could be the sense of urgency. Kochavi knows that the Biden administration is looking to engage Iran – it makes no secret of that plan – and he wants to lay down some redlines beforehand.
If that is the case though, why do it publicly? On Thursday, commander of CENTCOM General Kenneth McKenzie landed in Israel for talks with Kochavi as the first senior US official to visit since last week’s inauguration. A meeting with McKenzie would have been the perfect opportunity for Kochavi to convey his thoughts about a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, or even a “slightly better” deal. He also could have done so in one of his private monthly video conference calls with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley.
What added to the intrigue was that not so long ago, as Donald Trump was entering his fourth year as president, Kochavi together with Military Intelligence was concerned that the former president was going to try to strike a deal with the Iranians. The concern at the time was that Trump – desperate to show his skills at making deals – would have reached an agreement with Iran that cosmetically might have looked better than the JCPOA, but substantively did not take into account Israel’s genuine concerns.
Kochavi never made this concern public, keeping it to himself and his top generals. He never publicly attacked Trump or the possibility that the ex-president would make a “slightly better” deal. That he saved for the Biden administration.
Is it possible that the chief of staff was playing a bit of politics, understanding that it would be in his interest to publicly align himself with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of budgetary talks? Did the pending approval of an extension of his term by a fourth year play a role?
Maybe. The problem is that what Kochavi did was make it seem like Israel has no reason to work with the Biden administration. Indeed, he even took a page out of Netanyahu’s 2015 speech before Congress and went to battle, instead of first engaging in diplomacy and trying to influence the process from within. Even parts of the speech sounded similar.  
In his address, Netanyahu warned Congress: “The first major concession would leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure, providing it with a short breakout time to the bomb. Breakout time is the time it takes to amass enough weapons-grade uranium or plutonium for a nuclear bomb.”
On Tuesday Kochavi said: “As of today, Iran has increased its amount of enriched material over what is permitted, has developed and manufactured advanced centrifuges that will allow it to break out faster – in months and maybe even weeks.”
In 2015 Netanyahu said: “We all have a responsibility to consider what will happen when Iran’s nuclear capabilities are virtually unrestricted and all the sanctions will have been lifted. Iran would then be free to…produce many, many nuclear bombs.”
On Tuesday Kochavi said: “The pressure on Iran, partially due to the American sanctions, has to continue. Anything that removes this pressure will give them oxygen, and they will continue to violate the deal. There have to be measures to ensure that Iran will not be able to race to a bomb.”
Kochavi was clearly aligning himself with Netanyahu, who didn’t waste time on Wednesday taking credit for himself, explaining during a visit to a vaccination center in Sderot that the chief of staff was simply articulating the prime minister’s own policy of doing everything possible to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
A CHIEF of staff speaking tough can always be beneficial for Israel in its attempts to deter its enemies. What was striking was that Kochavi made no mention of what exactly it is that Israel wants to see happen. He only explained what Israel does not want, not what it does want.
Part of the reason is because that is not his job. While he waded into political territory with his anti-deal comments, articulating what Israel seeks would have really been going too far. The other reason is because Israel has not yet decided what it would like to happen. To do that, Netanyahu would have to be willing to sit with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, something that does not happen too often these days.
Within the defense establishment, there is concern that Netanyahu might be looking to pick a fight with Biden for political gain, and that Kochavi served as a pawn in that game. While there is some debate over who was to blame – Netanyahu or Barack Obama – over the fight that culminated in the 2015 speech to Congress, almost everyone believes that Israel has an opportunity to work with the Biden administration before needing to fight with it.
Moreover, as much as Netanyahu might want to ignore Gantz and Ashkenazi, he knows that he cannot. He learned that lesson over the summer, when he had plans to annex parts of the West Bank – originally with the support of the Trump administration – until he discovered one day that the White House had changed its mind and no longer supported unilateral annexation. What happened? Ashkenazi and Gantz had convinced Jared Kushner and Mike Pompeo that it was a bad idea.
As a result, Netanyahu knows that he needs to work with Gantz and Ashkenazi even if he prefers not to. His luck is that both men actually put the country first. They would, for example, be willing to even support a visit by Netanyahu to Washington to meet with Biden before the March 23 election, even though they know that the Likud leader would use such a trip for political benefit. Influencing the negotiations with the Iranians is far more important, they believe, than a few more votes that might go Netanyahu’s way.
This is why, according to some Israeli officials, Kochavi was wrong. He was wrong to pick a fight right now with the Biden administration, and he was wrong to make it seem like Iran is an Israeli problem.
Instead, Israel’s focus now should be on getting a seat at the table and ensuring that the White House takes Israel’s security needs and concerns into account when negotiating a new deal with Iran.
Over the coming weeks, Israel will need to start to set its policy. The IDF, the Mossad, the Foreign Ministry, the National Security Council and of course the Prime Minister’s Office all have input to bring to the table. With the US bent on reaching a deal, Israel will need to decide what is really important.
Is ensuring that there is no sunset clause the main objective it wants to fight for, or making sure that restrictions are placed on Iran’s ballistic missile program? Does it want to make sure that America insists on international inspections anytime and anywhere – including on military bases – without first needing to coordinate with the Iranian government, or does it want to gain something in the talks that helps remove Iran from Syria?
Finally, there is the bigger question that still needs to be answered: does Israel want to fight with the new administration, or does it want to work with it? The answer to that will set the tone for everything else that comes next.