The Israeli warrior waiting in the wings

Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon frankly discusses Operation Protective Edge, the Elor Azaria affair – and his own vision and ambition.

Moshe Yaalon
Everyone will probably agree – his supporters and detractors alike – that former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon is a different kind of politician. He’s as straight as an arrow, a fair and decent man who says what he believes.
It seems that his resignation from his government position following the Elor Azaria affair made him feel freer; now he gives his opinion regarding any issue and doesn’t hold back. He’s biding his time, looking for the right moment to storm in and take hold of the prime ministership.
I conducted my interview in Ya’alon’s modest new offices in north Tel Aviv. On the wall I saw that he’d hung portraits of David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Behind him, there were pictures of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul, whose bodies are being held by Hamas in Gaza – “to remind everyone who comes inside my office that we have a responsibility to bring them back home,” Ya’alon says.
The bereaved parents of soldiers who’d been killed in Operation Protective Edge rejected the report that the prime minister presented to the state comptroller listing the mistakes that had been made during the war. They say the report isn’t serious. Were the decisions before and during the war made correctly? Did the cabinet members understand what they were agreeing to?
“I have been living and breathing the issue of bereaved families since I began carrying out my mandatory duty at the age of 18. Some of my comrades in arms were killed right next to me during the War of Attrition. Three members of my army gar’in [original group] were killed and I’m still in contact with their families even 50 years later. As I advanced up the ladder of command, my obligation to bereaved families has only increased, since over the years I have convinced so many soldiers to sign on and work permanently in the IDF.
“The late Dror Weinberg decided to become commander of the Hebron Brigade following conversations with me. Company commanders the late Capt. Eran Elkawi and the late Capt. Yossi Chaim signed on to further their careers in the IDF after I convinced them to do so. When I was Chief of Israel’s Central Command, I convinced the late Maj. Eitan Balhasan, commander of the Paratroopers, to sign on as a career serviceman. So you see, I feel tremendous responsibility for the lives of IDF soldiers. One of the hardest tasks I ever carried out during my service was to go to the home of a bereaved family to tell them their loved one had died.”
And yet, the bereaved parents say their claims are being ignored.
“Military intervention must always be a last resort, and I always did my best to operate according to this philosophy. We have been in a state of war since 1948. Our neighbors still have not accepted the Jews’ right to have a homeland. This is the crux of the conflict. If this weren’t so, we could have ended the crisis a long time ago. The fact that we’ve reached peace agreements and signed strategic alliances with Jordan and Egypt shows that it’s possible.
“Operation Protective Edge got complicated. Unfortunately, politicians intervened in the middle of the campaign to exploit the situation to further their own careers, and this was very damaging. This never should have happened. I say this as someone who’s been a cabinet member almost continuously since 1995.
“I’d never seen such irresponsible behavior before – ministers engaged in political maneuvering in a time of war, using phrases like, ‘topple Hamas, destroy and conquer Gaza.’ Despite what certain politicians claim, the campaign was managed well. In other words, when the situation deteriorated, I already knew exactly what our specific goal was and what we wanted to achieve. It was wrong of politicians to give the mistaken impression that things weren’t going well. When the war ended, the general feeling was that the prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff had acted responsibly. And then suddenly people began making comments – mainly regarding the tunnels issue – as if that had been the main focus of the war.”
The state comptroller claimed that cabinet ministers voted before they had been provided with the relevant information and without understanding what the operations entailed.
“It was clear to me that anyone who engages in political maneuvering in a time of war, would certainly continue this behavior afterward, as well. When I heard that the state comptroller had decided to investigate the tunnels issue and the cabinet’s decision- making process, I knew that certain politicians would try to take advantage of the report to criticize and make false statements. I told the state comptroller that it was mistake to carry out this kind of commission. I told him that if we had made mistakes, then an official special investigation should be conducted, that the state comptroller’s office does not employ the proper specialists required to investigate whether the military operation had been legal.”
What other issues should have been investigated?
“More than 4,000 rockets and mortar shells fell inside Israel. Hamas tried to attack Israel from the sea, from the air and from tunnels, but not one attack was successful. There was not even one casualty as a result of the tunnels. I don’t want to go into details, because this is classified information, and the report has already revealed too many classified details that would harm Israel’s ability to function properly in the next confrontation. The only result of this report was a political dispute.”
In light of how events in the Second Lebanon War played out, do you think that the IDF achieved the goals it set for Operation Protective Edge or did they change according to the circumstances on the ground?
“There’s a big difference between your goals and what actions you end up taking. My complaint about the cabinet and the military’s leadership during the Second Lebanon War is that when the cabinet convened and decided to respond to the kidnapping of the three soldiers with rocket fire, it didn’t understand that this was in essence a decision to go to war. They didn’t outline their goals for the war, and when they were asked, ‘Now that we’ve given the go ahead for military intervention, what’s the game plan?’ they replied: ‘We’ll meet then and discuss.’ The Second Lebanon War had no clear strategy. Declarations were made: We won’t stop the fighting until we bring the kidnapped soldiers home. Does that sound like a goal for a war?
“In Operation Protective Edge, we had a very clear goal. We referred to it in each operative plan and we navigated our course according to it. By the way, the cabinet approved these goals in 2009. As a result, we were ready to accept the cease-fire after just eight days when the Egyptians entered the picture.”
In other words, Hamas would stop shooting rockets into Israel?
“I wanted Hamas to agree to a cease-fire according to the conditions I’d set, with a high degree of deterrence, which would provide Israel with a long period of quiet.”
Naftali Bennett claims that he pushed to delay sending in ground troops so that we could first neutralize the tunnel threat. Were you aware of this threat at the time, or did it take you by surprise?
“Of course we knew. I’d been dealing with the tunnel issue since I’d been deputy chief of the General Staff.”
Were you aware that there were 30 attack tunnels that opened up near Israeli communities?
“There were not 30. In Israeli territory there were 12. There were 30 tunnels that led to 12 tunnels that opened inside Israel. We’d found four of them already a year before the war started.”
Yes, but you found them by chance.
“We understood that there isn’t a simple technological or operational solution. In this case, in three out of four cases when terrorists emerged from the ground in Israeli territory, we discovered them. We knew there was no hermetic solution. And it’s not like the terrorists got even close to an Israeli community and no Israelis have been injured by a terrorist who came out of a tunnel.
“Apropos goals of the war, we were ready to acquiesce to the cease-fire promoted by the Egyptians after just eight days, before we even dealt with the tunnels. I thought we should accept the cease-fire, on our terms, without having to send in even one Israeli soldier into Gaza. But Hamas didn’t agree, and so we went on with the war, sent in our soldiers, and dealt with the tunnel issue.
“When did the dispute begin? Before the escalation in Gaza, when we were still searching for the missing three youths in Judea and Samaria, some people took advantage of the situation and suggested that this was a perfect opportunity to enter Gaza and destroy all the tunnels. I was very much against this idea, as was the IDF chief of staff. The people who came up with this idea didn’t understand what such an operation would entail. So I said, okay, say we go in and take out all the tunnels. Then what? Won’t they just dig new ones? The only way to change the situation would be to go in and take control of Gaza, but the cabinet decided from the outset that this was not an option.
“If we had accepted Bennett’s suggestion and carried out an offensive attack to take out all the tunnels even before the first shot had come out of Gaza, how would all the countries around the world have reacted? And the Israeli public? We initiated this escalation, so whose fault is it now that they’re shooting rockets on our civilian population? Hamas or Israel or the IDF? All the cabinet members knew they had to take all of these questions into consideration before making their decision. It wasn’t as simple as saying: “There are tunnels, and we have the capability to destroy them. Let’s initiate an offensive attack to eradicate the tunnels.”
Did Israel take advantage of the kidnapping and murder of the three youths as an excuse to escalate the tension?
“Absolutely not. During the search for the youth, we arrested hundreds of Hamas fighters in the West Bank. It was clear to us that Hamas would not sit back silently in response. This is the claim that I made at the time, and that was recorded in the comptroller’s report. Hamas wasn’t hoping that the situation would escalate during the summer of 2014. It just happened.”
Maybe we led the way for this to happen?
“The situation developed naturally. I can’t speak for the others, but I certainly did not want the situation to escalate. I’m convinced that the prime minister also was not hoping for an escalation. We need to look back at all the cabinet decisions and see what it was that led us to war. There are times no one intends for the situation to escalate, but after you take a stance, and then someone else counters, and eventually you realize that a decision has been taken to go to war.”
Do you think Israel’s response following the murder of the three youths was disproportionate?
“It’s not a question of proportionality. There’s no doubt that before Operation Protective Edge, Hamas was under a tremendous amount of pressure. Hamas no longer had any support, certainly not from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, since the counter-revolution had already taken place. No Arab country was willing to help economically and it had no money left with which to pay salaries for the public sector, which hadn’t been paid for three months, and the general feeling of distress was intensifying.
“One of the things I tried to do as defense minister was to reduce the pressure. Without going into too much detail, my contacts informed me that Hamas was on the brink of collapse. Hamas had Islamic Jihad and other resistance groups fire warning rockets at us, and then of course we retaliated, and that’s how a situation escalates. If Hamas had wanted to start a war, it would have opened with a surprise suicide attack using a tunnel maybe to reach an Israeli community.”
Regarding the Elor Azaria [Hebron shooting] incident, you and the prime minister condemned the act that very same day. You paid a very high political price for that condemnation, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who backtracked on his statement when he realized where the wind was blowing, has only gotten stronger.
“I found myself in a dispute with the rest of the cabinet members. It wasn’t just in connection with the Azaria affair. We did not meet eye to eye with respect to what I consider the core values are of a democratic Jewish state. What are our values? What makes a nation a democracy? I won’t go into the details of the current submarines issue, which demonstrates that we have very serious problems.
“It was very clear to all the commanders involved in the Elor Azaria incident – from his commander all the way up to the chief of staff – that the soldier had acted against orders and contrary to Israeli law and IDF values, and I’m very proud of the commanders who understand this well. Unfortunately, this quickly turned into a political issue, when an MK from Yisrael Beytenu showed up at the Azaria home and began inciting them to go against the IDF. Instead of being assigned a military advocate, someone who was a lieutenant colonel in the reserves – who was on his way to the house – they decided to embark on a political campaign.
The event had taken place on Purim and the very next day there were people next to the Kirya [IDF headquarters] holding signs showing IDF Chief of Staff [Gadi] Eizenkot disguised as Ahasuerus. They were calling out for Eizenkot to resign and take ‘Bibi and Bogie [Netanyahu and Ya’alon]’ with him. This didn’t come from the Azaria family. Someone else created a well-funded campaign for them.”
Who was behind this campaign?
“Buses filled with people later arrived at the military courthouse. Someone paid for all of this, as well as the lawyers that the Azaria family hired. Rumors were spread that I had killed prisoners of war, that I had been present when they were killed. There were all sorts of incredible lies. The prime minister understood that we couldn’t remain silent, that we must make a statement even though a verdict hadn’t been delivered yet. If we had waited, the Palestinians would have claimed that Israel engages in killings without a trial, and they had the video as proof.
“In order to counteract these images, and to prevent an eruption of violence on the streets – and I remember from the first intifada in 1987 how a traffic accident in Jabalya (which they said had been a deliberate act) was the spark that lit the fire – we decided to pour water on the situation, and rightly so, as any responsible leadership would have.
“If Azaria had had a lawyer who was really acting in his best interests, the lawyer would have instructed Azaria to plead guilty, express regret and request forgiveness. To this day, Azaria has not admitted any wrongdoing. Unfortunately, this is to the detriment of the soldier, his family, the IDF and the entire State of Israel. The irresponsible politicians who started this campaign are the ones responsible for this mess. To my great disappointment, at some point the prime minister switched his allegiance.”
What went through your head when you heard the recording of Netanyahu calling and offering his support to Elor’s father?
“I shivered. Look, do they really and truly think that I abandoned a soldier? He did something that was terribly wrong. And I think I’m pretty well versed in what is appropriate behavior on the battlefield. Let’s be frank here – there’s not one person in the Knesset who’s come face-to-face with the enemy or a terrorist, and been forced to kill him more than I have. Not one. I know exactly what is permitted and what is forbidden.
“Azaria never claimed that he felt his life was in danger. What he did say was that he fired at the terrorist because anyone who comes to stab his friends deserves to die. Is that a reason to open fire? He didn’t mention an explosive belt, a knife, a weapon – nothing. Then, afterwards, the lawyers advised him to give an alternative version of events. At the time of sentencing, the judge said that Azaria had offered four different versions.”
How do you explain all the Israelis who back Azaria? How is that so many public leaders, Knesset members – even ministers – have made clear statements that anyone who harms us deserves to be killed?
“We are suffering from a serious lack of leadership. Being a leader doesn’t mean you should say things that will make you popular. Leaders tell the truth, not what they think people want to hear. Sometimes leaders have to bang their fist on the table and say, ‘That’s enough!’
What’s happened to us? Knesset members and ministers are showing up at the courthouse in support of a soldier – have we gone mad? His friend who testified was the first one to ask Azaria, ‘What have you done?’ It’s clear to everyone present that he did a terrible thing. And his friend testified that Azaria told him, ‘Whoever comes to stab my friends deserves to die.’ Of course this was an illegal act. And then all of a sudden the politicians are saying something different. Do you comprehend what kind of precedent this sets for soldiers?”
Do you agree that the scene of the attack had been handled poorly from an operational point of view? Is it normal that a civilian ambulance driver had taken charge instead of an IDF commander?
“Both the company and platoon commanders who’d been at the scene of the attack were found to have failed in their leadership roles, and were reprimanded by their superiors as would be expected. There’s no connection between that and the fact that a soldier is being used as a battleground to fight a political battle. And instead of giving up and expressing remorse, they’ve decided to appeal the decision.”
Deep down do you see yourself as a Likudnik?
“I joined the Likud in 2009. I served beside [Bennie] Begin, [Dan] Meridor, Michael Eitan, and Ruby [Reuven] Rivlin. All of these individuals are considered leftists today.”
They’ve all either quit – or were pushed out of – the party, and you’ve worked side-by-side with the prime minister for four years.
“You need to understand, just like Begin in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, I felt like the little Dutch boy who plugs a dike with his finger.”
Are you planning on running for prime minister as the head of a party?
“I announced the day I resigned that I was planning on running for the position of prime minister. I have not yet announced the precise path I will take to achieve this. At the moment, I’m working within the framework of an NGO that I established which is called, The NGO for Different Leadership.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner. Originally published in Ma’ariv.