Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s speech in the Knesset last week was a watershed moment.
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“This is a case of a soldier who has transgressed, and not a hero” he said in his stern and monotonous voice, standing at the podium as he does, awkwardly, wearing a strange padded rainproof jacket. But then, everything Ya’alon wears, though he’s been a civilian for 11 years, still looks like a uniform.
He must have wished then that he was back in his army days – a sergeant in the Israel Defense Forces Paratroops, bellowing at young conscripts, because at that moment he was looking at the benches of his own party and not understanding why they were disagreeing with him.
Ever since footage of the shooting of a wounded and subdued Palestinian attacker in Hebron on March 24 was first released, Ya’alon has been the one and only clear voice in the government speaking out against the incident and demanding that the shooter, an IDF combat soldier, face justice.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who condemned the incident initially, toned his remarks down and within a few days was already backing the soldiers, without mentioning the transgressor. The rest of the Likud ministers and MKs were either silent or demanding that the soldier in question, Sgt. E., not be treated like a criminal.
“They all understand the public atmosphere and know that Likud voters and certainly the party members are enraged by the soldier’s treatment,” says one party insider. “Bogie [Ya’alon’s nickname] is committing political suicide, no less. This will push him down the list in the next primaries and end any hopes he still may have of being prime minister one day.”
Not that anyone who knows him is surprised. “Ya’alon is at heart still a soldier,” says a defense ministry official who has worked with him closely. “He deals with the mission at hand and doesn’t think about political considerations or look at the wider picture of what this could do to his own future.”
Ya’alon’s steadfast position may seem surprising, considering the rightward shift of many of his party colleagues in recent years and the cynical nature of Likud politics, but for those who have known him for many years it is totally in character and perhaps even presages a return to his roots.
His childhood in a Haifa suburb was typical early statehood working-class, and joining a Nahal Brigade group – combining agricultural work on a desert kibbutz along with combat service – was a natural result of his upbringing. Throughout his long military service, which culminated in the chief of staff’s office, he was regarded as a classic product of the Labor movement that had dominated the officer corps for decades.
When and where did Ya’alon go right? He claims to have realized during the 1990s, when he was commander of the intelligence branch, that the Palestinians had no true intentions of reaching a peaceful arrangement with Israel, and he saw through what he believes was the fallacy of the Oslo process.
Some less charitably ascribe his move to the right as a result of his falling-out with Ariel Sharon, who as prime minister favored Dan Halutz as chief of staff and ended Ya’alon’s term prematurely – ostensibly over his opposition to the plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a move that Ya’alon believed would encourage Palestinian terror. Whatever the reason, he found an enthusiastic reception in Likud, which after the 2006 election had been reduced to a medium-sized party.
For most of his relatively short political career, at least in the view of the public, he has seemed to be a right-wing hardliner. In 2009, he called the dovish Peace Now organization and “the elites” who demand the evacuation of settler outposts “a virus,” and accused them of causing “very large damage.”
In 2014 he caused a diplomatic crisis with the United States when he called Secretary of State John Kerry “messianic and obsessive,” and wished that “he will get the Nobel Prize and leave us alone.”
In recent months, however, Ya’alon has been much less admired by the right wing. Settlers and their supporters are accusing him of both giving the orders to crack down on extremist settlers suspected of involvement in vigilantism against Palestinians, and of not reacting more forcefully against the current wave of Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
He has opposed calls to close off areas within the Green Line to Palestinian workers, supporting the army’s position that allowing them to work in Israel is an incentive to keep down the level of violence. He is also against the policy of not handing over to Palestinian families the bodies of dead attackers.
Ya’alon’s so-called moderation was evident already behind the scenes in recent years when he was a quiet yet resolute opponent of the plans by Netanyahu and his predecessor as defense minister, Ehud Barak, to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. Ya’alon crossed swords with the right-wing ministers in 2014 when he was reluctant to deploy ground troops in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge.
He has continued to insist that his positions haven’t changed and that he doesn’t believe Israel will reach an agreement with the Palestinians in the coming decades and the world will just have to get used to it – but he was already being regarded by the far right as suspect.
Now, following the shooting incident in Hebron, he has confirmed their suspicions and now regularly criticized by the settlers and the more right-wing ministers and MKs. Ya’alon seems imperturbable.
Avi Benayahu, the former IDF spokesman who has known Ya’alon for many years, says that “this is the real Bogie. Likud isn’t his natural home and though he knows he’s going to pay a price for this in the party, which won’t forgive him for this, he knows he’s at a historical crossroads and has to preserve the [image of the] IDF among an Arab-hating and populist public.”
Without years of building up a following within Likud, Ya’alon’s success in Knesset-list primaries has been based on the backing he received from Netanyahu and the desire of party members to see “a general” on the slate. Can he continue to rely on those two pillars of support after the events of recent weeks?
“Netanyahu needs him,” says one of Ya’alon’s former advisers. “He realizes the army needs someone like Bogie to keep things from getting out of hand. But Bibi won’t stand by him when he’s taking flak from the right wing: His political future is ultimately in Bibi’s hands.”