The Price of Ya'alon's Gaffe: U.S. to Pressure Israel on Palestinians, Iran

The defense establishment didn't enjoy 'Wonderful Country's’ recent satirical take on the career army any more than the Americans appreciated Moshe Ya’alon's jab this week at John Kerry. Both insults will have their own repercussions.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The notebook is open and the hand writes, as the saying goes. Washington will not easily forgive Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon for his blistering attack on Secretary of State John Kerry. It would be hard to make the claim that the Americans were thunderstruck at the publication of his remarks, in the mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday. Hints of Ya’alon’s approach to the negotiations with the Palestinians in general and to Kerry’s behavior in particular were reported in several newspapers during the past month. But the defense minister’s glitch will be exploited by the White House for two purposes. The first is to remind the Netanyahu government in no uncertain terms of the rules of the game: Public insults of senior American officials are strictly forbidden. The second will be to leverage the affront in order to pressure Israel on the two key issues that remain in dispute between the countries: the political process with the Palestinians and the interim agreement between the great powers and Iran.

Ya’alon should have been more cautious about what he said, even if he thought innocently that his remarks would not be published, under an off-the-record agreement with the correspondent. He would have done well to learn from the experience of an earlier defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, in 2001. After a first official visit to Washington, Ben-Eliezer got a little carried away with the importance of the event and briefed the Israeli media, quoting in detail his conversations with senior figures in the Bush administration. It was a crass violation of the American code, and the administration put Ben-Eliezer into deep-freeze in return.

Indeed, Ya’alon has a talent for these kinds of slips. He’s great in closed small-forum briefings: frank, deep and witty. In contrast to many of his colleagues, he doesn’t leave you feeling you’ve been led up the garden path, once you leave the meeting. But that openness has a price. Ya’alon seems to have a somewhat naïve approach in terms of trusting his interlocutors implicitly, even if they’re new acquaintances. At times, he seems to have an irresistible urge to persuade those present that he is in the right. Once every year or two, since his tenure as commander of the Paratroops Brigade, at the end of the 1980s, that approach tends to blow up in his face.

According to Yedioth Ahronoth, Ya’alon described Kerry as “obsessive” and “messianic.” On the Palestinian issue, those are epithets that some would claim are apt descriptions of Ya’alon himself. According to his own testimony, Ya’alon started off as an advocate of the Oslo Accords, but became disillusioned when he was director of Military Intelligence, after a highly publicized meeting, alongside then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres, with Yasser Arafat and his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, in 1996. Ya’alon caught Arafat in a crude lie, and since then hasn’t believed either in the Palestinians or in the prospect of a permanent peace agreement with them. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is apparently not so far from him in that outlook, but for Ya’alon the Palestinian story is far more personal.

Washington is still finding it tricky to decipher Ya’alon. He’s a blatant hawk on the Palestinian issue, but remains a moderate regarding Iran, and his responsible approach blocked dangerous initiatives in past years. The current episode will pass eventually, because the two sides need each other further down the line, too. Still, Ya’alon would do well to make sure the Americans don’t have him sit on a low chair the next time he visits Washington.

The Ya’alon affair is not expected to set back the Kerry initiative. The secretary of state is planning to submit a proposal for a framework agreement to both sides within a few weeks. It’s unlikely, however, that the negotiations will be able to proceed smoothly indefinitely. Much has been written about the rise in the number of terrorist incidents in the West Bank since last September, but in the meantime, escalation looms on the border with the Gaza Strip as well. On the night between Wednesday and Thursday, rockets were fired at Ashkelon, but all were intercepted by an Iron Dome battery.

Since the start of the month, there have been 16 rocket launchings from Gaza, an average of one a day. Those responsible are extremist Palestinian groups, from Islamic Jihad to groups that draw their ideology from Al-Qaida. The government can show restraint over a trickle of a rocket or two a week, especially if they strike open areas. But daily rocket fire again raises the tension in the communities around the Gaza Strip and leads to demands for tough responses.

The fact that Israel strikes back from the air after every rocket launch, makes it more likely that Palestinian civilians will be killed in the attacks. This situation could fairly easily escalate into something like Operation Pillar of Defense of November 2012. Hamas is under enormous, almost violent pressure from the military regime in Egypt to prevent all rocket fire into Israel. But even though Cairo has stepped up its threats – this week the Egyptians warned that they will deal with Hamas as methodically as they dealt with the Muslim Brotherhood – the rocket fire has been renewed. Hamas is possibly making less of an effort to prevent it than in the past, and this is an almost certain recipe for another military clash with Israel.

Satire, budget and briefing

The friction with the United States and the renewed tension along the Gaza border have not muted the trenchant debate now underway over budget priorities. According to figures provided to the Knesset this week by the Israel Defense Forces, last year, 1,433 career army personnel were dismissed, of the 4,500 the army plans to fire. Speaking in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz stated, “The career army personnel don’t like to be scorned and to be told that they are the burden of the state. They are not the burden, they are the solution.”

Gantz’s comment came in response to accusations and allegations hurled of late at the IDF by the Finance Ministry, but also by another, less likely source.

What infuriated the General Staff was a skit on the satirical program “A Wonderful Country,” broadcast on Channel 2 two weeks ago. The skit portrayed the career personnel as idle loafers. The senior officer and the master sergeant in the item occupied themselves with everything except the defense of the country. They counted the minutes until they could leave the office for home, sexually harassed female soldiers and tried to obtain benefits from the defense establishment. It was a sharp, caustic and quite malicious portrayal, which at times was off the mark (the real problem in the IDF’s organizational culture is not idleness by career personnel but the army’s tendency to keep people over-busy and to hold night meetings, at the expense of the officers’ family life). Still, here and there, such as in the concluding bit, when the master sergeant refuses to give a paratrooper a lift because he needs the room in his car for a live penguin he bought as part of a discount agreement the army has with chain stores, the kit seemed to squeeze the army in its sensitive places.

As usual in these parts, the affront was massive. One officer complained on Facebook about an “anti-Semitic clip,” no less. The IDF weekly magazine Bamahane reported on the opening of a Facebook page to express support for career army personnel, which warns against turning them into a target for slander. The skit on “A Wonderful Country” was a wakeup call for the IDF: It might no longer be possible to take for granted high public support for the army.

In the meantime, the security cabinet met twice to discuss the defense budget. The defense establishment was recently allocated an increase of 2.79 billion shekels ($797.1 million) in its budget, the funds coming from surplus tax collection. That’s almost a full reinstatement of the 3 billion shekels the government decided to cut from the defense budget last June. Despite this, the discussion was stormy. The army doesn’t think it’s enough, while some ministers accused officers from the General Staff of using scare tactics, and sought to prevent the screening before the cabinet of a presentation that compares the present situation with the training cuts that preceded the Second Lebanon War. They also rejected vehemently a proposal put forward by the major generals for the ministers to declare that they are aware of the damage their decisions will cause to the IDF’s preparedness. Who knows – maybe they watched “A Wonderful Country,” too.

In the second meeting, held last Thursday, the budget was approved in full, including the planned reimbursement. The army is still worried, because a few problematic issues remain without sufficient budgetary coverage. But the General Staff’s concern should not end there. For the first time in years, the legitimacy accorded by the public to the priority given security needs in the budget is beginning to show signs of erosion. Inviting the cast of “A Wonderful Country” to hear a briefing from the chief of staff will probably not be enough to solve this problem.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visiting the Golan, December 2013Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry
The skit on 'A Wonderful Country' was a wakeup call for the IDF: It might no longer be possible to take for granted high public support for the army.Credit: Courtesy of Mako

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