Israel Gives Syrians Aid So Moderate Rebels Keep Extremists From Border, Ya'alon Says

In an extensive interview, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon tells Haaretz about Israel's external enemies, but saves the emotion for cabinet disputes.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.
David Bachar

Ask Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon about the external challenges that Israel confronts and his reply will always be reasoned and sober.

Ya’alon will try to place the severity of the threat in the proper perspective and even to play it down. If his strong pessimism is translated into a tough, hawkish stance regarding the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, when it comes to exercising military force the defense minister is a very cautious man.

Ron Alon

That approach was evident throughout last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip and was reflected in a conversation this week with Haaretz. His implied message is that that’s how it has always been and probably will remain: Israel, according to Ya’alon, is stuck in a hostile neighborhood and must maneuver within it, exercising toughness as well as caution. There is no reason to get upset.

Tomer Appelbaum

Yaa’lon leaves the passion and the loud voice to his domestic rivals. The external enemies – Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and, at the moment, Islamic State – don’t arouse a fraction of the emotion he expresses when he’s asked about the internal disputes in the government.

There is, as usual, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and his officials; Ya’alon is disturbed by their plot to steal the money that is coming to the IDF due to the costs of the war against Hamas. But even the finance minister doesn’t infuriate him as much as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett does.

Throughout the war the two often clashed at cabinet meetings. Bennett accused Ya’alon and senior IDF officers of being overly hesitant and claimed that had he not spurred them on with endless challenges to their logic, Israel would have taken no action to destroy the tunnels Hamas dug. Ya’alon says that Bennett is taking undue credit and that the frequent declarations by Habayit Hayehudi’s chairman deviated from the shared responsibility of cabinet members during wartime.

Apparently their age difference — Ya’alon is 22 years older than Bennett — and style also played a role. Difficult as this is to say, the last person who was able to make Ya’alon so angry appears to have been former Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, sometime at the beginning of the previous decade.

After seven weeks of a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, the most recent security incidents actually took place in the north – the downing of a Syrian warplane that crossed the border on the Golan Heights and the wounding of two IDF soldiers when bombs laid by Hezbollah on Har Dov exploded.

Ya’alon admits that “it’s possible that Hezbollah has accumulated more self-confidence than we thought.” He says the organization is trying to maintain a new balance of deterrence on both the Lebanese and the Syrian borders, by reacting with attacks against Israeli territory for every military move that it attributes to Israel in Lebanon.

“There is a reversal here,” Ya’alon says. “Once, the Syrian regime used to activate Hezbollah to strike at us in south Lebanon, without our being able to blame the regime for direct responsibility. Now, Hezbollah is operating the same way on the Golan Heights.” Israel attributes several of the incidents of the past year in the Golan – involving bombs and rockets – to the militias connected to the Bashar Assad regime in Syria but operating under the inspiration of Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Ya’alon confirms that Hezbollah’s most recent attack was ambitious, but he rejects the possibility that Israeli intelligence is playing down the intentions of the organization, which seems to have been prepared to risk an escalation had it succeeded in its plan to kill a large number of soldiers by detonating the bombs.

He says that Hezbollah is sending its fighters to Iraq and Syria against its will, under orders from Iran. The Shi’ite organization is also mired in an internal war against extremist Sunni factions in the Lebanese Bekaa. It has additional problems, aside from the tension with Israel. “The incidents with us don’t prove that Hezbollah is planning an escalation,” Ya’alon says. “We reacted forcefully. Let Hezbollah decide whether it’s worth its while to escalate.”

The battles in Lebanon erupted as a consequence of the civil war in the country that used to be called Syria. President Bashar Assad, says Ya’alon, now controls only 25 percent of the area of the country.

“It’s not Syria, its Alawistan [referring to Assad’s ruling Alawite sect] – the coastal cities in the north of the country and a corridor connecting them up to Damascus,” Ya’alon says. “The rebels are already doing away with his control on the border with us on the Golan. The east of the country is controlled by [Islamic State], and in the northeast the Kurds have autonomy.”

The entry into the Golan of extremist Sunni organizations identified with Al-Qaida, such as Jabhat al Nusra, worries him, but here, too, he has the impression that at present the situation is under control.

“Of course there’s instability there,” Ya’alon says. “But the area adjacent to the border is under the control of more moderate militias, such as the Free Syrian Army. It’s no secret that they benefit from the humanitarian assistance that we provide to the residents of the villages in the area: medical care in our hospitals, food for infants, equipment and blankets in the winter. That happens on condition that they don’t allow the more extremist organizations to reach the border.”

What did Hezbollah and the other organizations learn from the war in Gaza?

“First of all, that the ‘spider web’ issue is no longer valid,” Ya’alon says, referring to a speech delivered by Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah in May 2000 in Bint Jbeil, Lebanon, two days after the IDF withdrew from South Lebanon. Nasrallah claimed at the time that Israeli society “is weaker than a spider web.” The defense minister says that the speech summed up the 1990s, but things have changed. “Before Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 and followed by the campaigns in Gaza and finally Operation Protective Edge, there’s a different attitude and different determination.”

He isn’t happy about the fact that the battle lasted 50 days. But Ya’alon says the Arabs learned that Israel, as opposed to some of their theories, is also capable of withstanding attrition. Its spirit doesn’t break and its economy doesn’t crash. It defends itself and exacts a heavy price from its rivals.

At a conference in Cairo early this week, donor countries promised $5.5 billion to rehabilitate Gaza. Ya’alon is not convinced that the indirect contacts with Hamas will end with a more detailed cease-fire agreement. As far as Israel is considered, the principles already formulated in the limited agreement at the end of August are sufficient, in addition to the agreement it reached with the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority regarding the entry of goods and money to the Gaza Strip under tight international supervision.

In his opinion the heart of the matter is the diplomatic-security coordination with Egypt, which already enables significant limits on Hamas’s efforts to rearm. “In the past year not a single rocket has been transferred from Sinai to Gaza because Egypt has started to operate effectively,” he says. “Both we and Egypt stopped the transfers of cement to the Strip, long before the fighting, because we realized that the cement is used for digging Hamas’s tunnels.”

The new arrangements, he says, “will allow the Gazans to live. The transfer of money and the means for rehabilitation are already beginning. But a seaport, an airport – those are pipedreams. We can discuss it in Cairo, but even Hamas understands that these things are not on our agenda or that of the PA or Egypt.”

Lazy and galloping horses

But during the war in Gaza he was more concerned about the problems at home – mainly what he sees as a lack of responsibility on the part of cabinet members. “A certain minister (Bennett) received a report from the field and said that there was a brigade (Givati) that had developed a method of dealing with the tunnels, but we weren’t letting them do so,” Ya’alon says.

“I suggest that ministers take into account broader considerations such as the dialogue with the U.S. administration, the United Nations. After all, we didn’t start this operation as we did in the Second Lebanon War. We knew what we wanted to achieve. There are considerations that go beyond the fact that you have a force that is ready for action.

“There’s no shortage of threats. When you establish deterrence, you can’t attack everything just because the enemy has tactical capability. There are 100,000 Hezbollah rockets directed at us. So are we going into Lebanon now to deal with them?” (It’s possible that this last example does not do much of a service to Ya’alon; after the Second Lebanon War people came to him, as former chief of staff, with complaints about his claim that we should let the rockets rust.)

Bennett claimed that his direct connection with field commanders afforded him another point of view, as a cabinet member, of the crucial decisions and helped him to spur the defense minister and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz into action. Ya’alon rejected this explanation out of hand: “That’s unacceptable. Is it legitimate for a politician to form direct ties with army officers, and based on that try to manipulate the chief of staff in the cabinet and say that he’s a lazy horse compared to the galloping horses, the officers in the field?

“I received no request from him to visit the area during the fighting. Other ministers asked to visit the units and did so, with my permission. A politician sits there and brags that officers phone him. That’s anarchy, not democracy. I was sorry to see that the former chief of the Shin Bet security service (Yuval Diskin) supports his position. How would he feel if an MK were to speak with his coordinators and make manipulative use of what he heard from them? That’s why the prime minister and I came out against that.”

Ya’alon refuses to share the credit with Bennett for approving the operation against the tunnels. “Who’s responsible for the army’s fighting spirit? The chief of staff or some political party?” he asks.

“These are political considerations. I have been in [security] cabinets in the past 20 years, since being appointed the head of Military Intelligence. In the previous government the group of eight of which I was a member discussed issues of major importance. There were serious, sometimes stormy debates, but nothing left that forum. Even if you voted against a decision, you are responsible as a member of the forum not to come out against it in public, during wartime.”

Under the aegis of the holidays the prime minister solved the budget crises, at least temporarily, when he decided on an increase of about 14 billion shekels in the defense budget in the course of a year and a half, in the wake of the war in Gaza.

Ya’alon is still not satisfied. “I’m conducting a battle with the treasury, which thinks that we don’t need money for defense,” he says. “The prime minister promised during the discussion that the decision about the budget increase for defense does not include extra-budgetary issues, such as transferring the IDF to the Negev and the activity of the Mine Clearance Authority. That’s why I voted in favor.

“Now the treasury comes and claims: It’s all inclusive. I assume that there will be additional debates in the course of the coming year. At least they (the treasury) have stopped attacking us about pensions because they understood that it’s unacceptable. These are employees’ prerogatives. The chief of staff and I said: We agree to let you take away from high earners, and first of all from us. We also said that we would be first, but not alone. Can they carry out such a step? The High Court of Justice, the Histadrut labor federation, won’t let us.”

At the end of the summer Ya’alon promised that “after the holidays” he would deal with the appointment of the next chief of staff, who is supposed to succeed Gantz in mid-February. The date is almost here and Ya’alon says he will keep his word.

After Sukkot he will begin to consult with former defense ministers and chiefs of staff and will invite several candidates. The almost-certain candidate for the job, although Ya’alon is not willing to discuss it at all, is the present deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.

The defense minister promised “a transparent, full process, with all the required consultations. We will carry out all the required preliminary examinations and bring the best candidate to the government around November.”