Was Leaving Likud the Mistake of Moshe Ya'alon's Life? An Interview With Israel's Ex-defense Minister

Moshe Ya'alon wants to be Israel's next prime minister, but his path to the top is unclear. He explains how his close ties with Netanyahu soured, and why he didn't expose the submarine scandal

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Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.
Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.Credit: Yanai Yechiel
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

He’ll deny it vehemently, and his spokesperson reports that volunteers are streaming in large numbers to the offices of the Association for Alternative Leadership, in Tel Aviv’s upscale Ramat Hahayal neighborhood – but Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon is in a bind. He’s crisscrossing the country, appearing at numerous parlor meetings and Saturday-morning public events, talking to high-school students – but he doesn’t seem to be on the way to the destination he’s aiming for.

And where is that?

“I won’t be satisfied with myself if I don’t try to reach the highest position of responsibility,” Ya’alon says. His ambition to become prime minister is motivated by the “national interest,” and not, heaven forbid, by personal considerations. Israel is in need of his experience. In the meantime, he and his spokesperson confirm that in the past few months they have asked pollsters not to include them in public opinion surveys.

Asked if he regrets leaving Likud, he says: "I've reached a few conclusions on the political level, and I say this with sadness. The two major parties, Likud and Labor, have become to a large extent a burden on their leaders."

Ya’alon is talking about double-digit Knesset seats, numbers that will accrue once he reveals his slate of candidates – but he, too, realizes that he will have to hook up with another party to achieve what he wants: “Part of what I’m doing these days, in addition to stumping the country so people can get to know me, is meeting with heads of political movements, party leaders, to see what the common denominator can be.”

Ya'alon and Lapid in 2016.Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

He’s negotiating with all kinds of candidates about possible cooperation, chiefly Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid and Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay. Sources in Ya’alon’s circle say that he doesn’t hold the former in high regard and doesn’t think the latter has very good prospects, either within the party – known for serially dumping its leaders – or among the general public. There’s also speculation that Ya’alon, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, is seeking some sort of cooperation with another former chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi; is wielding moderate pressure on yet another ex-chief of staff, Benny Gantz, to join him; and is at the same time contemplating a hookup with MK Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party, which is currently Labor’s partner in Zionist Union.

Joining forces with someone generates two options: either to be their No. 2 or to enter into a leadership rotation agreement. I don’t see someone like Yair Lapid saying, “Come on, Bogie, be No. 1 on the slate.”

Ya’alon: “In my opinion, there’s no relevant person in the arena who has my experience. I hear Lapid and Gabbay arguing over who has greater experience, who less. With me they don’t argue.”

'There’s a rule in Likud. You go with whoever gets you into power. At the moment, [Netanyahu’s] holding power. But at some point, that’s going to collapse.'

What constituency are you targeting? You don’t speak Likud language, because Likud today is Bibi-ist and also very much against the rule of law, whose defender you are positioning yourself to be. You no longer speak settler lingo, and you don’t talk leftist parlance. So, whom are you trying to appeal to?

“I am a state-oriented security hawk. And I think that the state-oriented right wing”

Is there enough electoral flesh there?

“Look, I’m traveling around the country. Within the national-religious public, there’s harsh criticism of the way the line’s been crossed between national and nationalist, and in some cases even racist, to the point where it’s not Jewish. In Likud I’m getting satisfaction: [Members of] the Herut group [referring to Likud’s precursor] are already coming out with open criticism. And in terms of state orientation, the rule of law, incorruptibility – they are openly critical. I offer them an alternative.”

Is it possible that Likud, where you initially succeeded quite well, ultimately ejected you because you have different DNA?

“Look, I felt great in Likud of 2009, including in the party’s branches. And it’s not that I wasn’t critical.”

The branches produced people like [Culture Minister] Miri Regev and [MKs] David Bitan and David Amsalem. These are people whom you are criticizing today.

“That’s true. In part. When I look at Likud as a whole, the majority longs for Menachem Begin. When I brought in Benny Begin, when I asked Bibi to guarantee him a place on the slate in 2015, people stood and applauded. They miss that.”

Ya’alon’s first power play was the right-wing rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square against corruption – or, in plain Hebrew: the rightist demonstration organized by journalist and historian Yoaz Hendel against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 23. At the scheduled time, very few people had gathered in the deepening Jerusalem cold. Ya’alon’s spokesperson saw an eccentric-looking woman playing a flute in the empty plaza, and the look on his face betrayed apprehension. A few minutes before the start of the demonstration, people began to stream in. The demonstration was not a humiliation, but it was far from a mass event.

The right-wing anti-corruption protest in Jerusalem, December 23, 2017. The sign says 'be humble.'Credit: Emil Salman

Were you satisfied with the size of the crowd?

“After all the battles fought by the Prime Minister’s Bureau, which worked overtime against this marginal event, after all the briefings and threats, I was satisfied.”

You were demonstrating against the prime minister. Did you expect his party to bus in people to join the protest?

“They tried to present it as though the left wants to topple a nationalist government. What’s that about? Can’t there be a national-oriented government that isn’t corrupt? I hear people who say they want to preserve the government by force, and are ready to forgo the matter of honesty and just carry on as usual. Take the rabbis, for example, who give their support to these things [improprieties], because now they’re milking the system. What kind of [behavior] is that? Once they understand, however, that it’s going to be a burden and not an asset – the story of the prime minister and his investigations – they will immediately wake up. It will be a process of collapse.”

Yet in the latest poll Likud showed [support equivalent to] 25 seats, which isn’t all that bad.

“There’s a rule in Likud. You go with whoever gets you into power. That’s the rule. So at the moment, [Netanyahu’s] holding power. But at some point, that’s going to collapse. So I wouldn’t count on these things, or on the immoral behavior of those who are hanging on to power and are ready to carry on as usual.”

Ya’alon possesses several clear-cut and undeniable advantages in the political market. Not only the series of security posts he held and the experience he accumulated, but also image assets such as integrity and thoroughness.

“Bogie has three very prominent qualities,” says Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, a former head of the National Security Council, whose path crossed Ya’alon’s during their military service. “First, he’s so straight, he’s a square. Second, he’s terribly thorough and deep. Third, he’s not arrogant and he’s more attentive to people than others who want to be prime minister.”

Ya'alon 'has a serious problem: He takes things personally, he’s easily offended,' says a senior cabinet minister.

Still, some who have encountered Ya’alon at various junctions observe other patterns of behavior. For example, they note that he gets insulted at the drop of a hat and repeatedly clashes with those around him over ego-related issues. “He has a serious problem: He takes things personally, he’s easily offended,” says a senior cabinet minister who worked with Ya’alon in the past. “Every place he leaves – he’s had beefs with everyone. Maybe you have a problem working with people?”

Another pattern, according to various sources, involves narratives that Ya’alon presents in retrospect, generally after being ousted or getting into a wrangle. “Bogie has a kind of permanent mode of making retroactive accusations. Always in tandem with the exposure of corrupt action,” the same minister adds.

Ya’alon accused Ariel Sharon and his aides of spearheading the Gaza withdrawal in 2005 for reasons that were corrupt. But political and military sources who were core players at the time maintained, and continue to maintain, that Ya’alon became a fierce opponent of the disengagement mainly after his term as chief of staff was not extended for a fourth year, which happened because of his poor relations with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

He accused Ehud Olmert and then-Chief of Staff Dan Halutz of executing the final ground maneuver in the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, for basically corrupt reasons – once he had the impression that they were trying to pin the blame for the army’s failure in the war on his term as chief of staff.

Now he accuses Netanyahu of having fired him from his post as defense minister for inappropriate reasons – namely, for his having tried to stop the submarine deal with Germany (which is now under police investigation).

Netanyahu and Ya'alon in 2015.Credit: Haim Zach, GPO.

Even earlier, after the death of Yitzhak Rabin, he tangled with Shimon Peres, Rabin’s successor, whom he accuses of sweeping under the carpet the problems of Yasser Arafat’s credibility during the Oslo process. And he’s also not especially fond of Ehud Barak, who didn’t appoint him commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit decades ago.

“When he’s angry and distressed, he has no problem presenting a truth that is very subjective,” says a senior political source who worked with Ya’alon. “In cases like those he’s a funnel of bitterness.”

I ask Ya'alon: It’s been your lot to be affronted by many people, right?

“It has nothing to do with being affronted. I don’t like it when people lie. I don’t like people cheating. Tell the truth. Tell the truth.”

I see a frequent pattern in which you leave a very central position under unpleasant circumstances and only then voice criticism. During the disengagement, for example. More than one person says that you didn’t object in real time, but then used the issue to build a career.

“I was against it in the discussions. What does ‘retroactively’ mean? In the discussions themselves. I was also able to explain [my approach]. Fine, my opinion isn’t always accepted: not my opinion as chief of staff, not my opinion as director of Military Intelligence and not my opinion as defense minister. In the end, it’s a democracy. Fine. I too have the right to look at things in retrospect and say what I think.”

Even during the Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, you told me that one of the things that caused the war was the re-arrest [by Israel] of [Palestinians] who had been released in the Shalit deal. You were defense minister at the time. Naftali Bennett, who pressed for the move, was merely the minister of economy and industry. How is that his viewpoint overrode yours?

“That’s something you should ask Bibi, alright? Listen, in the end it’s politics. I wouldn’t have initiated it, let’s put it like that. In real time, I still didn’t see it as something all that serious, but in retrospect I understood that it caused a deterioration in the situation. Still, I wouldn’t have raised the issue at all.

“But I saw how, even though a way was being prepared to transfer salaries to public employees in Gaza, [then-Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman came to him [Netanyahu] privately, and it was torpedoed. [Ya’alon is referring to Israel prohibiting the transfer of salaries to Hamas activists in the period before the war]. And I don’t say that in retrospect. I fought for it in real time. But in the end, it’s the prime minister who decides. The security cabinet decided a great many things contrary to my view. There were other events in Protective Edge, in which ministers engaged in politicking, regrettably, and I fought that as it happened. Including, in the end, the cease-fire. There were ministers who didn’t want the cease-fire in the end.”

‘Likud left me’

Ya’alon, whose attitude toward the Palestinians is described by many observers as something of a fixation, is now trying to position himself as the successor to Yitzhak Rabin – the same Rabin who recognized the accursed Arafat and armed the Palestinian Authority. “Peres,” he says, “together with [Yossi] Beilin and their crowd, which didn’t include a single Arab-world specialist, created Oslo, brought it to [Rabin] as a done deal and manipulated him.”

Although, Ya’alon, 67, denies it, there’s a distance between him and the Ya’alon of a decade ago – a recently retired chief of staff who was furious at Sharon and his “ranch forum” and joined Likud’s most extreme right-wing circles in a storm.

Is it possible that after the transformation you underwent as director of Military Intelligence in the 1990s, you were frightened at the posture of the right in general and Likud in particular, and underwent a counter-transformation?

Moshe Ya'alon visits a factory in Sderot that was hit by a rocket during the 2014 Gaza war.Credit: \ Ilan Assayag

“No. I remained the same. It’s Likud that left me. The Likud I came to displayed a hawkish political-security position, but was state-oriented. Did anyone dare to raise a voice against the rule of law then? You had Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan and Ruvi Rivlin, Limor Livnat – it was self-evident [that they were for the rule of law]. After the 2015 election, I already saw a drastic change in Bibi. Not in the movement – in Bibi. The brakes were gone. Suddenly attacks on the media, on the courts, on civil servants”

You yourself stated in 2009, in a meeting organized by Moshe Feiglin [who later became an ultranationalist Likud MK], “The media itself and other elements – call them elitist – are influencing the Israeli public dialogue in a twisted, lying, manipulative manner Their power extends to influencing prime ministers A situation has been created here of power centers with authority but without responsibility This isn’t democracy The media is one such center, the Supreme Court is one such center.”

“I didn’t live from that, I didn’t live from that the way he did. And when I was critical of the Supreme Court, of judicial activism, I spoke out. I emphasized an attitude of respect toward the court, not an attitude of delegitimization. Not every critique is incitement.”

To call Peace Now a “virus,” as you did in that same meeting, isn’t incitement?

“That was a deliberate manipulation of what I said. I’ll tell you what happened there. I come to a meeting in Jerusalem, at the very outset of my political path. And suddenly I discover Feiglin and [his aide] Michael Puah there. It turned out that Jewish Leadership [Feiglin’s group] was holding a public meeting there. Alright. I speak there the way I do on the subject, and ask how it can be, in the light of everything that’s happening in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, that people still think it’s possible to achieve peace now. And I say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it’s natural, who doesn’t want peace? I don’t want peace? After all, it nestles in each of us like a virus.’ In other words, something positive.”

'When we talk about peace, it’s inconceivable to talk about an area free of Jews or free of Arabs.'

Former MK Feiglin has a different take. “Bogie Ya’alon ardently courted the Jewish Leadership group in Likud," he says. "We invited him to a meeting and he accepted willingly. He appeared with us on the stage and he knew exactly where he was. The claim that he suddenly discovered that we were there doesn’t surprise me – this person is far from being as honest as he’s made out to be.”

You called the Breaking the Silence organization “traitors.”

Ya’alon: “I didn’t say they’re traitors. That’s a manipulation, too.”

You said, “Whether the use made of it [the material about means of combat that the organization collects] is external – if the material is disseminated outside, that’s treason. If they only keep it for themselves – that, too.” This isn’t the crassest distortion that can be made of someone’s remarks.

“I have said from every platform that I am ready to defend their right to speak. I am not willing to have foreign governments fund them. I barred them from entering [army bases], because I discovered that their agenda is not [to promote] the army’s moral character, but rather to fight the occupation. But I will defend their right to speak and to exist as a nonprofit organization.

“Now, when you take that literally, as people did with what I said about Elor Azaria [the soldier who shot and killed a wounded Palestinian assailant after he was disarmed] – it can be manipulative. To say that I accused him of murder? You read that in the social media and your blood boils.”

In that 2009 meeting with Feiglin you said, “From my standpoint, Jews can and should live eternally everywhere in the Land of Israel When we say an ‘illegal settlement,’ the very use of the word ‘illegal’ is an extremely sharp term that indicates clearly that we are ostensibly forgoing this territory. There is no such thing as an illegal settlement.” Today you speak differently, saying that we don’t need to settle on every hilltop.

“I did not legitimize any illegal settlement – not when I was chief of staff, not when I was head of Central Command and not when I was commander of the Judea and Samaria Division. Check it out. What I said was in relation to what the world says – [namely, that] Gilo, Ma’aleh Adumim, Ramot are also ‘illegal settlements’ [referring to two Jerusalem neighborhoods across the Green Line and an urban settlement, Ma’aleh Adumim, east of Jerusalem]. It’s in that context that I argue that there’s no such thing. We have the right today to make a decision even to settle on every hilltop. I think that would be a mistake; and if someone does it on their own, it’s illegal under Israeli law.”

You’re being coy. A large number of settlements started with someone placing a mobile home in some outpost – and the next thing you know there’s a new neighborhood. That’s the way the settlement project works.

“Okay, so here I agree with you. I agree with you. I didn’t hold a position that carried responsibility at the time, but – check it out – if someone tried to place a mobile home illegally, I was there. I removed it.”

What would you like to see – more settlers, fewer settlers, have the situation remain as it is?

“Look, I don’t want to reach a situation in which a single Jew or a single Arab is evacuated from their home. When we talk about peace, it’s inconceivable to talk about an area free of Jews or free of Arabs.”

Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

I still don’t understand whether you’re in favor of bolstering the settlements or not. When new immigrants are brought in, is it just fine to settle them in [the northern West Bank settlement of] Elkana, for example?

“There too. Why not? There’s room in Ma’aleh Adumim, there’s room in Ariel, there’s room in the Etzion Bloc and in Efrat [all West Bank settlement sites]. Why not? Now, I see it also from a security perspective. Where we have no Jews living, we also don’t operate there militarily. And what happens to us in a situation like the one you can see in Gaza.”

On the assumption that you have all the security guarantees needed, and that your assessment, as an army person, is that no danger is posed to Israel – could you accept a Palestinian state?

“As far as I’m concerned, they can call themselves the Palestinian empire or kingdom. But it has to be a demilitarized autonomous area with light arms for enforcing law and order, internal security. Overall security responsibility is ours.”

What I’m trying to understand is whether you believe that we need to hold onto the West Bank only for security, or also for religious and historical reasons.

“No, no, no. Absolutely not. That’s not where I am. That’s why I say, [this isn’t the time for a] final-status agreement, but I don’t want a binational state, and in the end, if there is an achievement from Oslo, it’s their political independence.”

Are you disappointed in the settlers? You did a great deal for them, in every post you held. You favored the settlements.

“Today too. Today too. Those who act according to the law and according to the policy.”

In the end, it was the settlers who concocted the deal that got you kicked out of the Defense Ministry.

'I very much hope that Netanyahu will not form the next government'

“Look, I don’t relate to that in terms of disappointment. From my standpoint, there is a path. First of all, sovereignty, the government. I am not Turkish rule and I am not British rule. You don’t need a stockade and watchtower [referring to pre-1948 settlement tactics by the Jewish community in Palestine] when there is a government in Israel.”

A victim of developments?

It’s hard to find anyone in the political arena, even among Ya’alon’s supporters, who agrees with his assessment that he was ousted from the government in 2016 for reasons related to the submarines affair (an alleged corruption scandal involving Israel’s purchase of submarines and boats from Germany, and now under police investigation). A widespread view is that Ya’alon simply fell victim to political developments, that under pressure from the right wing and the settlers, who were fearful that Zionist Union might enter the government, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party was hustled into the coalition instead, and Ya’alon was hustled out of the Defense Ministry.

You say that in February 2016 you clashed with the prime minister over the submarines, and this, you claim, paved your way out of the government. But how was it, for example, that in the acquisition from [German corporation] ThyssenKrupp of the four naval vessels intended to secure Israel’s offshore gas drilling sites, among other things – when the international bidding was terminated and the deal via Michael Ganor [who has since turned state’s evidence] was signed in May 2015, how did you not see then that something was amiss?

“I don’t want to turn this into the thrust of the article, I really don’t. It already looks like I’m obsessing about it.”

You yourself say constantly that you were kicked out of the government over that issue, so it’s a legitimate point to raise.

“What I can tell you is that in February 2016, when I discover that the prime minister intends to sign a memorandum of understanding with the [German] chancellor for three submarines and two antisubmarine boats, without discussing the matter with me [as defense minister], without discussing it with the defense establishment – the whole thing blows up.”

But I’m asking about earlier matters. You were defense minister from 2013. How do you as defense minister fail to notice the kind of serious corruption you allege, taking place under your nose?

“It’s a long story. I really don’t want to get into it, because it’s still under investigation, and there are things that I won’t discuss publicly. Let’s say I had suspicions, and he [Netanyahu] denies them. It’s a very serious suspicion, but I blocked the deal – that’s the thing.”

After you were removed from the Defense Ministry, the deal to purchase three submarines was approved by the security cabinet.

“I’ll tell you what was explained to the security cabinet: that these are three new subs that will replace the old ones. Now, if that’s right, what’s the urgency? The next submarine we’ll need to replace the next aging one will be in 2029-2030. Can I tell you something? Whether these subs are an addition or for replacement purposes, the commission [paid to the middleman] is the same commission.”

Netanyahu on board the INS Rahav, the fifth submarine in the fleet, after it arrived in the Haifa port January 12, 2016.Credit: \ BAZ RATNER /REUTERS

Yes, but attending that security cabinet meeting are the chief of staff and the director general of the Defense Ministry, and not only the defense minister who replaced you in order to get the deal approved, as you claim. And they welcome the deal.

“Because it’s explained to everyone that it has to be wrapped up quickly, because the chancellor might not win the 2017 election, so it’s best to wrap it up now. There are no longer two antisubmarine boats – they were dropped as fast as they came up, because I caught him [Netanyahu] red-handed.”

I don’t get it. Is the chief of staff dumb? He welcomes the deal in the security cabinet even though he’s being sold a bill of goods?

“Because it’s explained to him that it’s submarines that will be replaced, so what does he care? That’s alright. He doesn’t want more than five submarines in total, according to his approach. The fact that the discussion is being moved up in a way that – with the excuse that maybe she [Angela Merkel] won’t win the election – was unacceptable to me, but what can he do? He’s not the defense minister. And the other security cabinet members, do they understand anything about the subject? They are pliant. They are also not familiar with everything that happened before.”

A senior figure in the Justice Ministry says of Ya’alon’s allegations about the submarines: “He was contacted two or three times in the wake of what he told the media. To the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t have a smoking gun, a document of some sort. A bombshell. He has all kinds of conclusions that he reached, and possibly he’s not wrong. But it’s impossible to back up his conclusions with evidence.”

To which Ya’alon responds: “I’m aware of all kinds of spins on this subject. I have plenty of questions about the investigations in general, certainly about Case 3000 [the submarines investigation], but I’m waiting for the end. I gave testimony back in December 2016, and I saw that the investigators were doing serious work. There was a period when people said there’s nothing here, there was a spin to the effect that the testimony was gossip and rumors, but suddenly someone turns state’s evidence and suddenly the prime minister’s circle is under investigation – so let’s wait for it to come to its end.”

Are you satisfied with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s performance? You appointed him military advocate general when you were chief of staff.

“I’ll ask the questions when the [investigatory] process concludes. I have accumulated questions. I will ask them at the end of the process.”

You describe a lengthy period of continuing to work with red lights flashing in connection with Netanyahu and the submarines. Why did you remain in the government in that situation?

“And if I had left – what then? Our situation would have been better?

Ten days before you were ousted, you said in a radio interview that you have high regard for Netanyahu, high regard for his policy. That’s not the kind of language you use about someone whom you’ve caught behaving improperly, as you say.

“I draw a distinction. You didn’t hear me praise him for his stance in the Elor Azaria episode.

For quite a few years, Ya’alon worked close to Netanyahu, or in his words, “held his hand.” During the 2014 Gaza war, they decided that, come what may, “not so much as a pin will come between us.” They functioned together in the face of a shrill security cabinet that did not balk at political maneuvers and incited the right-wing electorate. The deterioration of relations between them occurred in record time. Ya’alon’s version of the developments revolves around the issue of the submarines, but other substantial causes were his backing of Maj. Gen. Golan and the Elor Azaria case.

“I was at his side starting in 2009,” he says of the premier. “Even when [Ehud] Barak was defense minister, I was at his side. I was constantly at his side at the closest possible level, to ensure that no mistakes were made. And I’m pleased that I was there. Because I know what was liable to happen on the Iran issue and on other issues. I made possible a stable decision-making process, without political fears or political considerations. I was ready to pay the price in Operation Protective Edge in order to avoid nonsense and avoid conquering Gaza, for example.

“What disturbs me today is that there is no one there. I also see that everyone has become a defense minister. Besides Lieberman, who officially is defense minister. You have [Education Minister] Bennett who’s defense minister, [Transportation Minister] Yisrael Katz who’s defense minister, [Housing Minister] Yoav Galant who’s defense minister. Who isn’t? They all express themselves on security irresponsibly. And where is the prime minister to tell them to shut up?”

Do you think Israel’s citizens are in danger under Lieberman? That’s not the general feeling.

“The people of Israel can judge the man by his behavior in other positions, such as the way he performed as foreign minister during Operation Protective Edge. As long as what guides the decision-making process is the IDF’s recommendations... And that’s what’s happening now. [Chief of Staff] Gadi Eisenkot is a very important person, and others in the General Staff are very important.”

Is there a scenario in which you hook up with Netanyahu in the future, join his government?

“I will not speculate. I very much hope that he will not form the next government.”

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