image Pentagon’s Partner, Particular Perspective. Kochavi. Photo: IDF

Tampa, Tehran, Tel Aviv

A new welcome to CENTCOM for IDF Chief

By Amir Oren

Aviv Kochavi was a paratroop Captain in his mid 20’s when one of Israel’s most admired Commando officers visited MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. He was Lt.-Gen. Dan Shomron, commander of the rescue raid at Entebbe, who rose to become Israel’s top soldier, the IDF Chief of the General Staff, first in his position to be invited to MacDill.

Shomron was revered in the Special Forces community of DELTA Force, SEALS and JSOC. It was only natural that the newly established Special Operations Command would like an opportunity to host him while on a journey to the United States and exchange views with an accomplished practitioner. He willingly accepted.

There was only one catch: SOCOM was not sole proprietor of MacDill. Historically, the base was used by readiness forces whose contingencg plans focused on the Middle East, a region split between the European and Pacific Theaters and suffering from a low priority in both. In the 1980’s, events necessitated the establishment of Central Command and a few years later of SOCOM, both co-inhabiting the  headquarters on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico.

But CENTCOM was for all intents and purposes ARABCOM. Its main mission was to help protect Saudi Arabia and lesser Persian Gulf powers from Iranian attacks escalating as the Iran-Iraq war went through eight bloody years. Israel was anathema to the Saudis, at least visibly. So CENTCOM, fearing a violent reaction by Riyadh, objected to Shomron’s visit to MacDill. In the late 1980’s, before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, American bases on Saudi soil were unthinkable, and American dependence on Arabian oil was a fact of life.

In the SOCOM-CENTCOM tug of war over the Shomron visit, a classic bureaucratic compromise was reached: Shomron would be kept on the SOCOM half of the base, including its side in the officers’ mess. Should the  Saudis protest, the line in the send could be produced to prove that their sanctity was not violated by an infidel.

It was one of those ridiculous remnants of late Cold War, pre-Desert Storm concerns lest the House of Saud, teetering between regional rivals Iran and Iraq, will refuse American rescue from either. Now this is not only a semi-forgotten past – it has been upended by what transpired through the last three decades.

When Shomron was a 46-year-old Major General who was passed over for IDF Chief, because of some irrelevant political impasse, he considered retiring, as his next chance at promotion would come four years later, by which time he will be “a Military Metuselah”. Israel was no longer young – earlier Chiefs such as Moshe Dayan were appointed in their 30’s, Yitzhak Rabin being first to breach 40’s – but not yet middle-aged.

Kochavi, this very morning (and surely night) celebrating his 57th birthday, comes from a changed Israel, a changed IDF, to a changed America. Starting a week-long series of meeting with Administration and Defense officials, he will be openly and warmly welcomed at MacDill by both SOCOM and CENTCOM Commanding Generals. The Saudi flag at CENTCOM Coalition HQ will not be flown at half-staff.

The Israeli General’s talks with his host, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, as well as with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, are surely going to be beneficial to both sides. The sophisticated Kochavi, a former graduate student in Boston and Washington, was uncharacteristically slow to recognise how radically different from the Trump era Biden is determined to be, with Iran the most salient example. But he is an experienced and adaptable officer and will surely find common cause with the political masters of his comrades at arms.

For the Biden-Harris team it would serve not only to impart their policy, but also to take the measure of an important actor in the Israeli decision-making process, especially if a new team takes power in Jerusalem, and who upon retirement 20 months hence would remain on the national scene, ready to spring from the bench and take part in the political game.

While Shomron had to contend with the Syrian military as his threat of reference, alongside Hezbollah and an emerging Iraqi ballistic missile threat, kochavi’s Tel Aviv operations and intelligence nerve center has “Terror Armies” – his term for Hezbollah and Hamas – as its immediate concern and Iran as both present nuisance and future Nuclear threat. Here, too, Kochavi was apparently better prepared for a second Trump term and its consequences than for the return to Obama’s diplomatic approach to Iran under Biden. Tensions between Washington and Tehran could have escalated into a conflict engulfing Israel under the maximum pressure cooker of the preceding four years. But there is little justification now for Kochavi’s formal designation of his Strategic Plans (J-5) Shop as the “Iran Directorate” of the General Staff. The Air Force officer in charge of this over-staffed body competing with Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Tal Kelman, is accompanying Kochavi on this trip.

One of Trump’s last acts in office was moving Israel from the European Command to CENTCOM. General Frank McKensie Jr, CENTCOM’s chief and Kichavi’s co-host on Tampa, told Congressional committees earlier this week that this process was mainly intended to align the Pentagon with other agencies – that is, the State Department, which is in the lead – and will not be finished before September. While he did not make the connection, it was obvious that the timing had to do with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, due to end by 9/11.

In his testimony, McKensie made clear that China and Russia take precedence over Iran and Daesh as long-term problems, though in the CENTCOM area of responsibility the last too are right now more acute. Russia is here to stay, in the Tartus Naval Base and other Air Force and ground facilities in Syria, generating friction with American forces deployed in proximity (though on their way out). China’s vision is for Middle East footholds advancing its strategic, economic and energy programs, with Iran the latest and boldest addition.

The basic idea behind the Biden global platform, as translated to CENTCOM operations, is to get away from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific area and adopt a defensive posture, albeit at times with offensive actions, vis-a-vis Iran, in order to protect American assets, interests and allies but not to risk renewed military involvement. Boots on the ground would be gone, to be replaced by off-shore firepower and logistic supplies waiting for crisis contingencies when U.S. troops would be airlifted in.

This doctrine may fit Biden’s worldview and superpower responsibilities. Israel’s universe is more limited. Iran, for it, because of its Syrian and Lebanese projects – even if the Nuclear tensions de-escalate once an agreement is reached – id a top-tier problem, with Russian and Hezbollah dimensions. Kochavi, mercifully, does not have to worry about Taiwan or North Korea (well, maybe he does, a little, about Pyongyang’s ties with Damascus and Tehran), but he is much more on edge than Milley or McKensie, because Israel’s margin for error is narrow, leaving little room for failure, fiasco and fatalities. The most recent examples can be taken from the exchanges between Israel and Iran on the maritime front and from what can be called “Dumayr to Dimona Dynamics”, where Iranian attempts to use a base near Damascus to plan hostilities against Israel brought about an attack following which a Soviet-supplied SA-5 missile flew south all the way to the general vicinity of the Middle East oldest nuclear reactor.

In addition to forging his personal relations – and those of his associates – with American counterparts, Kochavi’s main mission is to make sure that the militaries from Tampa to Tel Aviv via Northern Virginia are on the same page, or at least the same chapter, while the political leaderships in the Biden Administration and the next Israeli government, provided one emerges from the never-ending story launched in late 2018, ad Kochavi was being picked for IDF Chief, get used to each other.