When Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon ended his tenure as IDF chief of staff, he famously said he continued to wear high boots on the job because of the “snakes” in the Kirya – the Tel Aviv military compound – a reference to other generals.
Last week, when asked in a pre-Remembrance Day interview with Army Radio if he should be wearing high boots these days, as well, Ya’alon chuckled and said he knew what he was getting into when he entered politics.
A week after that interview, following his Monday meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Ya’alon’s call for IDF officers to freely criticize the government, those boots probably would have come in handy.
One hopes, for Ya’alon’s sake, that he really does know what he’s gotten into, because he seems to have been selling off all of his political assets lately.
Ya’alon is not known for his political prowess.
He’s not a charismatic speaker, like Netanyahu. He’s not a power-player inside the Likud, as are some of the party’s other ministers.
Bogie, as Ya’alon is known, makes up for his lack of political skill with some valuable assets: first and foremost, the fact that he’s a former IDF chief of staff, in a country that loves its generals, is something no one can take away from him.
His other political advantages, however, have eluded him recently.
Ya’alon is known as someone of integrity, who sticks to what he believes in – and what he believes jibed very well with the political Right for a long time. He paved his path into the Likud when he made the snakes comment after then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz decided not to extend his three-year term as IDF chief of staff for another year, as is usually done, because Ya’alon did not support thenprime minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan.
This could explain why Ya’alon feels so strongly about officers being able to speak their minds – after all, he was punished for it.
Yet, he wrote in his book in 2008: “As an officer, I always made sure to follow the rules of the democratic game. In my senior positions, I made sure not to publicly speak out against decisions by the political level, even if I thought or recommended otherwise.”
Also, in 2014, when then-Givati Brigade commander Col.
Ofer Winter invoked the grace of God to fight terrorists in a letter to Givati soldiers during Operation Protective Edge, Ya’alon didn’t punish Winter, but he certainly did not unequivocally support him the way Ya’alon did IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan in the past two weeks after he made comments seemingly comparing extremist elements in Israel to 1930s Germany.
Instead, Ya’alon criticized Winter’s letter, saying it should have been written differently.
One could question why, in Ya’alon’s eyes, Golan’s comments are somehow more acceptable than Winter’s, and people on the far-right already have.
Ya’alon’s right-wing bona fides have come into question in recent months, reflecting a split between the mainstream and the fringe Right.
The defense minister has portrayed himself as the grown-up in the room, above the populist fray, and has stood his ground on issues like the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria, the soldier charged with manslaughter for the fatal shooting of already-subdued Palestinian terrorist Abdel Fatal al-Sharif in Hebron, even when the fringe Right protested against him.
Whether Ya’alon was correct in immediately condemning Azaria can be debated, but it certainly contributed to his being painted a villain in the far-right, where prominent voices from MKs to media personalities had already called him weak in the recent wave of terrorism.
Another political asset Ya’alon seems to have lost is his close relationship with Netanyahu, which was strongest during and well after Operation Protective Edge, giving him a political boost in his party and the cabinet. To say that is no longer the case is an understatement.
Netanyahu is not totally innocent in the drama between him and Ya’alon. The prime minister is known to push his political allies down the ladder when they are becoming too powerful – from Yitzhak Mordechai in the 90s to Gideon Sa’ar and Moshe Kahlon in recent years – and Ya’alon is no different.
Since the Hebron shooting in March, the cracks in the Netanyahu-Ya’alon alliance began to appear and grow.
Ya’alon immediately and emphatically came out against Azaria, while Netanyahu, on the one hand, said Azaria’s actions don’t reflect the IDF’s morals, while on the other, calling the soldier’s father to comfort him.
The recent controversy over Golan’s comments, and Netanyahu and Ya’alon’s disparate reactions to them, only broadened the rift that had opened between them. Netanyahu said Golan was mistaken and cheapened the memory of the Holocaust; Ya’alon called criticism of Golan populist and an attempt to politicize the IDF.
Then, at an event at which both Golan and Ya’alon were present, Netanyahu said the controversy was a one-time thing that everyone should put behind them.
And yet, Ya’alon couldn’t resist bringing it up again, figuratively poking Netanyahu in the eye.
Considering the very critical, leaked State Comptroller’s Report about Protective Edge, some in the Likud have suggested that Ya’alon is trying to distance himself from Netanyahu to protect himself from the report’s worst barbs. Whether the distancing was intentional or not, and whether that’s the reason or not, Ya’alon has certainly succeeded.
Ya’alon’s plan after selling off his most valuable political assets may remain to be seen, but it’s apparent that the defense minister has learned a thing or two about political subterfuge from the snakes in the Kirya.