Later this month, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon will mark the first anniversary of his decision to quit his post and his Knesset seat, burning bridges with the Likud Party on his way out the door.
Ahead of his departure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered him the post of foreign minister, in place of the Defense Ministry, which he had to give to Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman to widen his coalition beyond its problematically narrow 61 MKs.
Had Ya’alon accepted the Foreign Ministry, it is possible he would be marking that anniversary as prime minister. He would have become an obvious heir apparent to Netanyahu, due to his experience as defense minister and foreign minister.
Currently, Netanyahu’s criminal investigations are proceeding at a slower pace than previously thought, and his coalition partners are unlikely to force him to quit when the police – as expected – recommend indicting him. But the probes might have been expedited with a suitable replacement waiting in the wings, and his coalition partners might have decided to force Netanyahu out in favor of the clean Ya’alon.
Instead, Ya’alon wears comfortable shirts, travels around the country as the head of a movement that might not cross the electoral threshold, and insists he has no regrets.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post
at his office in a Tel Aviv tower ahead of his departure to Sunday’s Jerusalem Post Conference in New York, Ya’alon says he reached a dead end with Netanyahu after a series of conflicts on matters of principle in which the prime minister crossed redlines.
He cites Netanyahu’s attack on the press, courts, and public servants; the prime minister facilitating illegal steps by West Bank settlers; and the case of Elor Azaria, a soldier who killed a subdued Palestinian terrorist in Hebron and who was backed by Netanyahu.
“I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror,” Ya’alon says. “The question of whether to quit was a dilemma for me long before I realized he was dealing with replacing me. I thought that as long as I could defend what I believe in as defense minister, I should swallow the bitter pill and stay. When I realized he wants to replace me - and I knew he offered my job to Labor before Liberman, I prepared to quit.”
Ya’alon says he was particularly disturbed by Netanyahu’s behavior in the Azaria affair, when the prime minister first supported the IDF’s point of view that the soldier violated the party’s values and then saw support for the soldier on social media and called Azaria’s father to take his side.
“I decided to leave because I care about Israel and its future as a Jewish, democratic state,” he says. “He offered me the Foreign Ministry, but I decided I couldn’t explain his policies abroad. I couldn’t defend a government whose atmosphere had shifted from nationalism to extremism and racism.”
Ya’alon believes the criminal investigations will result in a general election within a year. Due to his knowledge of the subject, he believes the probe of submarines purchased from a German company that employed Netanyahu’s cousin and lawyer is the most serious investigation of the three.
Meanwhile, Ya’alon is crisscrossing the country, meeting with Israelis, and speaking out against racism, extremism and hatred of different sectors, especially among young people. At this point, he intends to run alone and has even chosen a No. 2, but he does not rule out political partnerships when an election is initiated.
Ya’alon is in touch with fellow former IDF chiefs of staff Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. He says he supported instituting the cooling-off period that has prevented Gantz from entering politics, because he thought it would prevent politicians from harming IDF chiefs they saw as a threat, but the law has been ineffective.
While not revealing names of people he wants to run with, he says he wants people who care about clean politics, ethics, democratic values and the value of life.
“There is no shortage of leaders,” he says. “I am in touch with all the positive Zionists who care about the future and Jewish, democratic character of Israel. I am in touch with current political leaders, former IDF chiefs, and positive leaders in Israeli society, business and education who care and see now as a time of national emergency.”
Despite his defense background, he says the biggest challenge for Israel nowadays is internal, not security threats from outside.
“The biggest challenge is inside, and it depends on us, not Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran,” he says. “The prime minister should be showing leadership, not inflaming tensions for polls and likes on Facebook. Leaders must lead by their conscience, not go where the wind is blowing and use social media to make things worse.”
After Ya’alon quit the cabinet, he went to the US, where he worked at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy for five weeks. He met with American officials who play central roles in US President Donald Trump’s administration ahead of Trump’s election and advised them how to avoid mistakes in the Middle East.
“I told them he must make principled decisions to repair America’s image as the leader of the world and the global policeman,” Ya’alon says. “His predecessor [Barack Obama]’s decision to refrain from that role created a vacuum filled by rogue elements like Iran, which [Obama] saw as the solution, not the problem, enabling Iran to have hegemony in Tehran, Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sanaa.”
Regarding Islamic State, Ya’alon says Obama declared war on it, but because he left Iraq, this created a vacuum that gave the group momentum to build a caliphate in Iraq, Syria, and later in Libya and Sinai. He says the rise of Russia also comes from America’s weakness.
Ya’alon says he hopes the Trump administration will be more proactive and unyielding internationally, returning policies of pressure, isolation and sanctions for Iran proliferating weapons, testing missiles, and violating human rights. But he stops short of advocating interfering in the upcoming Iranian election.
Slamming Obama’s Iran deal, he says it extended the Islamic Republic’s nuclear breakout period from three months to a year but lifted pressure that could have left it without a single centrifuge.
“The US has an opportunity for grand strategy in the Mideast, supporting moderate Sunnis and Israel, not Iran,” he says. “The Sunnis felt abandoned by Obama, who took the Shi’ite side. Trump can change that and already has by hosting [Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi in the White House.”
Ya’alon’s recommendations that Trump appears to have implemented include holding Iran accountable for missile tests, responding to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and asking Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to stop funding Palestinian terrorists and their families.
“Since the dawn of Zionism, the Arab position has been consistent, with no Arab leader being willing to divide the land with us,” Ya’alon says. “Abbas won’t deliver the goods. There isn’t anyone on their side who can. Trump is looking for a deal. But there is no partner for a deal.”
Ya’alon recommended to the future Trump administration officials that he focus on bottom-up steps to improve the Palestinian economy and infrastructure, while allowing Israel to continue maintaining security in the West Bank.
“If I could whisper in Trump’s ear, I would say don’t make mistakes like Obama or [former secretary of state John] Kerry, who thought the Israel-Palestinian conflict was the core problem in the Middle East,” Ya’alon says. “The Sunni-Shi’ite conflicts, the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of ISIS have nothing to do with us. The problem is the lack of readiness among the relatively moderate Palestinians like Abbas to accept Israel in any borders, including pre-1967 borders.”
He says Israel has maintained its deterrence against Hamas in Gaza since 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, against the Syrian Army and Islamic State.
“There is no Israeli-Arab conflict at this point, only an Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he says. “Arabs don’t see the Palestinians at the top of their agenda, which is led by Iran, ISIS, al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood. They created the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as ammunition to use against us, and now they’re in the same boat with us, so they don’t need it anymore.”
Ya’alon is confident that he will soon be competing for the national leadership and then dealing with those issues, day in and day out, from a stronger position than before.