The respected former Israeli general turned cabinet minister went to Washington hoping to meet top American officials. But under orders from the US secretary of state furious over the minister’s criticism of the peace process, all top American officials boycotted the minister, except a staunch ally of Israel who met him secretly at his hotel.
That may sound like an except from a future The Jerusalem Post report about Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s next trip to the United States.
But it is actually from May 1991.
The angry secretary of state was not John Kerry but James Baker. The American politician who defied him – and later faced his wrath – was the late housing and urban development secretary, and later Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp.
And the general turned minister was not Ya’alon but Israel’s housing and construction minister at the time, the late prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Baker declared Sharon persona non grata in Washington, because he insisted on building in West Bank settlements and undermining US president George Bush’s attempts to broker diplomatic talks between Israel, neighboring countries and the Palestinians.
“To receive Minister Sharon, who was publicly opposing the president’s policy regarding Middle East peace, would not be the appropriate thing to do at this time,” Baker said at the time.
Twenty-three years later, US Vice President Joe Biden came to Israel for Sharon’s funeral Monday, praised his courage and said, “Sharon greatly valued that close friendship between the United States and Israel, and particularly during his years as prime minister, he worked hard to deepen our relationship.”
Channel 10 pundit Nadav Perry quipped that Ya’alon is even less welcome in the White House than Aviem Sella, an Israeli colonel who recruited Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard and was later convicted of espionage in absentia by an American court.
But Sharon was not the first and Ya’alon will not be the last Israeli politician to recover from being demonized by an American administration. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman at one point begged unsuccessfully for a meeting with his US counterpart, Hillary Clinton, when he was in Washington a few years ago. But now he is on Kerry’s good side.
Former US defense secretary Robert Gates revealed in his new book that he disliked Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu so much that he once tried to ban him from the White House.
“Arik didn’t take it personally,” said Ra’anan Gissin, who was Sharon’s spokesman at the time of his US snub. “He thought it was important to speak his mind on Israeli security. He wanted to be the guy who tells the Americans like it is.”
Asked what advice Sharon would give Ya’alon were the former prime minister alive and well today, Gissin said: “He’d say: Don’t worry. Stick with your policies. Things change and American politicians come and go.”
A report in Yediot Aharonot Tuesday that triggered a diplomatic incident quoted Ya’alon as saying in a private meeting that Kerry’s diplomatic efforts stemmed from an “incomprehensible obsession” and “a messianic feeling.” Ya’alon said Kerry should “take his Nobel Prize and leave us alone,” the report said.
The defense minister, referring to the US security plan that retired US Marine Gen. John Allen put together, reportedly said it was “not worth the paper it was written on.” The report quoted him as saying that only a continued Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria and along the Jordan River would ensure that Netanya and Ben-Gurion Airport did not come under constant rocket attack.
Kerry, he reportedly said, “cannot teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians.”
Ya’alon’s statements to Yediot Aharonot were far from unique. He said the same thing to many publications, which honored his request to keep them off the record.
Many have pointed out that the quotes criticizing Kerry in last Thursday’s lead story in Israel Hayom, that quoted a senior Israeli diplomatic official were almost identical to the quotes in Yediot. But the Post has also quoted “a minister close to Netanyahu” similarly criticizing Kerry.
“Technology is not enough to fight terror,” the minister was quoted as saying December 9. “It can’t be stopped with sensors and fences. We need to be there. We left Abbas in charge of Gaza, and we saw how long that lasted.”
A well-connected American defense official downplayed that quote later that week, saying that the only ministers who knew the details of the American security proposal were Netanyahu and Ya’alon and that as long as it did not come from them, the criticism was irrelevant. The Post declined to tell the official at the time whether the quote came from Ya’alon, and it still will not reveal the source of the quote.
Statements said off-record are actually not supposed to be quoted at all, not even anonymously. But different politicians have different rules about what they mean when they call something off-record.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak once complained to the Post privately that a statement he made off-record was not reported.
Ministers alleged in off-record conversations this week that Ya’alon had meticulously planned his statements to Yediot in an effort to build up his right-wing credentials for a future prime ministerial run, perhaps even against Netanyahu. They noted that Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Netanyahu’s number two in Likud and another likely future prime ministerial candidate, has also recently shifted rightward.
One minister accused Ya’alon of purposely delaying his apology to Kerry and at first writing a half-hearted apology in order to score points in Likud.
Ya’alon’s spokesman declined to respond to the charges. But Ya’alon’s past behavior would indicate that the allegations are false.
Recently, when he correctly predicted a major development in the Middle East in an off-record conversation, instead of pursuing praise and credit like other politicians would, he asked that it not be printed.
Also, a poll printed in the Post last month found that Ya’alon is the most popular minister in the cabinet, so he does not need to call attention to himself by attacking the US.
Other ministers said Netanyahu feels the way Ya’alon speaks but used his defense minister as a bullet-proof vest to accept blows from Washington on his behalf.
Ya’alon’s spokesman declined to comment on that charge as well. So did associates of Netanyahu.
Netanyahu himself will undoubtedly answer that question with his actions in upcoming weeks. The best indication of whether the charge is true could be how he is received the next time he goes to Washington.
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