At a recent meeting in Washington, I challenged the participants to identify the author of these quotes. The most frequently proposed answer was Secretary of State John Kerry’s speechwriter nominating his boss for the Nobel Peace Prize. No one guessed correctly.
These are the words of the individual who has primary responsibility for the defense of the state of Israel: Israeli Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot. Eizenkot, who commands the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), offered these unvarnished judgments publicly in a January speech to colleagues at Israel’s premier national-security think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies. In speaking so explicitly about a deal Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called a “historic mistake” that raises the specter of a second Holocaust, Eizenkot settled the debate in Israel about where he and the IDF stand on this question.
This debate erupted last summer when Eizenkot, for the first time in Israeli history, released a public defense strategy. When the document was published, Israeli analysts found it almost unbelievable that the strategy said nothing about an Iranian nuclear threat. The omission was so blatant that members of the press speculated that a secret annex outlines the true scope of the Iranian nuclear threat, while others contended that the omission was the ultimate putdown to the prime minister. Eizenkot’s January speech ended this speculation.
If Iran’s nuclear threat has been postponed for the foreseeable future, what does the chief of the general staff see as the No. 1 threat to Israel? Eizenkot’s answer is Iran: not its nuclear program, but its drive for hegemony in the region, from its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, for Hamas in Gaza, and for the Houthis in Yemen, to its position as the dominant influence in Baghdad. As he says: “The main rival the IDF has at this time is Hezbollah.” Indeed, “Iran is having a war through proxy with Israel. Hezbollah is budgeted, trained, and even steered since 2006 by the Iranians.” Eizenkot added that Hezbollah’s growing capabilities are “challenging the intelligence, aerial, and ground superiority of the IDF.”
Having recently returned from a week of off-the-record discussions with leaders of Israel’s security establishment, I can confirm that Eizenkot’s assessment is not an exception: Israel’s security professionals see a dramatically different threat environment in the wake of the nuclear agreement. For the past decade, Iran’s nuclear advance has required their laser-like concentration on what, if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, would pose an existential threat to their nation. They now believe that 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. To quote the former head of Israeli Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin: “The agreement rolls back the Iranian nuclear program to the point of a breakout time [to produce enough fuel for one nuclear weapon] of one year, reduces the scope of the program, and places it under a verification regime that is much more invasive than the current system and includes access to military facilities. For at least the next ten years, the threat of nuclear armament in Iran has been reduced.”