A soldier was targeted for assassination this week, and it could have a significant impact on the future of the state.
The soldier was not fighting terrorists in the Gaza Strip, Nablus or outside Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate.
It was Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who was targeted by extreme right-wingers in his Likud Party who vowed to end his political career.
They denounced him as a leftist, disinvited him from pre-Passover toasts for party activists, and even sent messages in Likud WhatsApp groups depicting him with a red target atop the headline “Politically assassinated!” The messages warned that in the next Likud primary, they would ensure he will not make it into the Knesset.
Ya’alon passed on the messages to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), complaining about incitement.
But how did Ya’alon go from being the perceived leader of the Right in the Likud to the enemy of the party’s hawks? And is the minister seen by many as the most likely to succeed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in political trouble? In all fairness, it must be said that when it comes to the battle between Ya’alon and the extreme Right, he started it.
Following the March 24 arrest of the IDF soldier who shot a neutralized Palestinian terrorist in the head in Hebron, Ya’alon condemned the soldier immediately. That could be expected for a defense minister who wanted to deter other soldiers from similar acts, especially at a sensitive time such as Purim in Hebron, on the 22nd anniversary of the massacre by Baruch Goldstein in the Cave of the Patriarchs.
“Even when we must strike our enemies and defeat them in war or any battle with them, our moral obligation is to safeguard our humanity,” Ya’alon said on the day of the incident. “We must remember the limitations of power after the enemy has been struck, and avoid immoral behavior.”
But since then, Ya’alon has not stopped using strong language in criticizing the soldier and his defenders, who believe he did the right thing by opening fire on the terrorist.
Last week in the Knesset plenum, he unexpectedly ascended the rostrum in a strange, wintry navy blue jacket and denounced what he called “beastly behavior” of the soldier’s defenders, including Bayit Yehudi chairman and frequent Ya’alon critic Naftali Bennett.
Ya’alon did not stop there, telling reporters Wednesday that “the IDF chief of staff will decide the rules for opening fire, not the leaders of gangs.”
Asked to whom he was referring when he spoke of “gangs,” a Ya’alon adviser said “bloodthirsty extremists on the fringes who have infiltrated into the mainstream,” which is a euphemism for the settlers and other hawks who have joined the Likud over the past decade.
Former MK Moshe Feiglin, who led them and served as their figurehead, has since left the Likud.
But his approach of registering thousands of far-rightists, regardless of whether they vote for the party in general elections, has been adopted by many others.
The Ya’alon adviser said he used such strong language because “when he sees what he sees, he cannot put his head in the sand and he must tell the truth.” He said Ya’alon would not be deterred by threats from extremists.
“He has been getting a lot of love and hugs from Likudniks who want to strengthen him,” the adviser said. “People are surprised to see a politician who puts the state before his own personal good. A large majority supports him.”
One MK suggested that Ya’alon had purposely decided to go overboard in attacking the extreme Right, because while there are many hawks in Likud, the more moderate elements in the party lack a leader behind Netanyahu.
The adviser denied that Ya’alon had such a strategy as well as the speculation that he could find himself in a more centrist party in the future.
“He is a Likudnik and people who suggest otherwise are bored,” the adviser said.
In response to the attacks from central committee members, a group of Likud activists who back Ya’alon sent their own messages in party WhatsApp groups with the headline “The Likudniks are with the defense minister.”
Likud activist Lior Harari wrote that “the blitz we have seen on Minister Ya’alon is not new and comes from narrow political interests.”
Harari said real Likudniks appreciate what Ya’alon has done for the security of the state.
A Panels Research poll of Likud voters this week found that only 6 percent named Ya’alon as the minister who best represents their views. Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev was chosen most often by respondents.
But among the general public, Ya’alon is seen as the candidate best suited to be defense minister, ahead of former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and Bennett.
And in the last poll that really counts, the Likud primary that chose the members of the party’s current Knesset slate, Ya’alon won the respectable seventh slot on the list, despite there being anger from the far Right then, too, at Ya’alon, due to his policies in Judea and Samaria.
Likud Ministers Ze’ev Elkin and Gila Gamliel and MK Bennie Begin took to the airwaves over the past two days to back up Ya’alon and denounce what Gamliel called the “dangerous incitement” against him. Opposition MKs issued rare praise for him as well.
“I am not ashamed to say that I am a fan of Bogie [Ya’alon’s nickname],” said Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai. “He is the white hope. He is too right-wing, but in the fight for the good name of the IDF, he has stood up uncompromisingly to its critics. He has taken risks and used words that are not gentle, but those who are gentle do not succeed in politics.”
The popularity Ya’alon has gained in the general public will not go unnoticed by Likud members when it will be time to choose a successor to Netanyahu.
In the stump speech Ya’alon has been delivering around the world for more than a decade, he denounces those who want immediate results as followers of “Peace Now, food now, everything now.”
In his 2008 book The Longer Shorter Way
(Hebrew), he wrote about the need for patience and perspective when it comes to solutions in the Middle East.
Ya’alon knows that patience and perspective are also needed for success when it comes to politics. That is why he is taking all his political eulogizers in stride.
In politics, it might be unpleasant to be targeted. But it is better than not being in the battlefield at all.