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Plain Talk by Israel’s Top Soldier Seen as Filling Political Vacuum

Expert: Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s ‘degree of openness’ notable in light of interim government and ‘novice defense minister’

The Israeli military is preparing for the possibility of a direct military confrontation with Iran, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said at a security conference near Tel Aviv this week.

Speaking at length in public only for the first time since he took the reins of the IDF last January, Kochavi painted a somewhat gloomy picture of increasing and changing threats from Iran and other state- and non-state actors, including Lebanon–based Hizbullah and Gaza-based Hamas.

He cited their possession of advanced, long-range and precise weapons, adding that Israel’s civilian authorities need to be prepared because in the next war, “the firepower against the home front will be tremendous.”

Yaakov Lappin, a research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line that Kochavi’s message to the public was to “face up to the force build-up of adversaries, whose strategy is to target the country’s soft civilian underbelly.”

Yet Prof. Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line that the main significance of Kochavi’s speech lay in the chief of staff’s willingness to candidly discuss policies previously left opaque.

“The question isn’t about the way [to handle the matter of threats from Iran], but the degree of openness in speaking about it,” he said.

Inbar suggests that Israel’s current political impasse – the repeated failure to form a governing coalition after two snap elections, with a third election on the way in March – has left a power vacuum that Kochavi was forced to fill.

He also notes that in Naftali Bennett, the chief of staff has “a novice as a defense minister.” As a result, “Kochavi is becoming a more important player now. Because we have an interim government… he has greater leeway.”

In his Wednesday speech, Israel’s top soldier focused particular attention on the increasing threat posed by Iran’s precision-guided weapons.

Prof. Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that this was no surprise.

“Nobody can ignore the military buildup of Iran throughout the Middle East,” Rabi said.

Kochavi warned that internal unrest had left parts of Iraq an “ungovernable area,” allowing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the IRGC’s clandestine Quds Force to operate there freely.

Rabi notes that Iraq is just one of a number of failed Arab states. They also include Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, all now outposts for Tehran. In Iraq, he says, “Iran is systematically creating a state within a state through which to preserve the chaos [there]. The chaos serves Iranian interests well.”

Iran, Kochavi added, has been moving advanced weaponry into both Iraq and Syria, from where these arms can more easily hit Israel, but “we will not allow Iran to entrench itself” in those countries. This policy could bring Israel to the brink of a direct confrontation with Iran, he admitted, but it had to be done.

The escalating threat from Iran is not just the result of technological advancement: The Islamic Republic’s behavior is increasingly confident and aggressive. Lappin notes that Tehran’s “determination to confront Israel in the region raises the risk of a limited conflict… or of a conflict that can snowball.”

According to Rabi, this aggressive stance may have started as “a kind of defensive approach to prevent an American invasion or an Israeli attack.” But Iran, he adds, now has a “growing appetite” fed by Arab weakness, American reluctance to get involved in the region and an Iranian desire to prove that it remains strong in the face of US sanctions and internal dissent.

Iran’s nuclear program continues to pose a major strategic threat to Israel, with the chief of staff saying its scientists “are working on the ability to assemble a warhead,” noting that the Islamic Republic now has double the amount of enriched material it is allowed to have under the 2015 nuclear deal designed to limit its presumed march toward becoming a nuclear power.

“Kochavi’s decision to sound a warning over Iranian nuclear progress is significant,” Lappin said, adding that the chief of staff’s comments were intended to signal that “Tehran is currently encountering insufficient pushback” from the international community.

The Gulf states, Kochavi noted, are bearing the brunt of Iranian aggression yet offer “no deterrence, no response and no reprisals.” On the other hand, he said, Israel “is responding and will continue to respond.” He was alluding to numerous air strikes against Iranian facilities, personnel or proxies in the region that the Israeli military has admitted carrying out.

“It would have been better had we not been the only ones engaged in that effort,” Kochavi noted, this statement being widely interpreted as criticism of the Trump Administration for backing down on threats of its own against Iran and for its decision to reduce the American military presence in Syria.

Nevertheless, Kochavi noted, the level of US-Israeli military cooperation was “just extraordinary.”

The chief of staff also addressed other fronts that pose security worries for Israel.

He said that in the Gaza Strip, Hamas is currently focused on improving living conditions for civilians and has no interest in provoking Israel, with the vast majority of attacks originating from the enclave over the past year having come from the smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Israel, he said, aims to lift some of the restrictions it has imposed on Gazans while at the same time ensuring the security of Israelis living near that volatile border.

“This is a government policy and I support it fully,” he said. “I believe it can bring calm to the area.”

War, he added, is a last resort and should never be undertaken for the sake of conquest. But when diplomacy, deterrence and retaliation fail, it can be a solution, he said.

Kochavi then issued a stern warning: While Israel would observe the laws of war and not target civilians, it would attack combatants embedded among civilians, and would feel free to strike at the host country’s strategic infrastructure.

“We will forcefully strike the urban zone,” he said, adding that “the enemy chose to situate themselves there, and from there they fire thousands of missiles at Israel…. We will warn [civilians], allow them to evacuate and strike with force immediately after.”

Lappin characterized Kochavi’s “willingness to take the war to the urban areas” as delivering “a powerful message of deterrence to Hizbullah and to Gaza’s armed factions.”

The chief of staff’s overall comments, according to the researcher, “offered key insights into the latest threat assessments held by the IDF General Staff; shed light on Israel’s changing strategic environment; and provided important clues about Israel’s [potential] counter-steps.”