In February 1979, then-US defense secretary Harold Brown visited Israel and met with the country’s top leadership: prime minister Menachem Begin and defense minister Ezer Weizman.
It was just over a month after the shah had been deposed from Iran and the Islamic Revolution was moving full-steam ahead. Like today, the Middle East was changing before the world’s eyes, and Brown had come to try to get Israel and Egypt to finalize their peace treaty. He was also holding arms talks with Saudi Arabia.
During his meeting with Weizman, Brown made Israel an offer it couldn’t refuse. While the Israel Air Force had already ordered a few dozen F-16s, the first planes weren’t supposed to arrive until 1981.
Iran, it turned out, had also ordered a batch of the fourth-generation multi-role combat aircraft, and America now had to decide what to do with the planes that would soon be coming off the assembly line. Brown offered them to Israel.
Weizman asked for some time to consider the proposal.
He called IAF commander Maj.-Gen. David Ivry to ask what he thought. “Grab them,” Ivry said, while thinking in the back of his mind that the planes could potentially be used for a secret operation he had been tasked with preparing – the bombing of Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor outside of Baghdad.
The first four F-16s – two single-seat A models and two tandem-seat B models – arrived at Ramat David Air Force Base in northern Israel in the summer of 1980. A year later they made history, when they flew to Iraq and destroyed its nuclear reactor.
Earlier this year, after nearly four decades of nonstop operations, those planes were retired from service.
Part of the reason the IAF decided to decommission them was because of their advanced age, but also due to the changing Middle East.
While the retirement of the F-16A reduces Israel’s overall number of fighter jets, it is temporary. The IAF has ordered a similar amount of F-35 stealth fighter jets, five of which have already arrived. The rest are to come within the next couple of years.
However, there was another factor that played into the IAF’s consideration: the ever-changing Middle East. While the regional upheaval presents Israel with a host of challenges and threats, the Jewish state also finds itself today the strongest it has ever been in its almost 70 years of independence.
With the Syrian military completely disintegrated and peace with Egypt and Jordan still strong, there is no current conventional military threat against the State of Israel.
What this means in practical terms is that not one of Israel’s enemies can invade the country and conquer territory. This is a dramatic change for Israel, which until just a few years ago still trained its forces for a possible conventional war with Syria.
This does not mean that the coast is clear. Far from it. Hezbollah has more than 130,000 rockets and missiles capable of striking anywhere inside Israel with unprecedented precision and devastation.
Hamas has about 30,000 rockets of its own and somewhere, someone is planning a 9/11-scale attack against Israel.
But while these groups can destroy infrastructure and kill civilians, they cannot conquer, and hold onto for an extended period of time, a single kibbutz along the northern or southern border. For all their rockets and tunnels, they do not pose an existential threat to the State of Israel.
This is important to keep in mind as we consider US President Donald Trump’s reported decision to decertify the nuclear deal with Iran. While the deal was bad to begin with – mostly because at the end of 10 years Iran will have zero breakout time to obtain a bomb – it also provides the IDF with a sense of temporary quiet.
This is a sharp break from 2010 to 2013, when the IDF was hard at work preparing and sustaining a long-range strike capability against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This not only ate up budgets, manpower and other resources, but was also a constant diversion of the General Staff’s attention.
Every decision the IDF made at the time needed to be considered through the prism of an attack on Iran, which everyone assumed would spark a war with Hezbollah and possibly Syria as well. This impacted training, procurement and just about everything else.
When the P5+1 talks started and later when the deal was reached, parts of the IDF including Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot breathed a sigh of relief. While Iran is still an extreme and destabilizing force in the region – mostly for its role in Syria and support of Hezbollah – the threat of imminent war was postponed.
This does not mean that Eisenkot or his generals do not support exerting more pressure on Iran. They do, and for that reason Israel is behind Trump’s decision to decertify the deal and potentially use the move to impose new sanctions against Tehran for its support of terrorist groups and continued development of ballistic missiles.
Israel is mostly fine with decertification, since on its own, this doesn’t immediately impact the deal itself. While certification wasn’t mandated by the agreement, it was ordered by Congress, which passed a law requiring the president to decide every three months whether Iran is abiding by the deal and whether that deal remains a national security interest for America.
This means that, even if the deal is decertified, it doesn’t fall apart and Israel still has the breathing room to focus on other important military and diplomatic challenges. There are also five other countries which were partners to the deal that announced they would stick to it regardless of what Trump decides. This means that, even if the US snaps back sanctions, they will not have the same effect they had in the past when Europe and Asia were on board.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed that, if America decertifies and imposes sanctions, the rest of the world would follow, this is not necessarily the case. Trump has shown a severe handicap in his ability to muster domestic support for his legislative agenda, let alone international support for a move most of his allies diametrically oppose.
Trump’s challenge is living up to his campaign promise to overturn what he called “the worst deal ever” and an “embarrassment.” Decertification would allow him to show his supporters that he follows through on campaign promises. From a narrow political perspective, what happens next might be less important.
For Israel, however, it is. Concerned with Iran’s growing presence in Syria and continued supply of advanced missiles to Hezbollah, Israel would like to see more action taken to restrain Iran. This could be in the form of economic sanctions, as well as the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. In other words, anything that would put pressure on Iran and get it to potentially reconsider its own course of action.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that Israel wants the nuclear deal overturned. It wants it improved, sharpened and made more effective. It would like to see it revised, for example, to have the “sunset clause” – under which some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire from 2025 – canceled.
But Israel also benefits from the existing deal. It gives Israel quiet and lets the IDF focus on other challenges while distributing its budget more rationally.
This sentiment is shared by the Pentagon. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said last week that he believes the US should stick with the deal as long as Iran meets its conditions. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford took a similar position, telling the Senate that the deal had “delayed the development of a nuclear capability by Iran.”
In their next phone call, Trump should ask Netanyahu what happened in 2012 when he failed to get the security cabinet to approve a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The move, at the time, was thwarted by the heads of the IDF, Mossad and the Shin Bet, who fiercely opposed unilateral Israeli action.
It was a lesson in the limits of power, something Trump is experiencing right now: If your defense chiefs oppose military action, it is going to be hard pushing it through.