De­cer­ti­fy­ing a bad but quiet deal

Jerusalem Post - - OBSERVATIONS - • BY YAAKOV KATZ (Reuters)

In Fe­bru­ary 1979, then US de­fense sec­re­tary Harold Brown vis­ited Is­rael and met with the coun­try’s top lead­er­ship: prime min­is­ter Me­nachem Be­gin and de­fense min­is­ter Ezer Weiz­man.

It was just over a month af­ter the shah had been de­posed from Iran and the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion was mov­ing full-steam ahead. Like to­day, the Mid­dle East was chang­ing be­fore the world’s eyes, and Brown had come to try to get Is­rael and Egypt to fi­nal­ize their peace treaty. He was also hold­ing arms talks with Saudi Ara­bia.

Dur­ing his meet­ing with Weiz­man, Brown made Is­rael an of­fer it couldn’t refuse. While the Is­rael Air Force had al­ready or­dered a few dozen F-16s, the first planes weren’t sup­posed to ar­rive un­til 1981. Iran, it turned out, had also or­dered a batch of the fourth-gen­er­a­tion multi-role com­bat air­craft, and Amer­ica now had to de­cide what to do with the planes that would soon be com­ing off the assem­bly line. Brown of­fered them to Is­rael.

Weiz­man asked for some time to con­sider the pro­posal. He called IAF com­man­der Maj.-Gen. David Ivry to ask what he thought. “Grab them,” Ivry said, while think­ing in the back of his mind that the planes could po­ten­tially be used for a se­cret op­er­a­tion he had been tasked with pre­par­ing – the bomb­ing of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s Osirak nu­clear re­ac­tor out­side of Bagh­dad.

The first four F-16s – two sin­gle-seat A mod­els and two tan­dem-seat B mod­els – ar­rived at Ra­mat David Air Force Base in north­ern Is­rael in the sum­mer of 1980. A year later they made his­tory, when they flew to Iraq and de­stroyed its nu­clear re­ac­tor.

Ear­lier this year, af­ter nearly four decades of non­stop op­er­a­tions, those planes were re­tired from ser­vice. Part of the rea­son the IAF de­cided to de­com­mis­sion them was be­cause of their ad­vanced age, but also due to the chang­ing Mid­dle East.

While the re­tire­ment of the F-16A re­duces Is­rael’s over­all num­ber of fighter jets, it is tem­po­rary. The IAF has or­dered a sim­i­lar amount of F-35 stealth fighter jets, five of which have al­ready ar­rived. The rest are to come within the next cou­ple of years.

How­ever, there was an­other fac­tor that played into the IAF’s con­sid­er­a­tion: the ever-chang­ing Mid­dle East. While the re­gional up­heaval presents Is­rael with a host of chal­lenges and threats, the Jewish state also finds it­self to­day the strong­est it has ever been in its al­most 70 years of in­de­pen­dence. With the Syr­ian mil­i­tary com­pletely dis­in­te­grated and peace with Egypt and Jor­dan still strong, there is no cur­rent con­ven­tional mil­i­tary threat against the State of Is­rael.

What this means in prac­ti­cal terms is that not one of Is­rael’s en­e­mies can in­vade the coun­try and con­quer ter­ri­tory. This is a dra­matic change for Is­rael, which un­til just a few years ago still trained its forces for a pos­si­ble con­ven­tional war with Syria.

This does not mean that the coast is clear. Far from it. Hezbol­lah has more than 130,000 rock­ets and mis­siles ca­pa­ble of strik­ing any­where in­side Is­rael with un­prece­dented pre­ci­sion and dev­as­ta­tion. Ha­mas has about 30,000 rock­ets of its own and some­where, some­one is plan­ning a 9/11-scale at­tack against Is­rael.

But while these groups can de­stroy in­fra­struc­ture and kill civil­ians, they can­not con­quer, and hold onto for an ex­tended pe­riod of time, a sin­gle kib­butz along the north­ern or south­ern bor­der. For all their rock­ets and tun­nels, they do not pose an ex­is­ten­tial threat to the State of Is­rael.

This is im­por­tant to keep in mind as we con­sider US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s re­ported de­ci­sion to de­cer­tify the nu­clear deal with Iran. While the deal was bad to be­gin with – mostly be­cause at the end of 10 years Iran will have zero break­out time to ob­tain a bomb – it also pro­vides the IDF with a sense of tem­po­rary quiet.

This is a sharp break from 2010 to 2013, when the IDF was hard at work pre­par­ing and sus­tain­ing a long-range strike ca­pa­bil­ity against Iran’s nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties. This not only ate up bud­gets, man­power and other re­sources, but was also a con­stant di­ver­sion of the Gen­eral Staff’s at­ten­tion.

Ev­ery de­ci­sion the IDF made at the time needed to be con­sid­ered through the prism of an at­tack on Iran, which every­one as­sumed would spark a war with Hezbol­lah and pos­si­bly Syria as well. This im­pacted train­ing, pro­cure­ment and just about ev­ery­thing else.

When the P5+1 talks started and later when the deal was reached, parts of the IDF in­clud­ing Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot breathed a sigh of re­lief. While Iran is still an ex­treme and desta­bi­liz­ing force in the re­gion – mostly for its role in Syria and sup­port of Hezbol­lah – the threat of im­mi­nent war was post­poned.

This does not mean that Eisenkot or his gen­er­als do not sup­port ex­ert­ing more pres­sure on Iran. They do, and for that rea­son Is­rael is be­hind Trump’s de­ci­sion to de­cer­tify the deal and po­ten­tially use the move to im­pose new sanc­tions against Tehran for its sup­port of ter­ror­ist groups and con­tin­ued de­vel­op­ment of bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

Is­rael is mostly fine with de­cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, since on its own, this doesn’t im­me­di­ately im­pact the deal it­self. While cer­ti­fi­ca­tion wasn’t man­dated by the agree­ment, it was or­dered by Congress, which passed a law re­quir­ing the pres­i­dent to de­cide ev­ery three months whether Iran is abid­ing by the deal and whether that deal re­mains a na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­est for Amer­ica.

This means that, even if the deal is de­cer­ti­fied, it doesn’t fall apart and Is­rael still has the breath­ing room to fo­cus on other im­por­tant mil­i­tary and diplo­matic chal­lenges. There are also five other coun­tries which were part­ners to the deal that an­nounced they would stick to it re­gard­less of what Trump de­cides. This means that, even if the US snaps back sanc­tions, they will not have the same ef­fect they had in the past when Europe and Asia were on board.

While Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu has claimed that, if Amer­ica de­cer­ti­fies and im­poses sanc­tions, the rest of the world would fol­low, this is not nec­es­sar­ily the case. Trump has shown a se­vere hand­i­cap in his abil­ity to muster do­mes­tic sup­port for his leg­isla­tive agenda, let alone in­ter­na­tional sup­port for a move most of his al­lies di­a­met­ri­cally op­pose.

Trump’s chal­lenge is liv­ing up to his cam­paign prom­ise to over­turn what he called “the worst deal ever” and an “em­bar­rass­ment.” De­cer­ti­fi­ca­tion would al­low him to show his sup­port­ers that he fol­lows through on cam­paign prom­ises. From a nar­row po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tive, what hap­pens next might be less im­por­tant.

For Is­rael, how­ever, it is. Con­cerned with Iran’s grow­ing pres­ence in Syria and con­tin­ued sup­ply of ad­vanced mis­siles to Hezbol­lah, Is­rael would like to see more ac­tion taken to re­strain Iran. This could be in the form of eco­nomic sanc­tions, as well as the des­ig­na­tion of the Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion. In other words, any­thing that would put pres­sure on Iran and get it to po­ten­tially re­con­sider its own course of ac­tion.

Nev­er­the­less, this does not mean that Is­rael wants the nu­clear deal over­turned. It wants it im­proved, sharp­ened and made more ef­fec­tive. It would like to see it re­vised, for ex­am­ple, to have the “sun­set clause” – un­der which some re­stric­tions on Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram ex­pire from 2025 – can­celed.

But Is­rael also ben­e­fits from the ex­ist­ing deal. It gives Is­rael quiet and lets the IDF fo­cus on other chal­lenges while dis­tribut­ing its bud­get more ra­tio­nally.

This sen­ti­ment is shared by the Pen­tagon. US Sec­re­tary of De­fense James Mat­tis said last week that he be­lieves the US should stick with the deal as long as Iran meets its con­di­tions. Chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dun­ford took a sim­i­lar po­si­tion, telling the Se­nate that the deal had “de­layed the de­vel­op­ment of a nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity by Iran.”

In their next phone call, Trump should ask Ne­tanyahu what hap­pened in 2012 when he failed to get the se­cu­rity cabi­net to ap­prove a mil­i­tary strike against Iran’s nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties. The move, at the time, was thwarted by the heads of the IDF, Mos­sad and the Shin Bet, who fiercely op­posed uni­lat­eral Is­raeli ac­tion.

It was a les­son in the lim­its of power, some­thing Trump is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing right now: If your de­fense chiefs op­pose mil­i­tary ac­tion, it is go­ing to be hard push­ing it through.

A TRUCK car­ry­ing a mis­sile and a pic­ture of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei is seen dur­ing a 2015 Tehran pa­rade mark­ing the an­niver­sary of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

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