The man who could beat Netanyahu

"Peace cannot only be top-down. It also needs a parallel bottom-up process like joint Israeli-Palestinian businesses, industrial zones, malls and of course dialogue at a grassroots level."

Moshe Ya'alon  and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit Israel Aerospace Industries‏. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Moshe Ya'alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit Israel Aerospace Industries‏.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
After the elections in March 2015 and his reappointment as defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to set some ground rules for their new working relationship. They discussed a range of issues: how decisions will be made, what forums they will be taken in, and the division of some of their joint responsibilities.
Politically, they had their differences.
Four years earlier, in the now-famous “Bar- Ilan Speech,” Netanyahu had embraced a two-state solution and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Ya’alon, considered a darling of the settlement movement, was an outspoken opponent of such a state.
Yet despite their differences, the two agreed that no matter what, they – together with the IDF chief of staff – would always appear to the world to agree on key issues, would always look united.
Disagreements would stay behind closed doors and would not be made public. For a country constantly under threat, this was viewed as a national security necessity.
It didn’t last long though. The first crack in the relationship came a few months later in the summer of 2015, when the High Court of Justice ordered the IDF to evacuate several homes that had been built on private Palestinian land, in the settlement of Beit El. Two Knesset members moved their offices to homes there, and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett climbed one of the rooftops and slammed Ya’alon and the court’s decision.
As defense minister and the ultimate legal authority over the West Bank, it was all in Ya’alon’s hands. While the pressure was immense to stall, the High Court of Justice had made its decision and he was going to abide by the rule of law. At the very least though, Ya’alon expected that Netanyahu would publicly admonish Bennett and call on the Right to respect the court’s decision. That didn’t happen.
Instead, Netanyahu said that he too was against the demolition.
In December, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) revealed that it had arrested a group of right-wing youths believed to have been behind the firebombing and murder of the Dawabsha family in the Palestinian village of Duma a few months earlier. The Shin Bet came under harsh criticism by the Right, but Ya’alon stood by the security service, which officially was not even under his purview (the Shin Bet is directly subordinate to the prime minister). Only after Bennett came out publicly in support of the Shin Bet did the prime minister do the same.
In January, the same thing happened again. Ya’alon came under harsh criticism for deciding to remove right-wing activists who had illegally entered two homes in Hebron after lacking the right documentation and permits. Ya’alon again followed the rule of law, evicting the activists and their families. Again he looked to Netanyahu for support, but was met by silence.
Then came the speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day by Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan, who compared current trends in Israeli society to pre-Holocaust Germany. Golan came under attack from the political establishment, including the prime minister. Ya’alon was the one member of the coalition who publicly supported him, as well as his right as an IDF officer to speak his opinion.
And finally, there was Elor Azaria, the so-called Hebron shooter, who was filmed shooting a neutralized Palestinian attacker in the head. When the IDF came under heavy public criticism for opening a criminal investigation against Azaria, Ya’alon came to the military’s defense. What did Netanyahu and Bennett do? They called Azaria’s father to show support for his family.
Why is all of this important? Because when Ya’alon decided in May to quit the government and the Knesset, he didn’t only do so because he was replaced by Avigdor Liberman as defense minister.
Netanyahu offered Ya’alon to become foreign minister, but he turned it down because he felt that he could no longer serve in a government that, to him, appeared to be headed in the wrong direction.
Since leaving the Defense Ministry, Ya’alon has been sitting in a small ordinary office in south Tel Aviv. Next week he will board a plane for Australia, and after a week there, he will head to Washington for a five-week stint at a local think tank.
He then returns to Israel at the end of September.
Ya’alon has decided that he will run in the next election, and based on the current political landscape, he is the person who gives Netanyahu the most concern.
As our political correspondent Gil Hoffman revealed this week, Ya’alon has already established an NGO – named “For Different Leadership” – that will serve as his platform for political and educational outreach. When the time comes, the NGO could be transformed into a political party. Ya’alon’s options vary. He could establish a new party with people like former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar, or he could join forces with Bennett, or with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party. Any of these combinations would be a direct and serious challenge to Netanyahu’s rule.
Multiple polls, including one conducted a few months ago by The Jerusalem Post, show that a party led by Ya’alon would tie Netanyahu or even defeat him.
For now though, Ya’alon is not making any political commitments, except for one: he is right-wing, and will try to outflank Netanyahu from the Right. This was not immediately clear when he left office – the Golan and Azaria affairs combined with a post-resignation anti-Netanyahu speech alongside Ehud Barak left the impression that Ya’alon had moved to the Left.
Based on recent public speeches and a change in rhetoric, Ya’alon seems to have learned his lesson, though he still suffers from the same problem that plagued his military career: he is not a good politician.
While other candidates might spin their messaging, Ya’alon speaks straight.
He often forgets political calculations, and has suffered for it – he lost out on an extension for his term in 2005 as chief of staff, and ultimately lost his position as defense minister in May.
Elections are officially just under three years away. Nevertheless, Ya’alon is getting ready for what could be his biggest challenge yet. It won’t be enough to highlight his distinguished military career.
This time, he will have to get his hands dirty with politics.
Last week I traveled to Ramallah to meet Muhammad al-Madani at Fatah headquarters in the southern part of the city.
The nondescript building could easily pass for apartments if not for the guard post at the entrance, the large Palestinian flag flying on a nearby pole, and the three Palestinian soldiers in army fatigues armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Madani invited me to come see him since he can no longer enter Israel. A member of the Fatah Central Committee and a close associate of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Madani had been allowed to enter Israel freely as chairman of the Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, a public diplomacy committee set up a year ago by the PA to do outreach in Israel.
In June though, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman revoked Madani’s entry permit citing his supposed subversive activity within Israel, including an attempt to establish a political party.
Madani’s office is spacious. On one wall hangs a picture of Albert Einstein, with a quote: “Should the Jews not learn to live in peace with the Arabs, the struggle against them will follow them for decades in the future.” On the other wall hangs a picture of Faris al-Khoury, a Syrian nationalist.
Needless to say, we didn’t see things exactly the same. Abbas, I reminded him, rarely condemned violence after deadly attacks. When I asked about incitement, Madani responded that there is incitement in Israel – in the media, and when settlers drive on roads throughout the West Bank. When I asked about continued terrorism and why the PA didn’t do more to stop it, Madani said that Israel was committing terrorism with IDF incursions into Palestinian cities and, of course, what he views as the Israeli occupation of his land.
So, I asked him, how do you really expect to penetrate the Israeli public and shift its mindset? “We need to decide who is oppressed,” Madani said with a smile. “I don’t believe that God gives land to people. We are all part of one society even though every religion has its own narrative.”
As for peace, Madani said, “all” Israel needs to do is agree to the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi-proposed plan that calls for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, a “just” solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees, and the division of Jerusalem. In exchange, Israel would be recognized and enjoy peace with dozens of Arab states.
“The Israeli side is full of fear and danger,” he said. “Both sides need to overcome being against one another.”
Madani is confident that his continued meetings with Israelis will bear fruit. Peace, he says, is made between people. While there is peace between Israel and Jordan and Israel and Egypt, he said, there is no peace between the different peoples.
“The Israeli government thinks contact with governments will exempt it from talking to the people,” he said. “You need both.”
While I disagreed with most of what Madani said, I agreed with his last statement.
Peace cannot only be top-down. It also needs a parallel bottom-up process like joint Israeli-Palestinian businesses, industrial zones, malls and of course dialogue at a grassroots level.
Ironically, Liberman – the one who revoked Madani’s permit – seems to believe the same. On Wednesday, the defense minister announced his new “carrot and stick” policy for the West Bank, including the allocation of NIS 10 million to establish an Arabic-language website for outreach in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Liberman also said that the Defense Ministry has started speaking directly with Palestinian academics, businessmen and opinion makers not affiliated with the government.
Liberman and Madani are battling for public opinion – Israel among Palestinians, and the PA among Israelis. Both are trying to bypass each other’s government and leaders. On the surface, what they are doing is positive, but real peace needs both – top down and bottom up. When those two paradigms converge, there might be a real chance for peace.