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What Israel’s Chief of Staff Is Worried About — No, It’s Not Iran

Two members of Congress from New York, a Democrat and a Republican, are calling on President Obama to provide Israel with massive, 30,000-pound bunker-buster bombs, capable of penetrating Iran’s fortified underground nuclear facilities. They also want to send B-52 long-range bombers that can carry the huge devices.

“Providing Israel with a stronger capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities would help deter Iran from ever trying to break any agreement it may sign,” wrote the pair, Democrat Grace Meng of Queens and Republican Lee Zeldin of eastern Long Island, in a May 17 op-ed essay in the New York Post.

Though the lawmakers seem unaware of it, their proposal comes immediately on the heels of a weeklong media blitz by heads of the Israel Defense Forces, detailing in speeches and interviews the military’s view of the main strategic threats facing Israel in the foreseeable future and its plans to meet them.

Oh — in case you’re wondering: No, Iran isn’t on the list.

On the contrary, Israel’s military General Staff and intelligence services are in the midst of a series of formal discussions focused on just the opposite assumption: the likelihood that the emerging nuclear agreement between Iran and the major powers could minimize the Iranian threat for an extended period, allowing the military to redirect budgets and resources toward areas of more immediate concern. The discussions are chaired by the deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Major General Yair Golan, under the supervision of the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot.

What most concerns the military in the short range is the likelihood of renewed flare-ups within the next few years with the heavily armed Islamist militias on Israel’s northern and southern borders, Hezbollah and Hamas. Eizenkot, who took command February 15, is trying to direct every possible resource toward reorganization, reinforcement and intensified training of the army’s ground forces, which will be called on to bear the brunt of that fighting if — or rather, when — it resumes. A “senior military official” told The New York Times’ Isabel Kershner, one of Israel’s most experienced Arab affairs reporters, that the calm that’s prevailed along the northern border since 2006, as a result of the deterrence achieved by the Second Lebanon War, is almost certain to break down at some point. The Gaza front is considered to be even more volatile.

A longer-range concern that overshadows both of those is the growing threat from global jihad movements, led by Al Qaeda and ISIS. Unlike its confrontations with Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel does not currently have a clearly developed strategy for coping with the jihad threat. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are driven by conflicting impulses, on one hand an ideological commitment to battling Israel, on the other hand a responsibility toward the civilian populations under their rule. Each in its own way has something to lose, and therefore is susceptible to deterrence for long periods. The jihadist movements show no such inhibitions.

Alongside the threat of Islamist militias, Eizenkot is giving top priority to the growing threat of cyber attacks. According to numerous reports, he intends to combine various existing cyber warfare units into a new unified cyber command, parallel to such existing commands as the air force, the navy and the three regional commands in the north, center and south.

“Senior military officials” gave interviews in mid-May to The New York Times and a range of Israeli news organizations, outlining all these concerns. The most significant was a lengthy analysis by senior military commentator Alex Fishman of Yediot Ahronot in that paper’s May 15 weekend supplement that appears to be based on an off-the-record interview with Eizenkot himself. Fishman often serves as a channel for heads of the General Staff and military intelligence when they want to express views without attribution. Taken together, the interviews seem to be intended as both a warning to Hamas and Hezbollah and a plea for greater realism from Israel’s new government.

Looming above all the border concerns is a clear but unstated nervousness within the military and the intelligence community over the yawning gap between their professional assessments of Israel’s strategic posture and the agenda of the country’s elected political leadership. It emerges in the nervous snickers of ranking IDF strategists in response congressional efforts, like the New York lawmakers’ bunker-buster proposal, to bolster what the military command considers the fantasy of an Israeli attack on Iran. It emerges, too, in a growing curiosity tinged with alarm among current and retired military commanders over the influence in Washington of American Jewish conservatives who claim to be defending Israeli security but have little grasp of Israeli strategic thinking.

It comes out more openly in the tug of war between the military and the government over relations with Hamas and rehabilitation of Gaza. Press reports in recent weeks described an indirect dialogue between the IDF and Hamas via Qatari and European diplomats, openly confirmed by Hamas officials, over Gaza’s border crossings, imports and exports and longer-term cease-fire arrangements. Eizenkot and the IDF’s coordinator of government activities in the territories, Major General Yoav “Pauly” Mordechai, are eager to encourage economic development in Gaza — including a dedicated seaport in Cyprus — so the population will see the advantages of peace and have something to lose.

As IDF Southern Command chief Sammy Turgeman told a gathering of Negev municipality leaders in a widely reported speech May 11, the military believes there is “no alternative to Hamas” as the ruling power in Gaza. “The alternative to Hamas is the IDF and chaos. We need an address to deal with.”

This puts the military sharply at odds with much of the political leadership, which holds out hopes of destroying Hamas. Even relative moderates within the Likud, such as Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, take an extremely dim view of any hint of cooperation with it. According to Fishman, Yaalon has ruled out major development projects such as the Cyprus seaport. Yaalon has also ordered that contacts with Hamas be conducted solely via Egypt. But Egypt insists on maintaining contact with Hamas only through Mahmoud Abbas’s Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, which it considers the legitimate governing body in Gaza. And the Palestinian Authority’s relations with Hamas are extremely strained.

“Thus, the degree of influence of the chief of staff on the volatility of the Gaza Strip is very limited,” Fishman wrote. The words were Fishman’s, but the frustration is Eizenkot’s.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at [email protected] or on Twitter @jj_goldberg

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