Washington Watch: 'Loose lips sink ships'

Ya’alon has every right to publicly criticize American leaders and foreign policy, and there’s a place for him to do that – as a civilian.

Yaalon at IDF Home Front Command’s base 370 (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Yaalon at IDF Home Front Command’s base 370
(photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in Washington earlier this month singing the praises of American security cooperation and intelligence sharing. “American support for Israel... is at an all-time high,” he said; earlier he praised President Barack Obama for supporting Israel’s right to defend itself “more than any other president.”
So why is he sitting by while his defense minister works overtime to undermine that relationship? As hard as the Arabs have tried for so many years, none has been able to drive a wedge between Washington and Jerusalem the way Moshe Ya’alon has in recent months.
The defense minister is a serial insulter and his latest targets are the president and secretary of state. He shoots wildly from the mouth, and he only wounds Israel. Yet his prime minister seems unconcerned beyond telling him to phone his American counterpart and apologize – and that was only after Secretary of State John Kerry called Netanyahu to prod him.
In a surprising twist, the apology was rejected. Instead an unnamed senior government official told reporters: “Minister Ya’alon has not offered an apology... for his offensive and highly disappointing comments, which do not reflect the depth of our security cooperation and the enduring relationship between the United States and Israel.”
Earlier this year Ya’alon lashed out at Kerry for “inexplicably obsessive” and “messianic” efforts to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Kerry, he said, has “nothing to teach me about the conflict with the Palestinians. All that can ‘save us’ is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.”
Only after reluctant prodding from Netanyahu did Ya’alon have an aide say he “did not intend to insult” Kerry.
That drew another stinging rebuke from the White House, but it didn’t deter the latest outburst. And you can bet there will be more.
In a March 18 speech at Tel Aviv University he accused the administration of “weakness” around the world. Instead of “sitting at home” and opening itself to terror attacks, the United States should “come to its senses,” he said. “No one can replace the US as the world’s policeman.”
Ya’alon said US military aid to Israel “isn’t a favor America is doing, it’s in their interest.” Yes, it is true the US benefits, but as Israeli military analyst Ron Ben- Yishai observed, “The simple truth is that the US can survive pretty well without Israel as an ally, but the inverse is not the case.”
He called Ya’alon’s “provocative” remarks “irresponsible” and “a serious failure in Israel’s management of its security affairs.”
Ya’alon is entitled to his opinions, but when it takes the form of bitter broadsides against Israel’s most important ally and the one that provides over $3 billion in annual military assistance, the defense minister, of all people, should have some appreciation of that fact. Yet he seems determined to undermine the relationship he claims is so important.
If he feels the need to air those opinions in public, he should do so as a private citizen, and the prime minister should give him that opportunity before any more damage is done to the Jewish state he serves.
A senior US official said this is “part of a disturbing pattern in which the defense minister disparages the US administration and insults its most senior officials.”
On Iran, he and Netanyahu appear to be trying to pull the rug from under the Americans and other world powers negotiating a nuclear agreement with Tehran.
In the same week those talks were underway in Vienna, Ya’alon was saying America can’t be relied upon to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons and Israel can rely only on itself, and Netanyahu, who earlier declared he wouldn’t be bound by any agreement with Iran, authorized $2.9b. this year to prepare for a unilateral strike.
At the same time back in Washington, AIPAC-sponsored letters were sent to President Obama by large bipartisan majorities of the Congress essentially adopting Netanyahu’s stringent terms for any agreement with Iran. It may strengthen the American negotiating position but it also sets the bar unrealistically high in view of the positions already adopted by Washington and its partners.
That may be intentional on the part of Republican sponsors who would want to hand Obama a stinging defeat by rejecting any deal signed with Iran, especially if comes before this fall’s elections.
Netanyahu knows he can’t attack Iran if the US and Europeans reach an agreement with its government.
He can – and certainly will – complain that it is a bad deal no matter what it is, but there’s little he can do. He might urge Congress to reject the deal. But rejection does not mean lawmakers and their constituents are ready to go to war with Iran. Far from it. On the other hand, the chances for success in the negotiations are not very encouraging so he may get to attack, if Obama won’t do it for him.
But for now Netanyahu’s big problem is that Israel’s most important ally is rapidly losing confidence in his defense minister. What does Ya’alon expect to achieve with his broadsides at Washington? Maybe the answer lies in his political ambitions and on the right flanks of the Likud Party, his likely base for a run for prime minister.
Netanyahu is losing popularity with that segment of his party, and Ya’alon apparently sees a vacuum he wants to fill.
That may frighten the weak and insecure Netanyahu more than any damage Ya’alon can do to Israel’s relations with Washington. The fundamental relationship remains solid, but when it comes to the ability of leading officials in Washington and Jerusalem to work together, there is a growing problem.
The word out of the administration is that it will take Ya’alon a long time to rebuild trust here. And it will require more than half-hearted semi-apologies.
Ya’alon has every right to publicly criticize American leaders and foreign policy, and there’s a place for him to do that – as a civilian.