Many moons ago – that is, last Sunday – Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon held what may have turned out to be, at the end of a dizzying week, his farewell from the country’s security leadership. His speech, at a belated Independence Day reception, generated big news the next day because it was perceived as a thinly veiled attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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After their disagreements in the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff affair and regulations on opening fire, the remarks by Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan on Holocaust Remembrance Day eve and the Israeli soldier who fatally shot a wounded Palestinian in Hebron, Ya’alon called on the IDF brass to maintain independent thinking and not to fear expressing their opinions to politicians.
The Prime Minister’s Office released a contrary statement immediately after Ya’alon’s remarks, reiterating its castigation of Golan for his remarks about Israeli society and Nazi Germany. A few minutes later, Ya’alon was summoned for clarification talks with Netanyahu, to take place in Jerusalem the next morning.
Ya’alon was concerned. The media was full of reports about progress being made in the coalition talks with Zionist Union, or alternatively with Yisrael Beiteinu. His people were afraid Netanyahu would take advantage of the disagreement to rebuke Ya’alon, and perhaps even dismiss him. But at the end of Monday’s clarification meeting, a joint statement was released by both Ya’alon’s and Netanyahu’s bureaus, saying the two men had clarified matters and no one disputed the fact that the military was subordinate to the government.
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Did Netanyahu already know then that in a day or two he would conclude his agreement with Yisrael Beiteinu chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman and throw Ya’alon out of the Defense Ministry? The picture is still not clear. It may be some time before political commentators know whether this was last-minute improvisation or execution of a more organized plan.
And perhaps what Ya’alon said to the officers last Sunday is more important. Along with the determination that a good army is one in which the commanders – junior as well as senior – are sure they can speak their minds at any time and know it will not hurt them, Ya’alon called on the officers to maintain ethical standards in the use of weaponry, and to investigate and admit errors.
“An IDF with values and an exemplary society go hand in hand. They are the guarantee of our security, before sophisticated weaponry and precise intelligence. An exemplary society in a Jewish and democratic state is a society that sanctifies life and fights racism and violence with all its might, and stops hatred and divisiveness with dialogue. A law-abiding society is one that keeps all laws, whether minor or major, and does not raise a hand against its judges, even if there is a dispute over their rulings,” he said.
To Ya’alon, the commanders are also educators with responsibility toward Israeli society, “who know how to use force when necessary, but also recognize its limitations.” He indirectly alluded to the affair that he saw as the low point of the past few months – the fatal shooting of a subdued Palestinian assailant in Hebron. The army, he warned, must not allow its soldiers to have “a light trigger finger” or be “rabble-rousing and vengeful.” Which of these things, if any, could Lieberman sign off on (the same Lieberman who appeared in military court to identify with Sgt. Elor Azaria, the Hebron shooter now being tried for manslaughter)?
In a sharply worded article on the Ynet news site on Wednesday, veteran military commentator Ron Ben-Yishai warned of processes of moral corruption that Lieberman’s appointment could generate in the army brass. “From the moment Lieberman takes the defense minister’s seat, I will sleep less well at night,” he wrote.
Ben-Yishai was clearly relying on his experience from other times. The obvious comparison is when Ariel Sharon became defense minister in Menachem Begin’s cabinet in 1981. Sharon, who behaved like a bull in a china shop, trampled his opponents on the General Staff by forging an alliance with then-IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan and forcing his will on the army all the way to Beirut.
Ben-Yishai witnessed firsthand the final outcome of this move, even if not intentional and direct, in the massacre perpetrated by Christian militias on the inhabitants of the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon. Lieberman 2016 is not a reiteration of Sharon 1982, but the State of Israel has already experienced what the belligerent conduct of a minister in a sensitive post can do.
Crossing a red line
Throughout these decades, the IDF middle-ranking and senior officers have been watching their chief of staff very closely. From 1999 on, Gadi Eisenkot was military secretary to two prime ministers with quite different worldviews – first Ehud Barak, and after him Sharon. The military secretary from the Golani Brigade was greatly appreciated by both, without ever presuming to enter the inner political circle around them. All his statements as IDF chief of staff reveal his deep aspiration to maintain the IDF’s standing as an entity that represents the entire state. There is no doubt that now will be his greatest challenge, something he certainly didn’t expect to fall on him quite so suddenly.
From a political perspective, the question remains as to what Ya’alon will do. The dismissal of an admired and well-liked minister could also have some political fallout for the prime minister. Will Netanyahu offer him a consolation prize? Will Ya’alon agree to accept one? Is the Netanyahu-Lieberman alliance final? After all, the outgoing defense minister was subject to extreme political betrayal and humiliation.
Ya’alon is described as someone who tends to take offense, but here’s a question of values of the type that preoccupies Ya’alon more than most of his political colleagues. In terms of the Histadrut-affiliated youth group of Kiryat Haim in which his worldview was molded, breach of trust is a very serious insult. Ya’alon is not naive. He knows Netanyahu well, and knows his record of keeping promises to party ministers. But in Ya’alon’s eyes, fraud and lying are an unforgiveable crossing of a red line.
It is enough to recall the incident that molded Ya’alon’s hard-line and skeptical view of the Palestinians. Ya’alon, who admits that he initially supported the Oslo Accords, joined then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres (when Ya’alon was chief of Military Intelligence) in early 1996, for a meeting with then-Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat.
In that meeting, the Israelis asked the whereabouts of senior Hamas figure Mohammed Deif, after the suicide bombings had started again in Israel. According to the story that has been repeated in the media dozens of times, Arafat and his chief of preventive security, Mohammed Dahlan, lied to the Israelis and tried to pretend they didn’t know where Deif was.
The general brought up in the youth movement could neither forgive nor forget – and since then, he doesn’t believe a word the Palestinians say. Every time Dahlan’s name comes up, it’s hard not to miss Ya’alon’s look of disgust. Here’s a surprising coincidence: Dahlan, the wealthy activist whose name has been associated with dozens of stories of corruption, is not only the enemy of current PA President Mahmoud Abbas. He is also a close interlocutor of an Israeli politician: Avigdor Lieberman.