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Al-Qaida Takes Ya'alon's Side in His Attack Against Kerry

Its presence in Syria makes Kerry's peace mission tougher; but right-wing politicians are abusing Israel's security concerns for internal political purposes.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

A number of recent headlines have recently shown how difficult John Kerry’s mission of brokering an Israel-Palestine agreement is. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon has been quoted as saying that Kerry was 'obsessive and messianic,' and that he should get a Nobel Prize and leave Israel alone. Furthermore, Ya'alon added that the detailed security plan developed by Kerry's team under Gen. John Allen is totally unrealistic, saying that satellites and plasma screens wouldn’t prevent radical Islamists to smuggle rockets into the West Bank.

Ya'alon’s state of mind reflects a growing concern in Israel that some of its "nightmare scenarios" are becoming a reality.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaida’s current leader has been quoted as saying that Syria will become a staging ground for the organization's activity against targets in Israel.  Given that Al-Qaida has indeed been a major player in the Syrian civil war for at least two years, al-Zawahiri’s statement doesn’t sound outlandish at all. True: Assad no longer seems likely to fall as quickly as predicted a few years ago, and it might well be that he will somehow survive and stay in power. Nevertheless, Al-Qaida’s presence at Israel’s borders can no longer be described as a paranoid scenario in the mind of Israeli right-wing extremists, but an actual reality.

As a result, Ya'alon’s demand that Israel keep a military presence in the Jordan Valley is quite understandable. No one can predict how the Middle East will look in another decade. We must hope that Jordan, Israel’s most reliable partner in the area for decades, will remain stable; but we cannot say for sure that this will be the case. But the scenario that Al-Qaida, or any other Jihadist group, will be able to infiltrate the West Bank one way or the other is, unfortunately, a possibility. Al-Zawahiri is therefore certainly boosting Ya'alon’s intransigence and makes Kerry’s life all the more difficult.

But, as usual, Israel’s right wing is abusing Israel’s legitimate and realistic security concerns for internal political purposes. Ya'alon is not only demanding an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, but also that the Jewish settlements stay in place – a demand that has absolutely nothing to do with Israel’s security needs and primarily expresses the Likud’s commitment to the Greater Israel. Therefore, there are two way of looking at Ya'alon’s remarks: they can be seen as extremely stupid, revealing his complete lack of diplomatic understanding. Even assuming that he believes all he what he was quoted as saying, it's simply not something that a senior cabinet minister can say about a U.S. secretary of state. His comments can also be seen as if Ya'alon is jockeying for the position that he wants - Likud’s next leader - while outflanking Netanyahu to the right.

The gradual radicalization of Israel’s right wing politicians is our Achilles' heel, and Netanyahu shares the responsibility for this process. In his newly published autobiography, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates writes that he was in favor of banning Netanyahu from the White house, adding that he couldn’t stand the prime minister's glibness. He expressed concern that Netanyahu’s policies were irreversibly harming Israeli interests.

So maybe it is time for Netanyahu to cash in on the image of the far-sighted statesman that he has been trying to cultivate for a long time. So far, as Gates’ memoir shows, Netanyahu has fallen grievously short on this role and succeeded primarily in alienating Israel's closest allies with his unbearable arrogance.

Netanyahu may have learned his lesson. He seems to be more aware of the fact that Israel cannot survive without being a part of the Western world. He has probably realized that a failure of Kerry’s drive for peace will unleash a series of boycotts against Israel that will critically harm its economy and international standing.

But, as I wrote last week, Netanyahu is now stuck with a party that has very little in common with the mostly civilized Herut movement of years past. In today’s Likud, Ya'alon, Zeev Elkin, Miri Regev et al are now competing for the title of most chauvinist and racist politician, while Netanyahu is left behind, looking positively moderate, even though he carries a lot of responsibility for the sorry state of his party.

Netanyahu may have a way out, though. After Ariel Sharon’s physical death and burial, commentators and statesmen hailed him for making the transition from a daring and often cruel military leader, to an elder statesman who, according to reliable sources, was even willing to compromise on Jerusalem.

Netanyahu might do well to declare himself the heir of his former nemesis Sharon. Along the way he can use Charles de Gaulle as a role model - the president who took France’s reign with a promise of keeping Algeria, but ended up as the statesmen who concluded France’s colonial era. In any case, Netanyahu doesn’t have much time left: the alternative to the role of de Gaulle is that of Pieter Willem Botha, who presided over South Africa when it was boycotted by the whole world. 

Ayman al-Zawahiri in a still image from a web posting by al-Qaida's media armCredit: AP
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visiting the Golan, December 2013Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

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