Israeli Defense Minister's Days Were Numbered After Hebron Shooting in March

Moshe Ya'alon went out on the attack on Friday, but the falling out with the prime minister over the military made his demise inevitable.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon leaves the podium where he announced an end to his political career.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon leaves the podium where he announced an end to his political career.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Only journalists, a few bureau staffers and a handful of ministry employees showed up on Friday to hear the resignation statement by Moshe Ya’alon, announcing his departure from the Defense Ministry and public life (the latter temporarily). Appropriately enough for an essentially political event, there were no uniforms on hand. The military will bid farewell to the defense minister in a brief official ceremony on Sunday.

Like in his speech at a Independence Day ceremony last Sunday, Ya’alon addressed some issues relating to state affairs in Friday’s announcement. These included the state’s security and well-being; the rule of law; and the preservation of democratic principles.

In this instance, however, released from the burden of faux unity with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, some sharp political statements were also included. There was a direct attack on Netanyahu’s performance, with Ya’alon claiming the premier had chosen to set different segments of society against each other. He expressed concern for the future of the country, and declared that he would return to run for leadership in the future.

His words made clear that rumors that he was concerned for his political future were unfounded. The seam line delineating the dispute between Ya’alon and Netanyahu has been evident for nearly two months – chiefly since the incident in Hebron when an Israeli soldier fatally shot a subdued Palestinian assailant.

As the aftermath of that incident unfolded in the media, Ya’alon consistently expressed views that placed him closer to the center-left – in sharp contrast to the prime minister’s stance.

Last week’s events, which saw coalition negotiations occurring on two parallel tracks, now seem more like improvisation than a planned maneuver. The prime minister had one objective – to expand the coalition. He was willing to get there in one of two ways: by adding either Zionist Union or Yisrael Beiteinu. In both cases, running the Defense Ministry was part of the dowry. One can assume that when Ya’alon heard the Defense Ministry was on offer, he understood that he had no more business with Netanyahu, even when, at the eleventh hour, he was offered the Foreign Ministry.

Minutes after Ya’alon concluded his speech, the automatic responder at the Prime Minister’s Office (better known as “Sources close to the prime minister”) announced that it was “interesting” that Ya’alon only lost confidence in Netanyahu after learning that his portfolio was being taken from him. In reality, the trust ended in March when Netanyahu phoned the father of Sgt. Elor Azaria, the “Hebron soldier” now being tried for manslaughter.

Relations deteriorated further when they disagreed about Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan’s Holocaust Remembrance Day speech, comparing modern Israeli society to Nazi Germany.

Ya’alon hoped Netanyahu had no real political alternative to replace him with, and tried to get the army brass to convince Netanyahu to limit their increasingly frequent public spats. But when he realized Netanyahu was set on deposing him, Ya’alon had no choice but to resign. Remaining would have turned him into another Yuval Steinitz, a “street sweeper” in the brutal words of the defense minister’s bureau a few days earlier. In an exceptional move, Ya’alon will not even make a pretense of overlapping with Lieberman, who will assume office later this week.

As for Lieberman, the unusually vicious attacks against his appointment continued over the weekend. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in an interview with Channel 10 TV, highlighted the harsh words of ex-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein against Lieberman (when he decided not to appeal Lieberman’s acquittal over fraud and breach of trust charges), saying every cabinet member should read that document.

Scene from a video released on March 24, 2016 by B'Tselem showing IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria aiming his weapon before shooting in the head and killing a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron.Credit: AFP

On Channel 2, veteran military analyst Roni Daniel stated that recent events had made him question whether he wants his children to live in Israel. Claims that he only said that because his favorite minister had been deposed are untrue, since I heard him say the very same words a week earlier, when he said the Hebron shooting and the attacks on Golan evoked those sentiments.

Even if several members of the General Staff share Daniel’s views, we won’t hear this in the near future. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot will ensure that work with the new minister will commence in an orderly fashion.

Observers of Lieberman’s behavior in previous ministerial posts say there will be a gap between his hawkish declarations while in the opposition, and his moves once the responsibility rests on his shoulders. The immediate potential for friction between the minister and his generals lies in the latter’s public statements and the guidelines for when to open fire. After the furor caused by Golan’s speech, Eisenkot will enforce tight control over his officers. The test will come if a similar shooting incident occurs.

Close strategic coordination will be required between Netanyahu, Lieberman and Eisenkot to avoid wrong moves that could heat up the Gaza or Lebanon fronts. Circumstances in Gaza are particularly sensitive, following the detection of two Hamas tunnels reaching into Israel. On both fronts, it seems Israeli deterrence is working.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah again emphasized that Israel was not responsible for the mysterious death of its senior commander in Syria, while Hamas has been trying to contain tensions around IDF operations on the Gazan side of the fence. However, things could change rapidly – and from this week on, it’s Lieberman’s problem, not Ya’alon’s.

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