The Sorry Affair of Ya'alon's Apology

The defense minister has again found it difficult to keep his mouth shut, damaging Israel’s national-security interests and again making us look like a ridiculous political entity in a Peter Sellers movie.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

What’s the story with our defense minister, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon? Two months after sticking his foot in his mouth with the off-the-record “compliments” he heaped on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Ya’alon has again found it difficult to keep his mouth shut. And again Israel’s national-security interests are being damaged. And again we are looking like a ridiculous, off-the-wall political entity in a Peter Sellers movie.

This time, Ya’alon chose to unleash his abusive and insulting insights about the U.S. administration in a “closed meeting” attended by about 100 people at Tel Aviv University. As though that is a relevant concept in the age of smartphones. And as on the previous occasion, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said nothing for hours, before making a general comment in a Knesset speech about the importance of security and intelligence cooperation with our great ally.

As on the previous occasion, President Shimon Peres – the national firefighter – came forward breathless, almost on the brink of tears, to express his indefatigable thanks and appreciation to the United States of America. And as on the previous occasion, Ya’alon kept silent for many hours until being forced to apologize, even though the Americans still insist he has yet to do so explicitly. And as on the previous occasion, the prime minister did not reprimand him or call him to order – at least not in public – as soon as the remarks were published, in order to dampen the flames a little.

For the past few days, Netanyahu’s attention has been focused on the intra-Likud quagmire, ahead of the party’s convention at the end of the month. It’s been reported that the prime minister is threatening to fire the president of the convention and chairman of the Likud Central Committee, MK Danny Danon, from his meaningless post as deputy defense minister, as punishment for his rebelliousness.

Danon is indeed making Netanyahu’s life miserable, but it’s doubtful whether he’s the one who should get a letter of dismissal. He is only defying Netanyahu in the trivial party arena, whereas Ya’alon is doing it in regard to the United States, a country on which Israel depends for its very existence. If there is someone that Netanyahu needs to put in his place, it’s Ya’alon.

So what’s happening with Bogie? It’s been a year since he was appointed to the post he coveted. A year that has done him only good. That has built him up as a leading candidate to succeed Netanyahu when the day comes. A year in which he did his job impeccably.

But suddenly it’s become important for him to speak out unabashedly about current affairs. Why should he have anything to say about U.S. behavior with regard to Ukraine? Where does he get off deprecating the generous U.S. defense aid to Israel? And where did that response by his confidants to Washington’s stinging rebuke come from – according to which the Americans find him “a hard nut to crack” and want to eliminate him politically?

That reaction makes one suspect that Ya’alon is trying to position himself as head of the right-wing camp in Likud, with an eye on a future leadership contest in the party. But it’s far from certain that the majority of Likud members admire a defense minister who speaks vulgarly about America and keeps falling into ditches of his own digging.

The Ya’alon quotes that were reported by Barak Ravid in this newspaper a few days ago arouse nostalgia for the arrant nonsense uttered by a few MKs from Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu in their meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro about a month ago. [Among other things, David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) told Shapiro, “How can we depend on you? When have you stood by us?”] They were perceived as an anomaly, and rightly so – which cannot be said about comments made by the defense minister of the State of Israel. It’s a good thing Bogie didn’t talk in the closed meeting about the snakes on Capitol Hill, or that in his visits to Washington he wears high boots for fear of being bitten. In any event, he needn’t look forward to a visit to the American capital in the near future.

Premature and immature

On March 18, the very day on which the people of Israel celebrated the first anniversary of the installation of the third Netanyahu government, Finance Minister Yair Lapid published his high-profile plan to grant a VAT exemption to young couples with at least one child who buy a first home from a contractor (with the implicit exception of the country’s Arab and ultra-Orthodox citizens, who are not part of Lapid’s constituency – the exemption stipulates that at least one of the couple must have done military or civilian service, and at least one must be working), in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Maybe he wanted to influence the columnists who were writing summaries of the anniversary. Maybe he wanted to improve his poor standing in public opinion polls. Who knows? It certainly wasn’t an innocent coincidence.

In any event, the plan was half-baked, as Netanyahu commented to Lapid the night before – not to mention crumbly and gooey. Nor did it cross the threshold of the housing committee which is supposed to consider such ideas in depth. Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug opposed the plan, along with experts in the Finance Ministry. One of them, chief economist Michael Sarel, resigned in a huff on Wednesday. In his letter of resignation, he expressed what his colleagues didn’t dare to say.

Even Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein departed from custom and immediately issued an opinion stating what had been clear from the outset: terms that discriminate against Haredim and Arabs are unconstitutional and will be struck down by the High Court of Justice.

However you look at it, the plan is redolent of politics, PR and pastiche. The immaturity was embarrassing: First you brief the reporter, then you find time to check prospects, feasibility, foundation, infrastructure.

There are two governments serving in Israel these days: the Netanyahu government, which is in charge of diplomacy and security; and the Lapid government, which is responsible for the social-economic sphere. The public is more satisfied with the first of the two. Security is doing fine.

The political process will be approaching its decisive point in the weeks ahead. Even if the talks with the Palestinians break down, most Israelis will probably blame the Palestinians. Netanyahu is fortunate to have Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas), just as his predecessors always had Abu Amar (Yasser Arafat) – like Humphrey Bogart always had Paris.

Lapid doesn’t have that privilege. He is Abu-less. No one is stopping him from “changing things,” as his election slogan promised. In private conversations, he boasts that he is not allowing Netanyahu to gain a foothold in the treasury. That he is the only lord and master there.

That arrogance might yet boomerang on him. He would do well to contemplate the lesson of the 2006 election: The public, battered by economic decrees, did not settle accounts with the Kadima party, which was headed first by Ariel Sharon and afterward by Ehud Olmert. The punishment was inflicted solely on Likud and Netanyahu – who had been finance minister for most of the period between 2003 and 2005, and who initiated the budget cuts.

Shot across the bow

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak is often seen – as he was this week, too – striding along the street in central Tel Aviv, wearing a gray sweat suit, earphones in place (classical music, certainly) and with an inscrutable smile on his lips. Bodyguard in front, bodyguard behind, he’s headed for the seashore. Barak prefers walking along the avenues to using the treadmill in the gym of his latest residential tower. Maybe it’s important for him to mingle with the people.

In the past two weeks, he has raised his public profile. He was seen with wife Nili Priell in the Knesset gallery for the session with British Prime Minister David Cameron. He published a mourning notice in the wake of the death of Meir Har-Zion, the legendary IDF fighter. And there was something else.

Did Barak – who in the year since leaving the Defense Ministry and political life has disappeared completely from public view – know where the investigation into the “Harpaz affair” was headed, and choose the present time knowingly and deliberately to reemerge in our lives? (Two senior former army officers were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of destroying evidence connected to the case, which revolves around the appointment of a new chief of staff in 2011.) You can never rule out anything with Barak. All options are on the table.

Barak is no longer in the game. Nor is Gabi Ashkenazi, the former chief of staff. But the “affair” isn’t going away. On the contrary. The detention this week of the two closest people to Ashkenazi, Avi Benayahu and Erez Weiner, would not have been authorized if the police did not have concrete evidence of improper behavior. It’s only a matter of time before Ashkenazi himself is interrogated.

Without rushing to judgment – because everyone is innocent until it’s proved otherwise – it can be said with some certainty that the 15 minutes of fame of the former chief of staff, which stretched across his entire term and positioned him well to enter the top political ranks of the country, are over. Isaac Herzog, Lapid, Netanyahu and anyone else who sees themselves as the future head honcho can erase Ashkenazi for good from the list of potential threats.

Spilt milk

Even a master of satire would think twice about whether to include a scene in which the leader of a Western democracy phones one of his staff at 3 A.M. – when he is supposed to be sleeping the sleep of the just – with a request that he accede to the uncompromising demand of the missus to buy milk in cartons and not in bags.

Which brings us back to a disturbing question that comes up every so often in connection with the prime minister’s work environment. Namely, what awaits Benjamin Netanyahu in the residential wing of the building on Balfour Street in Jerusalem when he gets back after an exhausting, stressful day at the office such as only a few world leaders are exposed to? If the reality described by Manny Naftali – the former overseer of the Prime Minister’s Residence, who is now suing the Prime Minister’s Office and Netanyahu personally – is even partly accurate, then Bibi isn’t the only one with a problem. We all have one.

On the other hand, there’s no need to get carried away with apocalyptic prophecies. He’s been with us for five consecutive years, eight altogether, and not one nuclear missile has yet been fired in the dead of night at a neighboring country.

For the umpteenth time, we are being exposed to the tales of Sara Netanyahu’s relentless obsession for an ultra-meticulous household, amid an excessively free use of public funds and a total disregard for the people who serve her. It’s as though they were born just for that purpose.

The dust will probably eventually settle on this story, too, in an out-of-court compromise whose details will be kept secret from the public. But all the testimonies that trickle out from behind the walls of the fortress-like residence in which Bibi and Sara live a fun life among hundreds of flickering aromatic candles are as nothing, only the promo for the trailer of the real, big thing: The book now being written by Shaya Segal, the former strategic adviser, friend and confidant, who was like one of the family. Everything described by the hurt Naftali in his lawsuit (whose claims, it must be said, are rejected in total by the Netanyahus) is only an iota of what Segal saw and heard and experienced during a decade spent in the couple’s company.

Illustration by Amos Biderman.

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