Ya'alon should be careful not to incur the Americans' wrath

The special, strategic relationship with the United States is the most precious asset for an Israeli defense minister. It is also a guarantor of his or her ability to succeed at the job.

Ya'alon and Kerry (photo credit: Reuters)
Ya'alon and Kerry
(photo credit: Reuters)

This week belongs to Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Moshe (Bogey) Ya’alon. There’s something quite symbolic there. After all, Sharon played a not-so-minor role in setting the course for Ya’alon’s political future. It was then-prime minister Sharon who declined to extend Ya’alon’s term as IDF chief of staff as was customary, instead opting to name Dan Halutz to succeed him and oversee the military’s execution of the disengagement from Gaza.

Ya’alon, a product of the Labor-friendly Kibbutz Grofit, found his home on the right-wing of the Likud. He entered politics to take his revenge on Sharon and the party he founded, Kadima. This was a week of crime and punishment: Sharon was given a funeral and burial as the nation showered upon him near universal and unprecedented admiration and love, while Ya’alon was the subject of some unpleasant feedback from the White House and the US State Department.
On the other hand, we have Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, a man who has come to the realization that history (and his acquittal in court) has allowed him to take up the role of “responsible adult,” easily sliding into the spot left vacated in the previous Netanyahu administration by Ehud Barak, Dan Meridor, and Benny Begin. More importantly, he is finally in the good graces of the Obama administration.
You can count on President Barack Obama “just happening to drop by” Liberman’s meeting with the US national security adviser during his visit to the White House. The president will grant Liberman a “political-diplomatic massage” the likes of which he has never been treated to in his life.
I’m trying to picture Defense Ministry director general Dan Harel walking along the halls of the Pentagon, State Department, and National Security Council in Washington. Harel, Israel’s former military attaché in Washington, knows these halls very well. This time, though, he would be going as an emissary of his boss, Ya’alon.
I could just picture Harel wondering out loud to his assistant, “Who’s the idiot that turned the air conditioning on in the middle of the winter?” Then Harel would quickly realize that it isn’t the air conditioning, but the diplomatic and political chill that is blowing his way in the wake of Ya’alon’s publicized remarks about US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The special, strategic relationship with the United States is the most precious asset for an Israeli defense minister. It is also a guarantor of his or her ability to succeed at the job. All Israeli defense ministers have internalized this axiom. If world leaders need to be careful about what they say, then the defense minister needs to be careful manifold.
Ya’alon should’ve offered a swift, unequivocal apology. It may have even helped him emerge from the episode in a stronger position both here and in the US. On the other hand, better late than never.
When the Americans get angry, the result could be devastating. Just ask former defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who gave a briefing to reporters in Washington about a sensitive meeting with administration officials and was harshly censured as a consequence. Then there was Amos Yaron, the former director general of the Defense Ministry, who was forced to resign when the Americans were furious over the sale of military hardware to China. Former IAF colonel Aviem Sella, the man who recruited Jonathan Pollard, resigned as commander of the Tel Nof airbase after the Americans threatened to cut aid to Israel. Meir Shalit, who headed the exports inspection department of the Defense Ministry, was also forced to quit after it was learned that he approved the sale of military equipment to China.
Even if he erred in the manner his statements were made and the forum in which the comments were uttered, Ya’alon is still a worthy defense minister. He needs to better understand that he can’t hold a job which requires him to send young men on missions from whence they may not return without looking their parents in the eye and pledging that no stone was left unturned in the search for a peaceful resolution.
For their part, the Americans need to realize that Bogey is here to stay. He will be responsible for implementing any agreement that will be decided upon in concert with the IDF, the Israel Security Service (Shin Bet), and the Civil Administration. It would be better for the US to deal with a chastened, apologetic Ya’alon rather than a humiliated, bitter Ya’alon with nothing to lose.
Like we’ve said before, you can never be sorry over something you never said.