Interview: Stabilizing an unstable region

Moshe Ya’alon may be out of politics – for now – but with the INSS, the veteran security expert is flexing his know-how in new and exciting ways.

Moshe Ya'alon on INSS Conference
DURING THE Cold War, the United States and Russia fiercely competed for spaceflight capability dominance. Today, a more sinister race for hegemony is brewing and its ultimate conclusion will not only have ripple effects for the Middle East, but the world. So says former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who now serves as a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. Ya’alon outlines three specific threats to the Middle East that all comprise of an overarching desire to control the region and impose its own absolutist worldview.
The current situation in the Middle East generated by three Islamic movements vying for hegemony and influence in the region and beyond,” Ya’alon tells The Jerusalem Report. “The most dangerous element is Iran,” he begins, echoing a sentiment that is felt throughout much of Israel’s security community. Iran’s use of proxy forces like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen should not be taken lightly, he warns. “This is a very significant challenge, not just for Israel, but the entire region,” he says.
The second threat, according to Ya’alon, is ISIS and its desired mission to create an Islamic caliphate. While ISIS has lost major territory in the Levant, Ya’alon cautions against ruling out their potential for executing terror attacks throughout the Middle East, North America and other parts of the world.
The third, and perhaps most complicated, is the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, which today is primarily associated with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ya’alon’s carefully outlined view of how he sees the Middle East today was crafted during his time at the INSS, which he joined a year ago. He believes this is a critical time for the region, where leaders are faced with nearly unprecedented challenges.
“The only stabilized element in the Middle East is instability. I believe that the Middle East is going through the most significant crisis since the time of Mohammad in the 7th century,” he says bluntly. “It’s not the Arab Spring or the Islamic Winter, we need to look at it from a wider perspective.”
And looking at the situation from a wider perspective is exactly what he’s doing at the INSS. “Watching the developing situation from the INSS and analyzing it, is a very good opportunity to discuss issues and look at them from different angles – ‘out of the box.’ At INSS we meet people from abroad, experts as well as practitioners, share our ideas and worries and try to find out how to meet the challenges ahead,” he says. “I don’t have to spend energy trying to create coalitions, compromising my ideals, or maneuver politically. I have time available for professional work.”
Content with the pace of his work at the institute, Ya’alon says that joining it was a natural fit for both him and the think tank, “The INSS as a unique platform. It’s a meeting point of experts from academia, young people and practitioners like myself,” he adds.
His perspective on the Middle East is delineated in his research paper called “United States Policy in the Middle East: The Need for a Grand Strategy” and is an example of the symbiotic relationship he enjoys with the think tank. In the paper, he not only offers his unique assessment of the situation, but also provides a platform where his ideas are read by the best of the best in the security field both in Israel and abroad. The paper, and his conversation with us, offers recommendations for President Trump as he concludes the first year of a topsy-turvy presidency. “There is a change in the US rhetoric,” Ya’alon says of the new administration, which has distanced itself as much as possible from President Barack Obama’s belief that working with and containing Iran was a path to peace in the region.
Ya’alon doesn’t seem entirely convinced that the Trump Administration has formulated a clear policy in the Middle East, which is why he believes papers like his can help guide an administration that seems to be feeling its way. “I hear there are certain reactions to the article, but this is a way that we [at the INSS] deal with the situation. We have ideas, we publish articles, we talk about it in the media in Hebrew and English and try to propose ideas of our own. Of course, we don’t have the responsibility, but we have the knowledge about the Middle East and I’m not sure that this kind of knowledge is everywhere,” he says.
Regarding US President Donald Trump’s policy on Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ya’alon is satisfied that he is making the right calls thus far - including his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“Regarding what he calls the ‘ultimate deal,’ so far, so good,” Ya’alon, said.
However, in terms of a future path to peace, Ya’alon remains skeptical and encourages Trump to be as well. “If I have to give him a recommendation, I’d say: Don’t have high expectations. You can’t deliver any final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians in the coming future, because the Palestinians are not ready to divide the country with us,” he says, citing the many offers rejected by the Arabs/ Palestinians since the beginning of the 20th century. That said, Ya’alon acknowledges that the status quo may ultimately lead to a bi-national state, a conclusion he rejects out of hand. Instead, Ya’alon vouches for incremental progress that begins from the bottom up. In other words, improving Palestinian infrastructure and their quality of life must be a priority.
He also advocates for the Taylor Force Act, a US Senate bill threatening to halt all aid to the Palestinian Authority until it stops funding terror. But while, so far, Israel has succeed in thwarting Palestinian attacks, its ability to extinguish a more existential threat such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, remains to be seen.
“The good news about BDS and the delegitimization campaign against Israel is that our enemies have lost hope to eliminate the State of Israel by military force.
So they moved to the international arena, to use propaganda to manipulate naive liberals and antisemites,” he says. It is the combination of those two groups of people that can’t be ignored. As such, Ya’alon advocates for educating young generations around the world about Israel so they are not susceptible to manipulation. Ya’alon practices what he preaches at INSS, especially when he speaks to young security experts about the region.
For example, he lectures at the think tank’s annual international summer program, which brings students from all over the world earning their master's degree to spend an intense three weeks in Israel. “I tell them to be open-minded, to be curious,” he says. “Don’t be stuck with old concepts.
And even as youngsters, they have their own concepts - it’s not a tabula rasa.”
While Ya’alon has yet to reveal his future plans regarding a grand return to the political arena, for now he is pleased with the work he’s doing at the INSS. “The Institute is in a unique position to offer expertise from a wide variety of fields, and when we discuss issues we have all the experts in the room. I believe this is the best think tank in Israel. Our papers are well accepted. In many discussions we bring in officials from the military and political arena to contribute and I know our papers are read by high-ranking officials – I know because I read them myself when I was defense minister. I believe it’s valuable to the Israeli strategic decision making process,” he says.
Moshe Ya'alon will be participating in the 11th annual international conference of the INSS on January 29-31. Given the high demand, there are no remaining tickets. We invite you to watch the conference live here and on the INSS website,