Executive branch, Legislative branch, olive branch? If nuclear negotiations with Iran resume, Israel may be a silent partner
By Amir Oren
Whoever wins Tuesday’s elections in the US and gains or keeps control of the White House and Capitol Hill, a major decision awaiting Washington will have to do with a reassessment of policy vis-a-vis Iran. There is usually a mix of continuity and change in the handover between administrations, even of the same political party, and at times when a President enters his second term and wishes to pick a new line and a new staff – George W. Bush comes to mind and his review of Iraq policy, including the “Surge” of forces into the country and the replacement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by Robert Gates, though that took place only in mid-term.
Based on such precedents, it is reasonable to assume that even should Donald Trump be re-elected, regardless of most indicators on election’s eve, he will have an incentive to subject his Iran policy to a fresh look. Free of electoral considerations, ever in pursuit of the elusive Nobel Peace Prize, he could be expected to shift gears and double down on diplomacy. Where Barack Obama had by Trump’s standards a bad deal – more than simply bad, horrible, the worst ever – he will secure a good one, a perfect deal, the best ever.
And should Joe Biden redeem the shaky reputation of political pollsters and prognosticators by unseating Trump, a return to the Obama policy is not only going to be a natural extension of the former Vice-President’s elevation to Chief Executive, but indeed a fulfillment of a campaign pledge. It will be a second American U-Turn in four years, thereby circling back to where Obama left off when Trump was inaugurated.
Either way, once the President appoints his key associates and launches his most pressing domestic policies, he will surely wish to send feelers to Tehran. By that time, the February Iranian elections will also be over, with a clearer picture of winners and losers in the internal tug of war there emerging.
That will present Israel with the need to react to the reality of Spring 2021 and outline a new policy of its own. In a word, is it in or out, a player or spectator.
When Obama, bolstered by the support of Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France and based on understandings reached through secret talks in Oman, decided to go for a deal aimed at curbing Iran’s path towards nuclear weapons, Benjamin Neranyahu’s government went the other way. It objected to the very idea of a deal. Any agreement short of unconditional surrender would not be good enough for it. Accepting the framework of negotiations only to be inevitably frustrated by the results was not an option. Netanyahu thus chose to fight the incipient deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action – rather than try to influence its content.
In that, he had the support of the cabinet he headed, but not the consent of the Military and Intelligence agencies advising him, though as a matter of course saluted and went on to execute the political directive. The Israel Defense Forces, Mossad and other organizations in the policy-making community argued that a less than perfect deal, one the Iranians would agree and adhere to, was better than no deal, escalation towards a bombing campaign and then back to square one under worse conditions.
One of these bodies is the IDF’s Planning Branch. Until very recently, when it was split in order for each half to focus on one mission, it was charged with planning both the mix and make-up of the various Army, Navy and Air Force components and the strategic landscape in which the IDF will have to perform.
The Planning Branch, with certain functions directly under the Defense Minister as well as under the Chief of General Staff, was established as one of the earliest and most obvious lessons of the Yom Kippur War. There was always some long-range planning team within the General
staff, but its standing, under a mere Colonel or at most a Brigadier General (1 Star), was always lower than that of the Directorate of Military Intelligence and its Chief, a senior Major General.
In the first 15 years of Israel’s existence, the Ben-Gurion era, military intelligence was less important than it became in the decade after his resignation as Prime Minister and Defense Minister. Under Ben-Gurion, Military Intelligence was expected to provide early warning of an impending Arab attack and up to date information on the enemies capabilities and intentions, but it was not held in such high regard as to be invited into the closest held councils of war and peace. The Director General of the Foreign Ministry, among others, was more influential than the uniformed Intelligence chief.
That changed when Ben-Gurion was succeeded by civilians with no Defense aura and military chiefs from Yitzhak Rabin on assumed a higher public profiles and competed with their political masters for prestige and professional authority. The triumph of 1967 cemented the status of the IDF in general and Military Intelligence in particular as institutions held in the highest esteem. Failures were brushed off as glitches.
The flaw in that construct was the emphasis on the other side. The world’s best intelligence service can know only so much on the enemy. One’s own side is beyond the pale – the military is barred from collecting information on its own government – and is left intentionally half-blind. Director of Military Intelligence Eli Zeira was unrealistically expected to predict Anwar Sadat’s moves, without being privy to all of Golda Meir’s. He was tasked with looking at the black half of the chessboard with only a glimpse into the white queen’s.
A more junior General Officer, Abrasha Tamir, was at that time in charge of a small shop of long-range strategic planners. Their broad overview, pointing at dangers and contradictions in Israel’s policy, was discounted. The Israeli leadership, both political and military, over-rated its own power and under-rated Egypt’s and Syria’s. The basic failure, in addition to the illusion that the status quo was sustainable, was in the lack of a net assessment – subtracting the enemy’s force from one’s own, in order to gage the relationship between the two.
Tamir was promoted at war’s end, along with his planning branch, and eventually other strata were added – a national security unit in the defense ministry and a national security staff at the cabinet level. But both of those, under various incarnations, have not been a match to the military’s planning branch, itself still less powerful than military intelligence.
To head the planning branch, up and coming generals were picked, most prominently Ehud Barak and four future Air Force chiefs, including the last three in a row. One notch under them, the position of Strategic Division chief often went to an intelligence officer who lost the play-off for research and assessment head for military intelligence. Rather than the Middle East, he was given the world.
The Brigadier General holding this position now is Dr. Oren Setter, a veteran of Air Force, Intelligence, Research and Development and other special assignments, with a proven record of academic excellence. Setter, who also represents Israel in the talks with Lebanon on demarcating their maritime boundary, is typical of the second generation of defense intellectuals in the post-World War II period. Faced with new and uncharted territories of mutual deterrence in the nuclear age, systems analysis, operational reseatch and game theory, Western militaries first turned to brilliant civilians in the fields of politcal science and government, history and statistics, the Kissingers and the Schlesingers.
At the same time, they started growing their own, sending promising young officers to learn from the masters and combine these new theories with practical experiences in command of troops and in the corridors of power. The intended outcome was an amalgam of art and science.
So while a strategic division chief, two steps down the ladder from Israel’s highest ranking soldier, may be too junior a player on the national team, and can always be countermanded by a Prime Minister bent on his own ideas, he can nevertheless drive the discussion and write the seminal paper which goes up the pipeline and becomes the policy of reference unless it is aborted or changed.
When Setter was in Boston, during the Obama (now rebranded Obama-Biden) period, he co-wrote several important articles with associates such as Graham Allison of the Cuban Missile Crisis “Essence of Decision” fame. Setter came down for two significant approaches to the American-Iranian-Israeli interplay.
The first one was bless, don’t curse – Israel should welcome negotiations to limit and defang the potential for Iranian acquisition of military nuclear capability. While it will stay out of the room, proximity talks with American (and other) negotiators will give it transparency and input. It will have some of its requests incorporated, others a basis for compensation. It will authoritatively know what is going on and be prepared accordingly.
The second suggestion flows from the first. As long as Israel takes part in the game, through surrogates, why not take the next logical step and talk directly with the Islamic Republic, its arch-enemy, in search of spheres of co-existence, de-confliction and perhaps even cooperation. This would be a Track II round of informal discussions between experts holding no current positions in government, yet seasoned and btiefed enough to converse realistically – former officials, scholars, think tank types as Setter himself was during Sabbaticals from the service.
Only two not-so-minor obstacles stand in the way of implementing BG Setter’s vision, written pre-JCPOA, if it is revived in a post-election, JCPOA 2.0 setting.
One is the reluctance of Iranian moderates to participate in such an exercise without the express – though secret – approval of their supreme leader. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has voiced his displeasure even at his own negotiators with the West, may nix the idea.
Then there is the problem of Israeli decision making. The future of politics and policy in Jerusalem is obscure. Netanyahu may or may not be in office when this issue is raised. Current rivals and coalition partners, such as Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, whose ideas are probably in line with Setter’s, could be either up in the saddle or out of the stable altogether. It is doubtful that other contenders have given serious thought to the problem.
But if all the ducks line up in a row – a willing President, a cooperative Ayatollah, a bold Prime Minister – this could all come to pass. Stranger things, even more counter-intuitive, have happened in and to the Middle East.