Though criticism of Kerry valid, defense minister still doesn't know when to seal lips

Moshe Ya'alon managed to light a fire in Israeli-US relations on Tuesday, all during one of the most decisive, tense moments in the history of ties between the two countries.

Yaalon tours hamas tunnel in gaza 370 (photo credit: Allon Basson/Defense Ministry)
Yaalon tours hamas tunnel in gaza 370
(photo credit: Allon Basson/Defense Ministry)

There once was a man who occupied the director-general position in the Defense Ministry. That man went by the name of Chaim Yisraeli. He was the loyal servant of all of Israel’s great defense ministers – from David Ben-Gurion on down. He did his job quietly, humbly, behind the scenes. Whenever people came to consult with him over whether it was a good time to give a press interview, he would respond: “Nobody ever apologized for an interview that they didn’t give.”

Yisraeli is no longer with us. If he were, he certainly would have shot an amused look at Israel’s current defense minister, Moshe (Bogey) Ya’alon.

Ya’alon managed to light a fire in Israeli-US relations on Tuesday, all during one of the most decisive, tense moments in the history of ties between the two countries. A thousand firefighters won’t be able to put out this latest blaze which erupted for no apparent reason and at the most inconvenient time imaginable.

The Americans on Tuesday demanded an immediate clarification. They contacted the defense minister’s aides as well as officials in the Prime Minister’s Office. Ya’alon is a decent, fair man. This is evidenced by the fact that he understood that he could not deny saying what was attributed to him by Yedioth Ahronoth. Ultimately, after some teeth-gnashing and foot-dragging, he did issue his clarification.

Except that the clarification was not at all clarifying. It was more an accumulation of words that emphasized the important of Israel’s relationship with the US. Indeed, we would have been better off if the clarification wasn’t issued in the first place, for it only angered the Americans even further. Ya’alon, it turns out, doesn’t know when to talk, when to shut up, and when to issue a clarification.

It’s important to point out that Ya’alon’s criticism is totally legitimate. It’s also pretty convincing. As someone who thinks highly of Ya’alon and hears his criticism from time to time, I know that it’s based on solid information, reliable assessments, a deep-seated, genuine belief, and a steely determination to protect Israel’s security. I’m not convinced that Ya’alon is incorrect. The thing is, as per usual, the way in which the statement was made, the personal attacks against US Secretary of State John Kerry, and the public manner in which it was handled, leave much to be desired.

The dirty laundry of Israel-US relations are usually dealt with behind closed doors. When Ya’alon speaks with a journalist, he needs to operate on the assumption that everything he says is picked up by a microphone, even if it is “off the record.” Ya’alon is certainly not supposed to stake his own future, and that of Israel-US relations, on the integrity of a journalist.

There’s a good chance that Yedioth violated journalistic ethics and did Ya’alon a disservice. On the other hand, perhaps the newspaper determined that the public’s right to know trumps all. Now, it doesn’t really matter anyway.

The damage has been done on a strategic level. The chances of a real breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are virtually nonexistent. Any fair-minded observer can see that within a matter of months, we will see both sides trade allegations and exchange blame over who is responsible for the breakdown of negotiations. Each side will try to prove that the other one ruined the talks and sabotaged the arrival of peace. From Israel’s standpoint, it is an existential struggle.

The Europeans are getting antsy. They want to boycott us as quickly and as severely as possible. The Americans are angry. The Chinese and the Russians are looking on with curiosity, while the Iranians are lapping it all up, enjoying every minute.

Now, after the defense minister’s verbal faux pas, the Palestinians will have an easier time proving their case. Here, look at Ya’alon, they’ll say. The defense minister explicitly said that the American security plan for the Jordan Valley was worthless. He also heaped scorn on Kerry and openly wished that he would just go away. In these circumstances, how is it possible to make peace? This is what the Palestinians will say, and it is something that we won’t be able to deny.

I wouldn’t want to be in Ya’alon’s shoes on Tuesday. Nor would I want to be in his shoes on Wednesday or Thursday, for that matter. It seems that the time has come for him to draw the appropriate conclusions and learn his lesson from a series of slips of the tongue, unwarranted comments, speeches and remarks that were prematurely delivered and which have caused damage. Thus far, he has been an efficient, hard-working, capable, fair, and effective defense minister – in actions, at least. With words, less so.