(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Much ado was made over the weekend about what Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and US Secretary of State John Kerry said in separate speeches at the Saban Forum in Washington.
The media zeroed in on Ya’alon’s veiled criticism Friday night of US policy in Syria, saying that the United State “can’t sit on the fence,” because if it does, the resulting vacuum will be filled by others.
His comments garnered attention because – at first blush – they smacked again of more Ya’alon criticism of US policy, something that makes for great headlines and plays into the narrative of the defense minister as a loose cannon who never misses an opportunity to blast the Americans. (Just think back to his unflattering comments in 2014 about Kerry being “messianic” and “obsessive”).
The media also zoomed in on Kerry’s analysis Saturday of the current diplomatic stalemate, especially his comment that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken about his commitment to a two-state solution, but that it is important this not be just a “throwaway phrase.” Much attention was also paid to the bleak picture Kerry painted of a future if the Palestinian Authority were to collapse, or a Palestinian state not be established.
Kerry’s speech reflected his take on the Mideast, and it is a take he has never hidden. Kerry articulates what he believes, and does it consistently. And, every time he does, it makes headlines because it fits a favorite media narrative: US-Israel tension, clashes between the administration and Netanyahu.
But, truth be told, there was really nothing new in what he said; nothing he said there – or even in the way he said it – that fundamentally differed from what he has said before, be it in public lectures or Congressional hearings.
No, it is neither the US administration who should be insulted by Ya’alon, nor Netanyahu who should be miffed by Kerry. If anyone could be aggrieved by what was said at the conference, it is Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Jerusalem has publicly been very careful about refraining from making any judgment calls in public regarding Russia’s engagement in Syria.
If anything, Netanyahu has taken pains to stress how good the coordination is between the two countries in Syria, how Putin is well aware of what Israel’s red lines are there, and how – as he said following his meeting just last week in Paris with the Russian leader – the countries share a “special relationship” that serves both their interests.
At the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference last month, Netanyahu pointedly avoided answering a question – put to him twice – about whether Russia’s engagement in Syria was good or bad for Israel. Rather than answering directly, he replied diplomatically, “I can’t tell you what will be the outcome of Russian involvement in Syria. It’s too early to say.”
And then along comes Ya’alon and gives an answer.
“Unfortunately, in the current situation, Russia is playing a more significant role than the United States,” he said.
“We don’t like the fact that King Abdullah of Jordan is going to Moscow, the Egyptians are going to Moscow, the Saudis are going to Moscow. It should have been very different. And we believe the United States can’t sit on the fence. If you sit on the fence, the vacuum is filled, and Syria is an example, whether by Iran or the Shi’a axis supported now by Russia or by Daesh, by ISIS... That’s why we claim that the United States should play a more active role in our region and there is an opportunity.”
Ya’alon came under criticism for implying, during a speech in Washington to an audience that included US officials, that the US policy in Syria was less than perfect and created a vacuum.
That is something most people know, and do not need Ya’alon to spell out.
But when he said that from an Israeli point of view this development was “unfortunate,” he revealed something that, even if senior Israeli policy makers were thinking privately, they were taking pains not to state in public.
And they were not openly articulating this sentiment for good reason: What does Israel gain right now by publicly calling down the Russians?