Some cabinet members are heard from constantly – either because they have significant ministries (Gideon Sa’ar in education), or because they push themselves continuously onto the airwaves (Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer).
Others, with no small amount of influence, are rarely in the public eye. Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon fits that bill.
Ya’alon’s job, as he describes it, is essentially to prepare policy options for government meetings dealing with vital diplomatic and security issues. Not exactly a post that puts him in front of the television cameras much; there are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies launching a new stack of policy proposals on Iran.
And Ya’alon’s voice isn’t heard all that frequently on the radio, either. Indeed, of the three ministers in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s “septet” whose jobs are not well defined – Ya’alon, Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor and Minister without Portfolio Bennie Begin – Ya’alon is probably the minister you hear from the least.
Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t have clout, nor what to say. Ya’alon does have clout, by virtue of his position on the “septet,” Netanyahu’s supreme decision making forum where the country’s weightiest policy issues are decided. Likewise, as this interview bears out, Ya’alon also has what to say.
A former kibbutznik, head of Military Intelligence, OC Central Command, and chief of General Staff, Ya’alon speaks about Israel’s current challenges vis-à-vis the Palestinians, Iran and the US Administration from experience.
As head of Military Intelligence during the early Oslo days, Ya’alon accompanied the diplomatic process with the Palestinians from the early stages. And then, as OC Central Command and chief of General Staff, he was intimately involved in quelling what he views as Oslo’s outcome: the second intifada.
That journey led to the direct-speaking Ya’alon’s transformation from land-for-peace advocate to Likud hawk. On the eve of Israel’s 62nd anniversary, the man who is sometimes touted as a possible successor to Netanyahu, says Israel is still fighting its War of Independence against a foe for whom the country’s very existence – and not the return to the 1967 lines – is the fundamental issue. If only, he bemoans, the Americans would grasp that.
What follows are excerpts from an interview conduced with Ya’alon in his Jerusalem office last week.
There is a lack of clarity about what the US is asking of Israel. What are their demands?
The US is Israel’s ally. This is a deep, strategic, alliance, based on common values and interests. But between friends there are disagreements that sometimes become public. On the one hand, there are disagreements, on the other there is a continuing dialogue.
We have different approaches stemming from a different viewpoint about the challenges before us. Each side sees it a bit differently.
We hear there are those in the US Administration who believe the source of the instability in the Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that it is therefore important to deal with that first, and bring it to a conclusion as quickly as possible. There are those who think that you can solve this in two years, more or less, based on the Clinton parameters.
Most of us in the government have accompanied the diplomatic process over the last 17 years. We have a different view of the challenges before us, and what the priorities need to be in the Middle East.
We do not think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the heart of the issue. I would even say that if Israel, God forbid, ceased to exist, the US and the West would need to deal with the wave of jihadist Islam. That is the main problem.
When we condense this conflict to a territorial one, either in Lebanon or in Gaza, we see that our withdrawals strengthened jihadist Islam. That is an example of differences in view that we share with the US.
The second difference, obviously, has to do with Iran. We see the Iranian issue as the most important.
If you are looking for a center for instability, it is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it is precisely the Iranian government. It fuels the jihadist Islamic wave.
Does the US not see in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to accept Ehud Olmert’s generous offer in 2008 as a lack of willingness on the Palestinian side to come to an agreement?
Apparently not. From the dawn of Zionism there has not been a Palestinian leadership willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist as the national home of the Jewish people. This is the source of the problem, and not what is called the occupied territories since ’67. The opposition to Zionism began before we liberated Judea, Samaria and Gaza; before we established a state.
In order for there to a proper prognosis, you need a proper diagnosis. We are arguing, and not only with them, but with the Israeli Left, about what is the root of the problem. Part of the issue, which influences the US and European positions, is our internal confusion.
I also used to think the solution was land for peace, until I became the head of military intelligence, saw things from up close and my thinking underwent an evolution.
But how do we remain Jewish and democratic? There is a majority who believe we have to separate here.
First of all, we disengaged politically in Judea and Samaria, and physically from Gaza. The policy of the Netanyahu government is that we don’t want to rule over them. But not ruling over them does not mean we have to withdraw to the 1967 borders, which are indefensible borders; or that we have to divide Jerusalem in order to bring Hamas snipers into Jerusalem.
The prime minister has said he is ready for two states. Are you?
What he said is that we don’t want to rule over them … And as he said at Bar-Ilan University, if at the end of the day they will be willing to recognize the right of a national home for the Jews; that refugees will not return into Israel; that their political entity will be demilitarized and we will get international guarantees for that; and that an agreement would mean an end to the conflict, then you can call it what you want – a state, even an empire.
We are willing to move forward in Judea and Samaria with the government
of Abu Mazen [Abbas] and Salam Fayyad. But for this we don’t have to
return to the ’67 borders or divide Jerusalem; we don’t have to place
ourselves in danger again.
There is a general denial – including by Fayyad – of the connection
between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. He gave a lecture at
an interfaith conference in New York two years ago about the sanctity
of Jerusalem, and he talked about how it was holy for Christianity and
Islam. How is it possible to deny the connection between the Jewish
people and Jerusalem? How?
Have you seen any improvement in this attitude recently?
No, there is no change. There is a change in tactics. They understood
that terror doesn’t work, especially after 9/11. It is better to
characterize this as opposition to occupation, that is more convincing
in the postcolonial world, because those who don’t know the details
here think we are colonialists, deny that this was our home dating back
Those who want to continue the Oslo process, who want us to continue to
give and give and give, without a Palestinian willingness to recognize
our right to a national home, are cooperating with the phased plan for
Before Annapolis, which was not that long ago, Abu Mazen – the head of
a government considered moderate – was asked by Olmert to agree at the
end of the conference to a declaration saying ‘two states for two
peoples.’ He was not willing.
Saeb Erekat was asked why not on Al Jazeera, and said because there is
no Jewish people; that Judaism is a religion, and why should a religion
get a state.
Israel’s critics say enlarging settlements helps Palestinian
extremists and ruins any efforts to get the Palestinians to recognize
our right to be here.
The prime minister said before the elections he was willing to accept
the commitments of the previous government, among them the
understanding between [George] Bush and [Ariel] Sharon, that no new
settlements would be built in Judea and Samaria, and that construction
in the settlements would be allowed [to enable] normal life, not
exactly natural growth. That was the understanding, and construction
continued through the Olmert and Sharon governments.
More than that, he [Netanyahu] said we accept our commitment regarding
dismantling 23 outposts that were defined by the Sharon government as
illegal. He accepted that, until it became clear that the US
administration does not accept the commitments of the previous
Secondly, we completely reject the argument that the settlements are
the reason there is no peace. I think Arafat was willing to go to Oslo
because of the settlements. When he saw the [massive Russian] aliya,
and the settlements, he thought he was going to lose everything.
But if we are talking about coexistence and peace, why the insistence
that the territory they receive be ethnically cleansed of Jews? Why do
those areas have to be Judenrein? Don’t Arabs live
here, in the Negev and Galilee? Why isn’t that part of our public
discussion? Why doesn’t that scream to the heavens?
Do you really want Jews to live there under Palestinian authority? Is that realistic?
First, we are very far from that. I am not talking about that. I am
talking about Jews living in Judea and Samaria under Israeli
sovereignty and citizenship. Why is it impossible to get to that
solution if we are really headed toward peace and coexistence?
Do you really think Jews will be allowed to live there under
Israeli sovereignty in a future Palestinian entity?
In Judea and Samaria, if you are talking about peace, there is enough
place for Jews and Arabs. If you are talking about war, it is more
complicated. How much open space do you have in Judea and Samaria?
Quite a bit. What percentage of the territory do the Jews control? Five
percent. That is what everything hinges on?
In your mind there will be no need in the future to uproot any settlement?
No settlement. I don’t even want to talk about territorial withdrawals
in an age in which the withdrawal from Lebanon strengthened Hizbullah,
and the withdrawal from Gaza strengthened Hamas to the point where we
have the second Islamic republic in the Middle East – the first in
Iran, and the second in Gaza: Hamastan. That is opposed to our
strategic interest, and to the strategic interests of the west.
With that, we are completely isolated today, and the
Palestinians can sit and wait until the Americans step in and impose
First, we are not completely isolated. The issue today is whether there
is a partner who is willing to recognize our right to a national home
here. That is the key. That is where the discussion needs to start, not
about construction in the settlements or east Jerusalem.
But that is not happening.
OK, but we as a government have to do the best we can to make that the
discussion, with the US, and with the Europeans.... For the Americans
this may be just one issue among many all around the world. For us, it
is existential. We need to contend with this and be insistent here.
We tried to prevent a conflict with the [US] administration. The
[settlement housing start] moratorium was an attempt on one hand not to
give in – we did not go for a complete not-even-one-brick freeze – and
on the other hand to avoid a conflict. But now we see that this did not
But here there is also an issue of trust between us and them [the US].
We heard from the secretary of state after we declared the moratorium
that it was unprecedented, and that the ball was now in the Palestinian
What have the Palestinians done since then to enter the negotiations?
What have they done? For a full year they did nothing to get into the
process, and all of a sudden the ball is back in our court because of
the excuse of 1,600 apartments that went through a bureaucratic process
Does that not reflect deep gaps with the Administration?
I am not hiding the conceptual gaps, there are differences.
And is the Administration’s direction now not toward imposing something on us?
If someone really thinks they can impose peace just like that, then
they are detached from reality. I hope we will not get to that. This is
an existential issue that we have to be insistent about. We need to
talk, continue with the dialogue, but there are significant differences
in how we view things.
What will happen if Obama stands up in September and says this is our plan? How do you react?
There have been so many plans in the past, so many proposals, and none of them were implemented. I hope we don’t get to that.
If the Arab world feels that the US has given Israel a cold shoulder,
then the likelihood of an outburst of violence will increase.
Therefore, we need to do continue to talk [to the Administration],
share with them our thoughts, and prevent the types of situations that
we have been reading about over the last few days in the papers.
You talk about the possibility of a renewed outburst of
violence. Do we have the internal solidarity to withstand it when you
have people saying the government’s polices on settlements are leading
to problems with the US and perhaps to war?
The internal challenge is indeed a challenge. When people ask me what
is the greatest internal challenge, I say one word – confusion. We have
seen that when there is internal unity and consensus, there is no
external pressure. We saw that after the Bar-Ilan speech. On the
settlement issue there is no consensus, so it is no coincidence the
Americans jumped on that issue.
In Jerusalem there is a consensus, but still the Americans are applying pressure.
You hear different voices from the Labor Party [on Jerusalem inside the government] and that causes us great damage.
Many of our internal disagreements end with us blaming ourselves. Many
say that Oslo failed because of us, because we didn’t give enough....
This is a Western phenomenon, especially a Jewish one. And it is
Most people in the country don’t feel Oslo failed because of
us. But there are many who believe that not stopping the settlements is
complicating our situation.
That is the role of leadership, and the job of education. We need to
explain the challenges we are facing, what we are up against, and what
we are willing to fight and struggle for.
This is an existential struggle – the War of Independence has not
ended. From a historical perspective, all the wars we fought, from 1948
and even before the establishment of the state, up until now, are part
of a War of Independence for the existence of a national home for the
Jewish people after 2,000 years of exile.
We cannot fold on Jerusalem. What is Jerusalem? It is Zion. Why did my
mother come here after the Holocaust, why did my grandparents come here
in 1925? They came to Zion. From my wife’s side, her grandparents left
Morocco and came in 1897 after walking here for two years. Another
predecessor came here in the 1600s. Why here?
But there are those who say Zion is not necessarily Isawiya or Abu Dis.
You don’t have to talk to me about territorial compromise, because I was willing until Oslo.
I grew up amid the camp prepared for territorial concession.... I was
ready for territorial compromise along the lines of Oslo. But then it
became clear to me that there was no partner, including among those
But how do you create a situation that helps them make the
switch and recognize the right of the Jews to be here? Adding
settlements does not help them make that switch.
Why does it need to bother them that there is more building inside Gush
Etzion, or in Ariel? No new settlements are being built; no additional
land is being grabbed. What is the problem? This didn’t bother them in
the days of Olmert or Sharon. Why all of a sudden?
We are not expanding the territory, or building new settlements. But
they are evading. I know why. Because it is comfortable for Abu Mazen
to continue forever without coming to a resolution. Because if he
wanted to reach a resolution, he could have done it with Olmert. But
when he was asked by Jackson Diehl in The Washington
Post about Olmert’s offer, he said the gaps were too wide.
Let’s remember what we are talking about.
Maybe because he wants an imposed solution?
OK, but that is what we have to struggle against, politically – in
terms of hasbara [public diplomacy] – both
domestically and abroad.
We are not succeeding.
OK, you don’t always succeed, but you don’t need to despair. You don’t
have to give in. I think that if we give in on these positions we will
be on a very slippery slope. Jihadist Islam gains strength from our
withdrawal. That is what happened with Hamas and Hizbullah. And that
does not help the US soldiers in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
How concerned are you by the argument heard increasingly in
the US that we are endangering the lives of US soldiers?
That is first and foremost a manipulation, and a lie. The truth is the
complete opposite. If we are seen as standing firm against the
jihadists, against Hamas and Hizbullah, that serves the US interests.
And if we are seen as weak, whether in Lebanon, Gaza, or in Judea and
Samaria, that harms US interests.
It is clear to us that the central threat today, and the thing that
needs to be the highest priority for the world, is not the
Israeli-Palestinian issue, but rather the Iranian one. Even before Iran
has nuclear capability, it nourishes terrorism, supports it, and pays
for it. It also does this in the US’s backyard, in South America. The
link between Chavezism and jihadism is crawling, but has now spread to
When it comes to the Iranian nuclear threat, it is clear that what is
needed is steadfastness from the west. It is not Israel vs Iran, which
unfortunately I see in headlines on CNN. It is America, Western
civilization vs Iran.
We think the Iranian government should long ago have had to face this
dilemma: the bomb or survival. That is the dilemma, and it should be
created before you deploy a military option. But it has to be based on
Western determination, Western unity, diplomatic isolation, economic
sanctions and in the background a credible military option.
Which leaders today are the most determined regarding Iran?
We see France today demonstrating the right policies, and Britain. They understand the enormity of the challenge.
Something has happened here that we haven’t seen in the past.
Previously the US led the aggressive line. Today, as I said, the
president of France and prime minister of Britain are leading a more
aggressive line than the president of the US. And then you have Germany
and Italy, who join up with the American position.
I don’t think there is an actor in the world who wants to see a nuclear Iran.
Then why don’t they do more?
There are many complex interests involved. With Russia and China it
partly has to do with national policy toward the US; the superpower
Some of this has to do with unwritten understandings, modus vivendi,
that I think existed between Russia and Iran: “We will help you in this
area, and you will not cause us problems in the Islamic republics.”
Something they [the Iranians] seem [now] to be doing. [Look at]
Kyrgyzstan, and I would not be surprised if the renewal of terrorism in
Chechnya is not connected.
For the Chinese there are energy considerations, they need the oil
supply. And there is some good news here. At the beginning of the year,
according to statistics, China’s oil demands from Iran dropped 40
percent. Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries are providing
China with alternatives.
You don’t really think that another UN round of sanctions will
get Iran to stop their nuclear program. What will?
First of all, I hope this isn’t the last step to place the Iranian
government in the dilemma between bomb and survival. I hope the free
world will continue to lead these types of steps against Iran. And as I
said, a credible military option always has to be waved in the
background … Those who want to prevent using that option need to invest
in diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions.
Beyond that, things are happening inside Iran. The Iranian economy is
in a problematic condition. The government is already having to deal
with the issue of whether to cancel subsidies, which can by itself
And then there is the opposition … It is an unorganized opposition, but
very authentic and energetic, and does not like the government of the
According to our understanding, most Iranians do not want a jihadist
Islamic government. Therefore, from a historical perspective, this
government will not survive forever. [But] the link between
unconventional weapons and an unconventional regime is a poisonous and
Look at the Washington [Nuclear Security] summit … Where will the
nuclear material for terrorism come from, if not from these types of
regimes? This is the big concern – that a regime of this type, which is
messianic-apocalyptic, and has as its strategic objective the
imposition of Islam all over the globe, can use proxies with dirty
bombs against the US, Europe and Israel.
So you don’t think they will hit us directly, but that there
is a danger they may give nuclear capability to a non-state
That is certainly their first choice.
How concerned are you that the Americans have come to grips with the idea of a nuclear Iran?
It needs to concern us.
Are there people here who are thinking about how to contain Iran if it does get a bomb?
One way or another, the Iranian military nuclear project should be stopped. And we should not discuss any other possibility.
It should be stopped, but it might not be, so then what?
It should be stopped.
And if others don’t do it, will we have to?
I always say we should not jump to the lead on the Iranian issue,
because it truly is not only an Israeli challenge, but a challenge for
the whole free world. Therefore we need to act like those whose work,
preferably, would be done by others. On the other hand, we also need to
be prepared to act according to the dictum, “If am not for myself [who
will be for me].”
You describe a situation, both concerning the Palestinians and
the Iranians, in which we feel the Americans think they know better
than us what our interests are, and where we are trying to educate the
Americans what their interests are.
Look, we live in the Middle East. I can testify, as someone familiar
with the relationship with the US over many years … that there were
many times when, yes, we needed to explain to the US what is really
happening, and what is really the right way to do things. You see how
many mistakes the Americans have made in the last few years.
Because they didn’t listen to us?
Yes, because they didn’t listen to us. In Iraq, at the beginning, they
didn’t come here to learn. [Also] on other questions, on the issue of
the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
[Former US envoy Anthony] Zinni came here [in 2002] and said the
[terrorism] problem is because of the roadblocks.... We live here [and
experience] the fundamental problems. If you don’t live it, if you come
to the area on a visit, then you say, ‘Oh, the problem is the
roadblocks. Take them down and there will be no more terror.” But
before 2000, there were no roadblocks from Jenin to Hebron, only on the
perimeter … So nobody can come and tell me the terrorism is because of
the roadblocks. The roadblocks are because of the terrorism. Were there
no terror, there would be no roadblocks.
Is the administration willing to listen?
Some people are; some I am not able to get to.
Do the Americans expect written responses from us to their demands on east Jerusalem and the proximity talks?
The tensions have lessened.... In my opinion we need ... to free
ourselves from the [Oslo] paradigms that have taken root here for 17
But people like Olmert and Sharon strengthened the impression
that we could just set the borders unilaterally. The American reaction
now is partly a result of the policy of previous governments.
There is not one person in the septet who thinks it is possible to
reach a permanent agreement according to this formula in the
foreseeable future. Not one person.
The difficulty is that despite the failures, we are still stuck with
that paradigm, which is dominant in the media, in academia, and in the
international arena. Israel, according to the election results, sobered
up. But that paradigm still rules, and is dominant. That explains the
pressures on the prime ministers.
Do you oppose an extension to the 10-month housing-start moratorium in the settlements?
The prime minister is opposed to it. He said that clearly. The decision
was for 10 months – [it expires on] September 27. [After that] we are
immediately going to return to the construction formula that was agreed
between Bush and Sharon, on the basis of which Sharon accepted the road
map. And Jerusalem is outside the discussion.
Do you have higher political ambitions?
I always focus on the job at hand. When I was the commander of a
platoon, I aimed to be the best platoon commander. When I was the
commander of a company, I wanted to be the best company commander. When
I went into the army I didn’t think about being the chief of General
Staff, or even of being an officer. Life carried me where it has. I
continue in the same way today. I am not making declarations, and not
dealing with those issues. I try to do the job that I was given in the
best way possible.
This conversation has been a bit depressing. Where is the ray of light?
Naturally, when you discuss challenges and threats you are discussing
the empty half of the glass. But when you look at what we have achieved
here, even as we are still fighting for our independence, it is not
Whether in the economic sphere, or in the spheres of science,
technology, culture and spirit, the cup is full. There are tremendous
achievements, sometimes it seems miraculous how in 62 years this was
all created in a land where there is milk and honey, but no oil, no
gold, and even water you have to desalinate or recycle for agriculture.
And these achievements are because of two things – the brain and the
heart, knowledge and spirit. That is what we have. That is what Jews
have had for thousands of years, and that is what we have here.
If there is something we need to strengthen on the 62nd Yom Ha’atzmaut
it is the spirit. That has been eroded, at a time when the physical
dimensions are so strong.
Unfortunately we hear statements – we heard them from the previous
government – that time is not on our side. We hear this even today. My
reply is that the fathers of Zionism used to say that time is on the
side of those who take advantage of it. Just as we took advantage of it
in the past, so too must we take advantage of it in the future: to
build, to grow, to develop in all spheres. I am convinced we can do it,
the fact is that we have done it successfully in the past. We just need