Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s denunciation of the Iran nuclear deal as a “historic mistake” enjoys broad public support and has been echoed by opposition leaders.
But many Israeli security chiefs have adopted a more nuanced approach to the agreement – the latest indication of a divergence between some in Israel’s defense establishment and the prime minister.
Mr. Netanyahu portrays Iran's nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel and is lobbying US lawmakers to block the deal. But after the agreement was announced in Switzerland last month, some former military officers endorsed it, saying it postponed the nuclear threat for another decade.
Now, in a fresh sign of a debate, the Israel Defense Forces has made public a 33-page overview of its strategic doctrine that raised eyebrows in Israel last week for barely mentioning Iran or its nuclear program.
Entitled simply, “IDF Strategy,” and authored by the chief of staff, Lt. Gen Gadi Eisenkot, the paper is a dry, dispassionate assessment of changing threats, military goals, and guiding principles for warfare. It marks the first time the army has ever released such a report to the public.
“It's not a secret that some high-ranking people in the Israeli security establishment, including the IDF, view this deal more favorably than the prime minister,’’ says Amir Tibon, diplomatic correspondent for “Walla!,” an Israeli news website. “On the one hand, they think that the deal does indeed push Iran away from the bomb, which is a good thing. On the other hand, they share Netanyahu’s concern about Iran using sanctions relief money to increase its support for terror proxies across the region.’’
Netanyahu argues that Iran’s nuclear program is the top destabilizing factor in the Middle East, on par with Nazi Germany’s march to war in the late 1930’s. By contrast, the IDF document mentions Iran by name only once. Missing from a section providing an overview of threats to Israel is the word “nuclear” or any other reference to Iran’s atomic program, notes Mr. Tibon.
Writing in the liberal Haaretz newspaper, veteran defense commentator Amir Oren said that the IDF paper reflects a view that the threat of a nuclear Iran “has gone on vacation until 2025.’’
Asked to comment on the strategy document, a senior Israeli military official cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the army’s positions on the Iran deal. However, other Israeli defense analysts say the omissions weren’t a coincidence.
Different set of calculations
“I tend to think it’s on purpose. The military is an organization that looks at things as is, and I think that their assessment is that at least in the short term the IDF will not deal directly with the Iranian nuclear program,” says Ehud Eiran, an assistant professor of political science at Haifa University and a military expert.
It’s not the first difference of opinion aired over Iran between elected leaders and security officials. Several years ago, when Israeli leaders were hinting at the possibility of a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Mossad chief Meir Dagan came out against plans for a strike.
Mr. Eiran points to a "structural difference" between the two camps. "Militaries are concerned with immediate threats, and politicians interpret reality drawing on a broader sets of facts, values and stories; they have a wider set of calculations, like getting reelected.”
Indeed, opposition Labor party leader Isaac Herzog has come out against the agreement since it was announced in early July.
Haaretz reported Monday that the IDF Intelligence Branch predicted that the nuclear deal would leave Iran short of a nuclear weapon for the coming years and restrain terrorist attacks against Israel.
Cooperation with US is urged
“We have a group, we don’t know how big, of existing members of the IDF that think the deal is acceptable,’’ says Meir Javadanfar, an Iran expert at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center. “The other trend is that there are former members of the IDF who think that the deal isn’t perfect but that the prime minister should focus on relations with America.”
Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief, has criticized the deal as flawed and expressed concern that it will strengthen Iran’s position in the Middle East. Still, he has called on Israel’s government to tighten cooperation with the US in overseeing implementation.
In July, a former general who heads Israel’s space agency and serves as a top government adviser on technology and research, went so far as to endorse President Barack Obama’s position on the deal.
"This agreement, if properly implemented, will put off the nuclear threat for a very long time,” Yitzak Ben Yisrael said in an interview with Walla! News. Mr. Ben Yisrael added the agreement provides “full and satisfactory” monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program.