US Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Israel yesterday, Aug. 12, for another visit. Last week, on Aug. 9, it was US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh who came for a four-day working visit. This marks Dempsey’s third visit to Israel since he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In 2012, he was here in October and January on what was said to be an American endeavor to dissuade Israel from its intentions to independently strike Iran’s nuclear installations.
At some point, someone has to count how many American chiefs of staff and generals have visited Israel since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected and took office in April 2009. Netanyahu’s election heralded Israel’s saber-rattling vis-à-vis Iran, turning top American defense officials into subtenants at the Ministry of Defense Headquarters in Tel Aviv as well as at the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and at the Israeli defense establishment, serving as babysitters in what may look like a day-care center for particularly edgy and dangerous children.
Dempsey’s current trip is said to be a working visit, during which he will discuss with his Israeli hosts Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz the usual topics, such as Syria, Egypt and al-Qaeda in the Sinai.
Behind the scenes, however, the picture is entirely different. High-ranking Israeli defense-establishment officials are quite clear as to why Dempsey has returned for a visit.
“It’s not Syria,” a high-ranking Israeli defense official told me last week. “It’s not Egypt either. Dempsey has come to make sure that Israel has no surprises up its sleeve in connection with Iran.”
“And if we go into finer resolution,” said another Israeli official who closely monitors the defense establishment, “Dempsey is here to make sure that Defense Minister Ya’alon is not flip-flopping on the Americans and changing his mind about an independent Israeli strike on Iran.”
In the previous government, when Ya’alon served as minister for strategic affairs and was part of the eight-member security cabinet, he was opposed to an Israeli strike, as were other ministers such as Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Ehud Barak and Eli Yishai. Together, these five ministers were a bulwark against the belligerence of Netanyahu, Avigdor Liberman, Yuval Steinitz and others.
Today the balance of power has changed. The once eight-member cabinet now consists of seven members. Ya’alon can tip the balance. If he changes his mind — and he is not that far off — Netanyahu will have a majority. But there’s something more important than having a majority. In view of the fact that all of Israel’s high-ranking defense officials (the chief of staff, the director of military intelligence, the directors of Shin Bet and the Mossad and the commander of the Israel air force) remain strongly opposed to an independent Israeli strike, Netanyahu needs a senior defense figure like Ya’alon to legitimize such action. Presumably, and without going out on a limb, when Ya’alon and Dempsey met for their intimate tête-à-tête, this topic surely came up and was discussed at length.
As for their second priority, well before the Syrian issue, the two will address the situation in Egypt. At this point it would be Ya’alon’s turn to “lecture” his American guest, although Dempsey doesn’t need any lecturing to understand the vital importance of American support of the Egyptian army in order to maintain regional stability. The two will talk about democracy in the region — a topic that ticks Ya’alon off whenever it comes up, considering his worldview, which is that you cannot artificially implant democracy in Arab countries that aren’t ready for it, do not understand the implications and still find it hard to come to terms with women having drivers’ licenses, let alone having the right to vote.
I would assume that Ya’alon once again presented to his American guest the scope of the IDF’s cooperation with the Egyptian military, which at this juncture has reached an all-time record. This type of cooperation is mistakenly attributed to the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood. Ostensibly, this provided Egypt’s defense and intelligence bodies with greater latitude to cooperate with Israel, but the truth is far from it. This cooperation was upgraded, “cranked up a notch” and started to bloom exactly a year ago, at the end of the month of Ramadan, in the midst of Eid al-Fitr. It started evolving after Islamist extremists attacked an Egyptian military outpost in Rafah on Aug. 5, 2012, killing 16 officers and soldiers, commandeering an armored personnel carrier (APC) and using it to breach the Israeli border. Although hit by an Israeli aircraft, they nonetheless continued their stampede until an IDF tank destroyed the APC and its occupants.
Code-named “Burning Wheels,” this operation saw quite a few Israeli officers and fighters awarded citation medals by the chief of staff and unit commanders. In hindsight, I would have changed the name to “Connected Vessels” or something in that vein. Egypt was utterly shocked and stunned by the brutal massacre of officers and soldiers by Islamist militants in Sinai. The penny dropped with a deafening roar for the Egyptian military.
Top Egyptian military officials, including Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who at that time was not yet the military’s commander in chief), suddenly realized who the real enemy was. Egypt now shared a real vested interest with Israel. For the first time, Egypt found itself under attack rather than just being the party that is called upon to broker quiet between Israel and Hamas. In retrospect, that night was a watershed that took the two armies —Israeli and Egyptian — to a totally new place.
The Arab media reports that it is Egypt that provides the early warnings about rockets on the city of Eilat, thereby occasionally prompting Israel to shut down the local airport there. What we are seeing are new times which bode quite a few risks but also many opportunities.
As I pen this article, Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system intercepted another Grad rocket that was fired from Sinai at Eilat. Although it started with a trickle, this will become a common occurrence. Israel’s southern border, which stayed quiet for dozens of years (except for Gaza, of course), is becoming tense, just like its northern border in the Golan Heights region.
Israel surrounds itself with powerful fences, sensors, cameras and other surveillance and detection devices. Deployed behind these fences are Iron Dome missile-defense batteries. Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Salafist and global jihad bases are piling up on the borders of the Jewish state, and with them, fences and countermeasures. Putting the nuclear threat aside for a moment, this is what the new era in the Middle East might look like.
At this time, the only good thing that can be introduced to this unpleasant equation is the fact that Israel is not out there all alone. With it, beyond the fences and the batteries, are all the moderate elements, whoever they are — in Egypt, Jordan and even the Palestinian Authority and Syria, anyone who wants to lead a normal life here and live in any type of “cold peace.” This is something that the Americans also need to understand, and better late than never.
Ben Caspit is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers, and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit