General Tal Kelman is the man who has been chosen to ready Israel for possible war against Iran and to lead that war, if it becomes a reality.
Kelman, 52, married and the father of three children, lives on a moshav in the center of Israel. After excelling as an IAF pilot, he was sent to the US to learn how to operate an F-16, and then was appointed as the IAF’s first F-16 commander. Kelman subsequently served as commander of several large Air Force bases, as Chief of the Air Squadron, and as head of the Air Force Headquarters, the #2 position in the IAF. In 2018, he was appointed head of the strategic division in the general planning branch of the Israel Defense Forces as a whole. He conditioned his acceptance of all his positions on being permitted to continue flying one day per week, which he does in one of the latest F-35 aircraft.
Eighteen months ago, Kelman was quietly promoted to the rank of general and named head of the “Sphere Three Command.”
Israel has three “spheres” of threats: 1) interior, including Hamas and Hezbollah, which began in the 1970s when Palestinians in the territories as well as Israeli Arabs first became a significant force; 2) exterior but geographically close, from Arab countries on Israel’s borders—Egypt in the south, Jordan in the east, Syria and Lebanon in the north—which have been the source of multiple conflicts since Israel gained independence in 1948; 3) distant Islamic countries whose aim is destroying the State of Israel, which first became of immediate importance following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, through the development of nuclear reactors in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, and back now to Iran.
For many years, military intelligence and financial resources focused almost exclusively on the first two spheres, with a “Southern Command,” a “Northern Command,” a “Central Command,” and Commands for Land, Sea, and Air. Recently, though, the Israeli government decided to face reality.
Sphere Three Command is now manned by over 300 officers and military experts, and receives billions of shekels in funding. Kelman’s department is in charge of developing strategy vis-à-vis Iran and is also directly involved in the many operations conducted against Iran throughout the Middle East. Kelman also has been spearheading synchronization between all the other official bodies—e.g., the Foreign Ministry, the Mossad, the Shabak (General Security Service), the Council of Atomic Energy—and with Israel’s allies. We spoke to General Kelman about the current situation.
Why the hyper focus on Iran now?
“Things were always active, whether in a low gear or a higher gear. There was less focus on the issue in the past, but in the past year, things have definitely moved into high gear.
“Almost everything that happens in the Middle East today,” General Kelman explains, “is connected in some way to Iran. We’re talking about a country with an extremist ideology that sees itself at some point in the future as a superpower with Israel wiped off the map.
“The confrontation with Iran is based on more than just its nuclear program, and Israel must prepare accordingly, making plans to attack sites not just in Iran but also in additional locations, some of which were never considered threats to Israel in the past. I’m talking about countries and regions with weak, unstable, or non-functional governments where Iran is setting up proxy forces with military capacity, arming them with the very best weapons its military industries can produce, with the aim of creating a ‘ring of fire’ around Israel.”
So, the “Iranian threat” isn’t just from Iran?
“Precisely. Iran, from Israel’s perspective, is not just Iran alone. It’s also Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and even Gaza. Look at the broader picture. Iran’s open ambition is to be a regional superpower. And it has the potential to realize that ambition, given its massive energy reserves, its highly educated population, its strong army, and its advanced military industry. There’s just one problem, and that’s Iran’s long-term ambition to destroy the State of Israel.”
Is the military option on the table? Does Israel have the capacity to defeat Tehran?
“The military option has been on the table for 25 years already. Sometimes it’s higher up on the list of priorities to address; sometimes it gets bumped down. But it’s always there in the background.
“We are developing this capacity in order to use it. Are there no strategic dilemmas? Of course they exist. We have the capacity, but it needs to be the last resort. Before resorting to a military solution, we need to try to reach a solution via other means, diplomatic means.”
Would Israel confront Iran independently?
“We are developing the capacity to go it alone, but the way to getting there is one involving cooperation, and in recent years, there has been an extremely significant shift in the area of joint operations with our partners, specifically the US. Israel and the United States have a shared interest in restraining Iran in the Middle East.”
Are these operations preventing Iran from deepening its hold in the Middle East?