Defense Minister Rises as U.S.-Israel Relations Plunge

Moshe Ya’alon spoke insultingly off the record about Secretary of State John Kerry, and Prime Minister Netanyahu was in no hurry to come to the aid of his defense minister.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is one of the more taciturn members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. In the 10 months since he took over the ministry he’d long coveted, he hasn’t held one press conference or given one interview to the media. Silence is his middle name. His media exposure is measured, spare, controlled and risk-free. He does come up sometimes with a few prepared topical sentences, almost always on the backdrop of some military exercise, with a few tanks visible over his shoulder. All in all, a display of model behavior has entrenched his image as a kind of civilian chief of staff in a combat jacket – a judicious, statesman-like, businesslike, modest leader, who is fairly high up on the list of popular ministers.

Ya’alon atones for this obsessive (yes, that’s the right word) ascetic behavior toward the media by making himself very accessible to certain reporters and commentators, who meet with him from time to time for off-the-record conversations. Not for quotation, not for attribution. Standard procedure, which has benefited both sides. Until this past week.

On Monday, Ya’alon attended the funeral of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He sat next to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, unaware that at that very moment the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth was concocting a headline quoting what Ya’alon had told the paper’s veteran diplomatic correspondent Shimon Shiffer off the record, a week earlier. If Ya’alon had known, one of his colleagues quipped this week, he might have jumped into the grave himself.

The scornful epithets Ya’alon hurled at U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (for being “obsessive” and “messianic,” in addition to the comment: “Let him get his Nobel Prize and leave us alone”) are the type of sensational comments that are usually quoted in revealing biographies written years after a particular official retires. Such a lethal and virulent volley of personal insults aimed by an Israeli defense minister at an American secretary of state, while both are still in office and maintaining close ties, has never before been heard in these parts, as far as anyone can remember. In diplomatic terms, this was no less than an atomic bomb dropped on the sensitive zone of Israeli-U.S. relations. True, Ya’alon did not intend for any of these things to become public, but when the same mantra has been recited more than once to more than one correspondent, you have to take into account the possibility that there could be a regrettable slip-up.

It was essential to deal with this catastrophe as quickly as possible, and with every means available, before the U.S. administration awoke – on Tuesday afternoon, Israel time – and went ballistic. That could have been averted had the relevant people quickly grasped the scale of the damage and behaved accordingly. But Ya’alon stalled. Or maybe he and Prime Minister Netanyahu didn’t get what was going on. Or maybe the premier did get it, but for reasons of his own preferred to wait and let the popular minister who is breathing down his neck politically get scorched a little more on the grill.

In remarks to high-school students in Ofakim that same morning, Ya’alon issued a reserved, vague and noncommittal statement. “Even if there are disagreements between us and the Americans,” he said, “they need not overshadow common goals and interests.” It was like trying to put out a huge fire with a small bottle of mineral water.

A few hours went by. Dawn broke in Washington. The Prime Minister’s Bureau started to get unpleasant phone calls. Only then did Netanyahu remember to exchange a few words with Ya’alon. In the wake of that conversation, Ya’alon issued a second statement, which was also a mockery: “The United States is an important ally … When there is a disagreement we air it in the room, including with Secretary of State Kerry, with whom I conduct many conversations about the future of Israel.”

Sticking to the fire imagery, and taking into account the amount of time that had gone by since the event erupted, this was like trying to extinguish a raging conflagration with a container of oil. No apology, no bowing of the head, no genuine remorse. No wonder the Americans went wild and unleashed the spokespersons of the State Department and the White House. They too probably could not ignore the irony reflected in the remark about ironing things out “in the room.” Really. Between four walls, discreetly and secretly. Until we read it in the paper.

It wasn’t until almost midnight, after a long meeting with the prime minister, that Ya’alon condescended to issue an apology – though it too should have been worded more persuasively. It was too little, too late, too weak, too slow.

Ya’alon’s resounding gaffe didn’t prompt his rivals in Likud – where everyone is everyone else’s rival – to shed a tear, crocodile or otherwise. Playing on Ya’alon’s nickname, “Bogie,” they dubbed him “Bokie” (numbskull) and “golem,” as Ariel Sharon used to call Netanyahu. Somehow, Ya’alon’s blunders, even dating back to the period in which he was a senior army officer, always belong to the same genre of poorly conceived statements, seemingly honest in their way, that end up being reported in the media and immediately evolve into a massive debacle. This is a pattern of behavior that apparently stems from some sort of insensitivity and chronic clumsiness.

In 2003, for example, after the Palestinian prime minister at the time, Mahmoud Abbas, resigned from the government of Yasser Arafat (Arafat had made his life miserable) Ya’alon, who was then chief of staff, was quoted as saying that Israel was not meeting Abbas halfway. Believe it or not, in those days he outflanked Prime Minister Sharon from the left.

This time, Netanyahu was doubly angry at Ya’alon. First, for making the embarrassing remarks, which perhaps expose the attitude of other of Israel’s top leaders to the “off-the-wall” Kerry (as no few right-wing ministers call him) and is liable to cost our Bibi politically in the talks with the Palestinians – who have been celebrating since Tuesday – and secondly, because of the media outlet involved.

After all, Yedioth Ahronoth is comparable to the evil empire, according to the folks at the Prime Minister’s Bureau and his residence. Netanyahu would expect his ministers to follow his example and not cooperate with Satan. He knows that this is not a realistic expectation. But whenever he encounters a blatant example of a cabinet minister being treated favorably in Yedioth, something dies inside him.

In Netanyahu’s suspicious mind, the case of the defense minister is even more serious, and the premier’s famous sense of paranoia is working overtime. Nothing happens by chance, Netanyahu might think to himself: This Bogie has close ties with Yedioth, briefing, cooperating and maybe even giving them information. He’s casting his bread on the waters. But why? Because in the future he will contest the leadership of Likud against me, and as a mark of appreciation for his behavior he will get a tailwind and valuable support from the journalists who write for the country’s biggest newspaper. So, if Netanyahu found some small consolation in the diplomatic mess this week, it’s related to the large tremor on the wing that the most highly esteemed minister in his party sustained.

Ya’alon never enjoyed a lofty status in Likud. In the two primaries in which he competed, in 2009, when he entered politics, and later in 2013, he finished seventh. Next time it will apparently be a whole different ball game. Borne on the wings of his popularity and general satisfaction with his performance in the ministry Israelis like best, Ya’alon is considered to have a good chance to upgrade his position in future primaries and also to be a serious contender for leadership of Likud in the post-Netanyahu era. However, the prime minister never takes things for granted. Who can guarantee that the defense minister will wait until 2020 to succeed him? What if he gets the urge before that?

Democracy at half-mast

Miri Regev (Likud) strikes again. (And again.) The vociferous Knesset member, who this week stood by Ya’alon (as though his own, initial embarrassment wasn’t enough for him), has just sent MKs the draft of a new bill that she intends to submit to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. It’s an amendment to an existing law which prohibits violence in sports, and would also ban – pay attention here! – “flying a flag that is liable to cause a public disturbance.”

The same Miri Regev who held up the Israeli flag like a woman possessed during a talk to high-school students during the last election campaign, the same Miri Regev who always has in the trunk of her car a flag that she drags to speeches to whip up the mood of the audience – she now wants to outlaw the waving of flags at sports events.

“This legislation is aimed at preventing unruly behavior by fans,” Regev writes in her explanatory remarks. “It concerns the waving of flags which is liable to cause a public disturbance on the part of extremist fans, who want to use the sporting arena to advance political interests, some of which are offensive to public feelings and constitute a provocation against the State of Israel and its Jewish and democratic character.”

The provocation, then, is against Israel’s “Jewish” character. In other words, it’s Palestinian flags that will be banned on the playing fields of Sakhnin or Umm al-Fahm. She seems to leave a narrow opening for other flags to be prohibited, too, when she notes that the relevant minister will decide which flags to add to the blacklist. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a minister to prohibit the Israeli flag from being waved in Arab communities.

After the wacky law was passed in the Knesset, forbidding the use of the word “Nazi” as an expletive, it’s indeed possible that Israeli Arabs will soon be forbidden to wave the flag of Palestine. Israel will thus take one more small step toward becoming an enlightened, liberal, tolerant state, ever mindful of its minorities.

Defense Minister Ya'alon vs. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.Credit: Amos Biderman

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