Analysis: With Ya'alon's ouster, IDF has lost a friend at the top

Moshe Ya’alon is one of the most militarily-experienced defense ministers Israel has known.

Then-chief of staff Moshe Yaalon is seen aboard a Black Hawk helicopter in 2004 (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Then-chief of staff Moshe Yaalon is seen aboard a Black Hawk helicopter in 2004
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
A day after news of the ouster of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon surfaced, the defense establishment went into a media lockdown over the issue, refusing to comment in any way.
Ya’alon, for his part, signaled that he had no regrets, using a speech to youth movement leaders at the Defense Ministry on Thursday to say his fight against the influence of far-right extremism may be have been costly, but was worthwhile from his perspective.
“The very fact that public officials express themselves in a manner that maybe [is aimed] at getting certain votes in society, but in a way that also loses its moral compass on basic questions... I cannot say I was surprised. But that is precisely our role, [to counter this], and if I have to give you a golden tip, it is: Navigate according to your moral compass and not in line with where the wind blows,” he said, in what is likely to be one of his last public speeches as defense minister.
“Even if it seems that we pay a price in the short-term future because this, and it’s not popular or populist... navigating in line with our [moral] compass is valid, and it exists. This is also a question of leadership. What is leadership? To go in line with worshiping the golden calf? ...If I have to give a golden tip, it is: Do not allow golden calves,” he added.
Ya’alon is one of the most militarily-experienced defense ministers Israel has known.
During his tenure, he has provided consistent backing to the IDF senior command’s right to speak its mind, and to honestly share its realist, non-ideological security assessments even if they sometimes agitate the political leadership and contradict the government’s ideology and rhetoric.
Ya’alon has backed the idea that in many cases, such as West Bank rioting, restraint, rather than full-powered responses resulting in many Palestinian casualties, will serve Israel’s national security better. He also has sounded the alarm over the influence of far-right rhetoric on society, using nearly every speech to denounce racism and prejudice.
The outgoing defense minister does not at all view the Palestinian Authority as a real peace partner, but he does recognize its importance in running the daily affairs of 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians and the stabilizing influence its security forces have had in helping to bring under control a five-month wave of Palestinian violence.
Ya’alon takes a dim view of what he sees as populist and poorly thought-out calls to topple Hamas in Gaza, saying it is easy to call out slogans but far harder to face the consequences of years of urban warfare in the Strip, retaking direct control of 2 million Gazans before eventually leaving again and creating a vacuum that could be filled by Somalia-style chaos.
The former chief of staff’s views are well within the mainstream thinking at the IDF General Staff, whose generals believe that a great deal of Palestinian violence can be prevented through the avoidance of mistakes.
According to this view, trigger-happy attitudes are not only morally wrong, but also dangerous to security. On the other hand, if faced with a deadly security escalation from Gaza again, the General Staff has formulated plans to destroy Hamas’s military wing while keeping its political wing intact, and the military does not shy away from using devastating firepower to defend civilians against rocket attacks and tunnel threats.
In place of Ya’alon, the defense establishment will have to prepare to encounter as defense minister Avigdor Liberman, who is likely to prove far more adversarial to it, unless he abandons past positions.
An examination of Liberman’s statements show he has been on the other side of the fence from the defense establishment on a wide range of issues.
Knesset member Liberman led the support for the soldier who is on trial for illegally shooting dead a terrorist in Hebron on March 24 after he was already shot and lying wounded on the ground. By doing so, Liberman sent out the message that he did not trust the IDF’s legal-justice system, nor did he appear to express any confidence in the separate assessments by the soldier’s commanding officers that the shooting was a blatant violation of the rules of engagement.
Last year, Liberman said that when he becomes defense minister, the last war against Hamas will occur, which will result in Hamas’s removal from Gaza and replacement by another ruling entity, which he declined to name.
Although the IDF is certainly of the belief that Hamas’s military wing should not be allowed to survive another war with Israel, military planners are deeply skeptical of the idea that force alone can be used to install new rulers for Gaza.
The defense establishment is interested in setting up a civilian seaport for Gaza to assist its economy and break the cycle of frequent wars; Liberman has scoffed at the idea.
Unless the incoming defense minister becomes convinced by the military’s assessments, many stormy closed doors meetings could lie ahead at the Defense Ministry.
Alternatively, Liberman could change his position on some of these issues, in line with the well-known Hebrew phrase: “The things you see from here, you don’t see from there.”
Despite all of the above, Liberman has no ideological commitment to a Greater Israel vision and has advocated for an eventual two-state solution consistently for many years, a fact that is not often discussed in the public sphere.