Author: YONAH JEREMY BOB
Posted on March 21, 2017
A debate over which is the biggest threat to Israel – Hezbollah’s rockets or Iran’s nuclear program – erupted anew on Tuesday, between Mossad director Yossi Cohen, who focused on Iran, and IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who opted for Hezbollah.
Speaking at a conference at the Netanya Academic College honoring former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, Cohen said: “As long as the current regime is in control, whether with a nuclear deal or without one, Iran will continue to be the central threat to Israel.”
He added that Iran has not relinquished its drive for a nuclear bomb, and after Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and terrorism are the next biggest threats.
“Iran wants to have influence and be a key mover in the Middle East,” he said. “Its tactics have changed due to pressures, but the intent and the trend remain… We need to be ready and to embrace opportunities” for cooperation with allies regarding such threats.
Cohen’s comments come as most of the region is focused on recent military exchanges between the IDF, the Syrian Assad regime and Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, Eisenkot’s speech at the conference was far more focused on the threat from Hezbollah and issues with Syria.
While he eventually mentioned Iran at the end of a long list of threats – consistent with some past statements from top IDF officials that Hezbollah poses a greater threat than Iran – most of Eisenkot’s discussion was about the Hezbollah-Assad threat.
He said that the army would continue to work to prevent advanced weaponry from getting into the hands of the wrong people. Eisenkot made his comments just days after Syrian government forces fired an anti-aircraft missile at Israel Air Force jets during an air strike last Friday to halt the flow of advanced weapons to Hezbollah near Palmyra.
The IDF chief said that one of the army’s missions was to “prevent the strengthening of those who should not be strengthened by [the acquisition of] advanced weaponry,” and that the IDF’s policy regarding the Syrian civil war was one of “non-intervention alongside preserving our interests.”
Eisenkot said it was in Israel’s interest to keep the northern border quiet, as it has managed to do over the past six years, despite the civil war raging in Syria.
Eisenkot also spoke about the assassination of Hezbollah’s top military commander in Syria last year, declaring that it was carried out by rivals within the group itself.
The death of Mustafa Badreddine illustrates “the depth of the internal crisis within Hezbollah,” he said.
“According to [media] reports, he was killed by his superiors, which points to the extent of the cruelty, complexity and tension between Hezbollah and its patron Iran,” Eisenkot said. “These reports corresponded with the information we have and with our assessment.”
Though Cohen and Eisenkot did not in fact debate (they merely gave speeches one after another), their difference in prioritizing threats effectively renewed a debate which blew up in early 2016 when Eisenkot rated Hezbollah as a far greater threat than Iran – somewhat undermining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s regular claim that the nuclear program was Israel’s primary threat.
The new version of the debate, however, placed Eisenkot next to Cohen, the Mossad chief who rarely speaks in public.
Adding context to the IDF chief’s comments was a rare acknowledgment of the rising tensions on the Israel-Syria border from Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday.
“Defending our borders is our right, and it’s our duty, not only our right,” he told Russian reporters in Damascus, according to Russian news site Sputnik.
Assad also told Russian parliament members, who paid an official visit to the Syrian capital on Monday, that he was counting on Moscow to prevent Israel from attacking his country in the future.
“We are counting on Russia to prevent a conflict with Israel,” several Russian media outlets quoted him as saying.
On Friday, Israel’s Ambassador to Russia Gary Koren was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to defend the air strike. According to media reports, the strike occurred very close to Russian troops.
In other remarks at Tuesday’s conference, Cohen said, “The new buzz word is hybrid strategy. The idea is to act simultaneously with a diversity of means in addressing an ever-changing mix” of threats.
“Our security establishment must focus on our enemies in the region, to learn about them, to understand them in depth and to use force against them when required. The Middle East is our home field and therefore, we need to be involved in all matters in the region. We need to form alliances, to identify mutual interests with allies, and also with enemies on certain issues,” he said.
Referring to the namesake of the conference, he added, “Meir Dagan bequeathed us a tradition and a determination to fight for Israel and to take any actions necessary to accomplish this.”
Later on at the conference, former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo took a different approach, arguing that the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflict was the only real threat to Israel’s existence.
He said Israel’s failure to make brave decisions and cut a deal with its neighbors has it on the march toward becoming a bi-national state.
“Israel has chosen not to choose, to close its eyes and walk forth in the hope that the conflict will work itself out.
Maybe the Arabs will disappear one day, a cosmic or divine miracle will occur,” he said.
Pardo’s criticism seemed to be aimed at Netanyahu, who has pushed for brokering an alliance with Arab moderates first and addressing the Palestinian issue later, since taking office in 2009.
“In the end, we will become a bi-national state in which all citizens will have equal rights,” Pardo said. “Is this our desire and is this the Zionist vision? Is this what we will want to leave our children? The clock is ticking and the time has come for us to choose a path.”
Pardo appeared to agree with Netanyahu’s assertion that common interests have brought opportunities for relations with the Arab world. But unlike Netanyahu, he warned that these ties could not be fully cultivated without a solution to the Palestinian issue.
He also warned that the opening toward an alliance with moderate Arab states was temporary and that, without a deal in the near future, growing Iranian power could eventually have those states cutting a deal with Iran against Israel.
Jerusalem Post staff and Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.