The Ya’alon Doctrine: Inside the Mind of Israel's Defense Minister

Anshel Pfeffer
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Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon during a tour in the Golan Heights, June 2015.Credit: Eden Moldawsky / Defense Ministry
Anshel Pfeffer

So what is Israel’s real strategic vision these days? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to pay lip service to pursuing the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, if they’ll only come to the table and talk. His right-wing ministers say the opposite and call for cutting off all ties with the Palestinian Authority, expanding settlement-building in the West Bank and de facto annexation. On the streets of Jerusalem, one moment the police are putting up roadblocks and barriers, the next they’re taking them down. In private, the more levelheaded ministers talk of “managing the conflict” as a long-term strategy. But for local (political) and international (diplomatic) reasons, they will rarely talk about this openly.

For all those reasons, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s interview last Thursday morning with Army Radio was a rarity. He publicly said that there’s no prospect for a diplomatic breakthrough in the foreseeable future, and that, despite the casualties in the current wave of Palestinian attacks, time is actually on Israel’s side in the regional strategic balance.

The only quotes to garner much attention in the local media were those where he seemed to belittle the reaction to the level of Israeli casualties so far. But the 19-minute interview with journalists Irit Linur and Amit Segal deserves wider scrutiny.

Ya’alon is a rare beast among Likud ministers. He doesn’t pander much to the party’s hard-right membership (and has been attacked recently by backbenchers for not “unleashing the Israel Defense Forces from its restraints”). His response to the current wave of violence has been low-key, reinforcing forces in the West Bank, Jerusalem and around Gaza, but not taking drastic steps otherwise.

Though he owes his current position to Netanyahu, he has opposed him in the past – including, reportedly, over a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Ya’alon tends to say what he thinks, regardless of the consequences. In 1996, he enraged the right when, as commander of Military Intelligence, he publicly stated that Iran and the region’s radical elements would prefer that Netanyahu win in the election. The former kibbutznik, from a traditional Labor-supporting background, was initially in favor of the Oslo Accords, but then shifted rightward so much that then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fired him as IDF chief of staff when he opposed the Gaza disengagement in 2005.

He’s had his awkward moments as a right-wing politician, including when, in 2009, he called Peace Now and the (left-wing) “elites” a “virus.” Last year, he caused a diplomatic furor with the United States when he described Secretary of State John Kerry’s quixotic attempts at relaunching the diplomatic process with the Palestinians as “messianic and obsessive.”

At heart, though, he is the closest thing to a right-wing pragmatist within the Israeli leadership. Like Netanyahu, he is both secular and not particularly enamoured with the religious settler movement. Both men share the opinion that, in a tough and volatile neighborhood like the Middle East, diplomatic concessions are for fainthearted dreamers.

In last Thursday’s interview, when asked what the price of “managing the conflict” is, he described his own support of Oslo two decades ago as “naveté.”

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, pictured in the Knesset, February 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Ya’alon’s historical perspective on the conflict is worth listening to, because it’s what Netanyahu also believes, as well as being the prevailing wisdom in at least part of Israel’s security establishment.

“Our problem certainly doesn’t begin in ’67, [but] from the dawn of Zionism,” he said. “Our conflict isn’t going to be solved by a territorial compromise, because all our territorial retreats – whether in Oslo or the disengagement – ended in bloodshed. So we have a long struggle, which I call our war of independence, and it isn’t going to be solved in the next few years.”

So far, so bleak. But things are looking up, according to Ya’alon. “The good news is it’s not the Arab armies invading and trying to destroy the State of Israel; their strength has decreased in recent years. And also the Arabs’ attempts, whether with the war of terror that caused us 1,500 deaths a decade ago, or the rockets and missiles – we ultimately find the best ways to defeat the waves of terror, and this [current] one as well.”

A veteran of those wars against Arab armies and terror groups, Ya’alon gently chided Israelis’ current obsession over relatively few casualties. “In the end – like in Gaza last summer – when the dust settles you see that they paid a very heavy price and the State of Israel continues to prosper and flourish.” This is his “long-term perspective,” and he sees nothing around him to challenge that. “When this wave is also defeated and there will be various diplomatic efforts, this conflict is not going to be resolved and we have to continue to manage it in a way that serves our interests,” he added.

He believes that tensions on the Temple Mount have been used by the other side to provoke conflict since the 1920s, that nothing has changed. And he insists that the Israeli settlement blocs aren’t a reason, either. Even in the Gaza Strip, he maintains that “Jews in the [settlement] blocs shouldn’t have disturbed those who wanted coexistence.” But Ya’alon is no messianist; he doesn’t want to annex the Palestinians. The one thing he does take from the Oslo Accords is “political separation.”

“Our discourse of retreats must end, and I don’t want to rule over them – certainly not over those who live in Ramallah. I endorsed political separation, and I emphasize that to those who say we are ruling over them. We have separated from them politically. They have political independence and elect their own president and their own parliament. Two political entities.” He doesn’t try to claim that any serious Palestinian leader will ever agree to such a formulation, but this is the way it has to be.

“I don’t see a situation where we give up control of the borders of all the land of Israel. Because [if we had done that] long ago, we would have had a situation of an Iranian base, like in Gaza.” He thinks, though, that the Palestinians will eventually acquiesce for practical reasons. “Do you see a situation in which we separate economically from what is called the Palestinian entity? They rely on us.”

Not that he’s closing his eyes to the situation. Ya’alon acknowledges that there will be more terror attacks and further trouble beyond Israel’s borders. “It can come in any form, not just terror. And there are other things developing in the region that we can’t ignore, and we are acting to deter them. There’s Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamic State in Syria, Islamic State in Sinai, and there’s a not-simple reality in the Middle East in which we have to safeguard our state and allow it to live a normal life – as much as possible in this reality.”

And that is the key, he believes: Israelis living “a normal life,” despite everything. For that, Israel has “to invest in the things we know how to invest in – education, the economy, infrastructure, etc. And I look at this [terror wave] from a historical perspective. Time is playing in whose favor? In favor of whoever knows how to make the best of it. We know how to take advantage of time, and the State of Israel is flourishing [while] around us there’s a culture of death.”

Ya’alon is certain that, deep down, Israel’s neighbors, and especially its own Arab citizens, are also aware of this. “The [Israeli-Arab] public looks around and sees that the only state where you can live normally in the Middle East is the State of Israel.”

At this point, the interviewers asked whether, if this was the case, why the governments he was part of took part in the “fraud” that was negotiating with the Palestinian Authority. Ya’alon didn’t see a problem. “It’s not a question of fraud. There’s a complex situation where the international community sees things in a certain way,” and the international community must be endured – to a point. He did admit “it’s a warped concept, I regret to say. In many ways. Is the Middle East burning because of us? Once they said that. Nonsense! Whoever says that today is ridiculous, but we still hear it.”

That doesn’t mean the Netanyahu government won’t continue to humor the international community. “We truly say we are ready to sit to the table at any given moment,” he continued. “The prime minister is talking about it for six years. Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is the one fleeing, the Americans saw he escaped. So instead of blaming him, they say both sides are at fault. OK, we have to know how to deal with this and not get scared, and understand that there’s a long struggle there and mainly act in our own interests.”

The bit Ya’alon left out is how Israeli leaders believe that, with the turmoil in the Arab world, another factor working in Israel’s favor is the willingness of other regional powers to work quietly with Israel behind-the-scenes to stabilize their own situation and counter Iran’s influence. The only hint to these considerations was his answer to a question about Israeli concerns over Russia’s intervention in Syria, on the side of the Assad regime. He responded that while Russia is currently strengthening the Shi’ite axis of Iran and Hezbollah, Israel continues to ensure its interests in Syria, in coordination with the Russians. “They don’t disturb us and we don’t disturb them,” he said.

The Ya’alon (and Netanyahu) doctrine – that time is on Israel’s side; that it emerges from each conflict relatively unscathed and continues to prosper; that it is in a powerful position within a volatile region, but must not squander its advantages through foolish concessions; that diplomatic engagement is a show put on to appease the international community – disregards many other factors. It fails to take into account the toll that violence takes on Israeli society, the rising racism and savagery, and nondemocratic suppression of dissenting voices. It relies on the Palestinians ultimately accepting their third-rate status, and the Arab dictators both surviving and continuing to play along.

Matters could change quickly and radically within and around Israel, and even the international community might be shaken from its apathy. But for now this is Israel’s strategic vision, which has won Netanyahu three consecutive elections. And the Israeli left has failed to articulate an alternative vision with which to challenge it.