yaalon 248.88 aj.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi [file])
'A lot of people ask me why I wear high boots around the Kirya [military compound in Tel Aviv]. I tell them that the reason is because of the snakes."
This remark was made by Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon at a farewell party thrown for him weeks before he stepped down as the IDF's 17th chief of General Staff in May 2005.
Though Ya'alon did not specify who the "snakes" - from whose bites he was protecting himself - were, in the years since his resignation he has made no secret of his animosity toward his successor, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz, as well as former prime minister Ariel Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who refused to extend his term, due to disagreements over the disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
Next week, if all goes as planned, Ya'alon will return to the Kirya, not in boots and uniform, but in a suit and dress shoes, the garb of the new defense minister in the Binyamin Netanyahu-led government.
If and when the 58-year-old Ya'alon takes office, he will find a military in the midst of intensive preparations for a possible strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, a defense budget shrinking along with the global economy, and a Human Resources Division confronted with sinking draft figures.
In addition, policy has yet to be set regarding continued Kassam rocket attacks on the South, and there is still a heightened level of alert in the North, in light of Hizbullah's ongoing rearmament.
"This is one of the most complicated times in Israeli history," one senior defense official said this week. "Whoever the defense minister is will have his work cut out for him."
IN CONTRAST to Amir Peretz - defense minister during the Second Lebanon War - Ya'alon definitely has the right military credentials. A member of the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal), he later served as head of Military Intelligence, OC Central Command and deputy chief of General Staff before becoming the chief of General Staff in 2002.
In June 2005, Ya'alon retired from military service, when Mofaz decided not to extend his term for another year, following bitter disagreements between the two concerning the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
After leaving the IDF, he spent some time at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and became a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center Institute for International and Middle East Studies, a Jerusalem-based think tank. During this time, he turned from a restrained, quiet general into a vocal critic of the Second Lebanon War and the country's leadership at the time.
In 2008, he published a book - The Long Short Way - in which he told his life story, laid out his political opinions and closed accounts with old opponents, such as Sharon and Halutz.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post less than a month after the war ended in August 2006, Ya'alon called for the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Peretz and Halutz. Speaking about the withdrawal from Gaza, Ya'alon said that "the disengagement was a victory for terrorism, and it was a reward for Hizbullah and the Palestinians."
WITH THE Likud at the helm, Ya'alon will probably not need to be concerned about new withdrawals in the near future. What he will find waiting for him will be a long list of threats and challenges that have to be dealt with and countered immediately.
One of the first issues to land on his desk will likely be the negotiations over Gilad Schalit. In an interview in December, Ya'alon said that while he believed great efforts needed to be made to obtain Schalit's release, it should not be "at any price."
Yet Hamas is demanding the release of 1,400 prisoners in exchange for the kidnapped soldier.
"Are you willing to give up the state of Israel for a prisoner?" Ya'alon asked. "The expression 'at any price' is not appropriate."
He is also a known critic of accepting a cease-fire with Hamas. In a paper he wrote for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in September, he called for "intensive, medium-scale operations, and targeted killing of the [Hamas] leaders."
This policy, he said, would get Hamas to "cry for a cease-fire without conditions."
With regard to the larger conflict with the Palestinians, Ya'alon has called for a new approach, one that he referred to as the "bottom-up strategy," under which the PA first proves its ability to govern and reforms its internal political culture. At the moment, he wrote, a Palestinian entity in the 1967 borders would present an "existential threat" to the state of Israel. Only when the necessary changes and reforms are made will a Palestinian state be possible.
But the greatest threat for Ya'alon is, without a doubt, Iran. At the Herzliya Conference in January, he said that if the regime in Teheran were toppled, "wind would be taken out of the sails" of most of the world's terror organizations.
"The Iranian regime is funding and arming most of the terror organizations," he said. "This wave must be stopped, and this can be achieved by diplomatic and economic isolation and, if necessary, military force."
When taking office, Ya'alon will need to make immediate personnel decisions in the General Staff and in the top Defense Ministry levels. One of his first decisions will be whether to leave Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad in his position as head of the Diplomatic-Security Bureau, in wake of his recent public wrangle with Olmert. Gilad has also been serving as temporary coordinator of government activities in the territories, a job that will be of extreme importance in implementing Netanyahu's vision of economic reform and growth in the PA.
Upon hearing the news about Ya'alon's impending appointment, IDF sources voiced mixed reactions. Some claimed that he and his former deputy, current Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, would make a great pair to lead the defense establishment through its upcoming challenges. Others expressed concern that Ya'alon lacked the necessary political and diplomatic ability needed to serve as defense minister.
Whichever school of thought is correct about the new defense minister, he will be entering the Kirya at a critical juncture and will need all the skills he can muster.