Moshe Ya'alon Demonstrates How Not to Run for Prime Minister of Israel

Embrace Ya’alon is getting from the center-left is politically disastrous for him Barak isn't interested in becoming the premier, just getting rid of the incumbent Netanyahu knows that calling his detractors 'leftists' boosts his chance of staying on top.

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Illustration: Ehud Barak stands on a balcony channeling Theodore Herzl; Moshe Ya'alon soars to the sky in yoga pose; Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu ride a magic carpet wearing traditional Yemenite clothing.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Lt. Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon is a soldier. In his heart, his soul and his essence. He needs a framework. Rules. Discipline. A strict schedule. Given that, he comports himself like a paragon of valor. But the minute he’s cut loose, his virtual uniform gone, his internal compass goes haywire. He comes out looking like what he really is: a human being. He plays the flute with singer Yehuda Poliker, lunches with buddies, does yoga on International Yoga Day. A photo of Ya’alon, legs crossed and palms together, shanti-like, swept the social networks earlier this week.

It’s cute, it’s human, but it’s not how you become a candidate for prime minister. In announcing his resignation as defense minister four weeks ago, Ya’alon declared he was taking a “time out.” Since then, it’s been impossible to escape him. The guy is everywhere. Every novice strategic adviser would have had him disappear for a few months and let the media conjecture about his future moves. The greater the anticipation regarding what he may have to say, the higher his value in the political market.

Nothing bad would have befallen him if he’d persisted in his silence and canceled his planned speech at the Herzliya Conference a week ago, an event in which many politicians took part. He has to set himself apart from all the others. His first public appearance after his resignation ought to have been a big media event following a long break, and not one more speech in a chain. Nor would a bit of pathos and charisma hurt. In Herzliya he sounded like a group leader in the Boy Scouts.

No wonder that Ehud Barak, whose political future is behind him, left Ya’alon standing at the gate at Herzliya. What’s worse, from Ya’alon’s point of view, is that in the eyes of the average Likudnik, he and Barak, whose speeches were presented back to back and who starred together on the TV newscasts and in the next day’s papers, merged into one entity, the spearhead of an offensive against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ya’alon, who will want to win over Netanyahu’s right-wing constituency, has to adjust his messages to those voters. The more he repeats his admirable take on the soldier who shot and killed a wounded Palestinian in Hebron and is now on trial for it, and on the issue of the Holocaust-related remarks by the deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan – the more likely he is to turn off right-wing voters. The ongoing embrace Ya’alon is getting from the center-left camp might feel good, but electorally it’s disastrous for him. For Netanyahu it’s a great blessing.

Security threat

The last time Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu met privately was a few months ago in the Prime Minister’s Residence, when the premier wanted to consult him. Until not long ago, Barak would visit often with the Netanyahus, by himself or with his partner, Nili Priel-Barak. There were dinners and cigars and intimate conversations late into the night. It is safe to assume that there will be no more such visits – not after Barak’s headline-grabbing address at the Herzliya Conference, when he declared that Netanyahu and his government had “gone off the rails” and attributed this to the prime minister’s “close circle and family.”

Barak is well acquainted with that close circle. He’s also well acquainted with the “extreme views,” as he once called them, that prevail in the family. And it’s certain that what he said, hidden in a sea of thousands of words, did not escape the attention of the relevant elements in “the family.”

Then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012.Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

Barak himself was surprised by the furor his speech stirred. He didn’t expect the noise or dozens of interview requests, local and international. With his natural modesty, he construed this not as testimony to the greatness of the speech, but as proof of the growing distress of the public, which is indeed experiencing the symptoms the former prime minister described and is frustrated by the absence of a militant opposition.

All the skeptics got the answer they waited for the next day, when Barak appeared on Channel 2’s newsmagazine, saying: “I do not intend to run for prime minister.” He preferred not to say that in Herzliya in order to keep his speech impersonal. He waited to be asked. In his view, the effectiveness of his remarks is due to that clarification of his political plans.

In private conversations this week, Barak made it clear that he doesn’t intend to let up. He will continue his campaign, his mission, to topple Netanyahu, who, in Barak’s view, is damaging the country’s security with every day he remains in office. Two example are the U.S. aid package and the reconciliation talks with Turkey. When asked about the difference between Netanyahu as he was in 2009-2013 (when Barak was his defense minister), and now, Barak makes two points: 1. Back then, in the “forum of eight,” were Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Moshe Ya’alon and himself, and while they may have disagreed about key issues (such as Iran and the Palestinians), they acted, together and separately, to prevent Netanyahu from being swept into dangerous and fantastical realms. 2. Belatedly, it appears that problematic elements in the personality and performance of the prime minister, which existed before, are now miring his government’s policies in a mixture of “pessimism, passivity, fearfulness and victimization.”

Even his critics admitted that Barak – a jet-setter, wealthy retiree and a “concerned citizen,” as he once described himself – had succeeded, in a rare center-stage appearance, to shake up the political arena and influence discourse. Above all, he generated longing for a healthy opposition. A senior Labor Party figure admitted that for a few minutes he and others on the party’s sinking ship thought that maybe Barak was the right person now. But then they snapped out of it.

The scale of Netanyahu’s panic can be gauged from the always-accurate litmus paper, the family’s mouthpiece, otherwise known as Israel Hayom. The day after Barak and Ya’alon spoke, the newspaper ran a whining article titled “Contrary to the nation’s decision,” in which the freebie’s senior writers lamented the chutzpah of those who dare to criticize the beloved leader. That’s what was written in the newspaper that was founded in 2007 with the sole purpose of toppling Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and crowning Netanyahu as his successor. This was one of the cases in which even the paper blushed.

Also instructive was the reaction of MK David Bitan, chairman of the Likud Knesset faction, the coalition whip and one of the two politicians closest to Netanyahu today, along with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin. “The Herzliya Conference has become a gathering of the extreme left,” Bitan charged, apparently unperturbed by the fact that two senior Likud ministers, Gilad Erdan and Yisrael Katz, also spoke there. That was the narrative decided on at the Balfour Street residence in Jerusalem. That’s why Netanyahu, who was supposed to be the final speaker at the conference, canceled. He wants no part of the extreme left.

Presenting the clash between two former chiefs of staff and defense ministers, and Netanyahu, as part of the war between the right and the left is a strategy that is also a tactic and vice versa. In all four election campaigns that Netanyahu has won, he was able to make the right vs. left issue the central one. In the end, Israel has more right-wingers than left-wingers.

Netanyahu was also aided by the omnipresent media headline: “Offensive of the generalim,” using the transliteration of the English “generals” rather than the Hebrew term alufim. In Likud, “generalim” equals the hated elites. As in academia, the media, cultural realms. To your average Likudnik, it sounds like a putsch: Senior officers, bleeding hearts, arrogant types – all plotting against the elected political representation. And who’s more senior than Barak and Ya’alon, along with their successors as chief of staff, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, whose names have been linked with some sort of unclear “moral-cultural” movement founded by a former senior figure in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, Shay Piron (for whom even the time of day has a “moral” aspect to it)?

Gantz is talking a lot, but it’s not certain he’s cut out for our cynical, brutal politics. For his part, Ashkenazi is the mirror image of Ya’alon. As long as he was in danger of facing criminal charges, people said he was keeping silent to stay under the radar. But the case against him was closed half a year ago and he’s still keeping silent. Meanwhile, he’s losing ground in the polls. People he spoke with before and after the case was closed, and claimed he was determined to plunge into politics, are less convinced today. At the moment it looks as though Gantz wants to but can’t, while Ashkenazi can but doesn’t want to.

But political life has its own rules, and who knows his constituents better than Netanyahu? As long as he keeps hammering home the message, via Bitan, Israel Hayom and all the rest, that the security figures who are challenging him are “lefties,” he betters his chances of coming out of this battle alive, too.

Pleasures of power

Gilad Erdan has had few moments of satisfaction in his 13 months as minister of public security. With every passing week, he discovers that he inherited a police force whose performance is problematic and whose higher command is conflicted with itself. In retrospect, he might have been better off remaining interior minister, as he was for a short time before the election.

The police commissioner, whom Erdan yanked from the Shin Bet security service, has quickly become a problem: Roni Alsheich comes across, at best, as a comic figure from a 1950s’ cop flick. At his not-best, it seems that he’s not yet grasped the nature of the organization he’s heading. His behavior projects arrogance, megalomania and disdain. Part of Erdan’s troubles are due to the fact he has to clean up after Alsheich.

The latest scandal involves an intelligence document that contains material and prima facie suspicions against dozens of MKs and ministers, including Erdan himself. On Wednesday, Erdan was called to the Knesset to respond to motions for the agenda concerning, among other issues, the case of Roni Ritman, the head of Lahav 433, the fraud investigation unit, whom Alsheich reinstated despite the sexual harassment pending against him. So much for the pleasures of power: The commissioner screws up and the responsible minister – bearing responsibility without authority, in this case – comes under fire in the Knesset. Erdan wriggled out of it somehow, but made one mistake. “It is not the duty of the Knesset to investigate the police,” he said. Wrong. That is exactly one of the duties of the parliament: to supervise closely the executive branch.

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Free agents

MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) is a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He’s also on the subcommittee for the secret services, which oversees the activity of the Mossad and the Shin Bet. After three years of service on that subcommittee, Shelah reached the conclusion that those two organizations, whose total budget (according to this newspaper) exceeds 7 billion shekels (about $1.8 billion), are not actually being supervised by the sole, exclusive individual to whom they are accountable: the prime minister. Shelah sees this as a danger to state security.

Shelah: “Even a prime minister who takes an interest in intelligence matters – and that is not Netanyahu – has hardly any time to deal with critical, complex subjects concerning the goals of activity, the internal organization and the budgets of these two organizations.” In practice, Shelah maintains, the Mossad and the Shin Bet are free agents.

For the past few years, there has been a “minister of intelligence and atomic energy,” a bombastic title that conceals zero powers. In the current government, the post is held by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who got the moonlighting gig as compensation for the fact that the written commitment he had from Netanyahu to appoint him finance minister was not honored.

On Wednesday, the Knesset discussed the Secret Services Bill, sponsored by Shelah, which is aimed at anchoring the post of minister for intelligence affairs in law and granting him a series of powers vis-a-vis the Mossad and the Shin Bet. Overall responsibility would rest with the prime minister, but he would have a long arm at his disposal.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation rejected Shelah’s bill, and he discovered that the order to do that came directly from the Prime Minister’s Bureau. In informal conversations with Likud ministers on the committee, he was told that Netanyahu would never agree to giving Katz such a big slice of security and espionage pie. “We are ready to approve the legislation,” one minister said, “on condition that you take Yisrael Katz with you.” Shelah didn’t get it: Take Katz where? To Yesh Atid? To hell?

Ironically, the person whom the cabinet secretariat sent to the Knesset rostrum to explain the coalition’s objection to the bill was none other than the minister of intelligence himself. Robot-like, he read out the explanation and left the podium, quickly, as though pursued by demons.

Riding the ethnic tiger

The alacrity with which Netanyahu reacted to the resurrection of the “lost Yemenite children” riddle from the 1950s, and the speed with which he called for declassification of the transcripts of the state commission of inquiry that examined the issue in the 1990s, instilled hope in the families who claim their children were kidnapped and put up for adoption in the early years of the state.

With his sharp antennae, Netanyahu probably sees a potential for political profit in this old affair: If it turns out that in the early ‘50s Mapai, forerunner of Labor, oversaw a plan to rob babies from parents who came to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa, and give them to childless Ashkenazi couples who were then part of the establishment – the ground here could shake. The historic hatred of Mapai would be rekindled. Mizrahim vs. Ashkenazim. The oppressed and the downtrodden vs. the well-connected and the big spenders. Right vs. left.

No politician is better at inflaming passions and widening rifts than the prime minister. Obviously the heirs of those who were then in power will be targeted. Ethnic tigers like this were invented for Netanyahu to ride. Labor is aware of this; they’re preparing for the worst. Indeed, the two MKs who are leading the public campaign to get the transcripts declassified are both from Likud: Nurit Koren and Nava Boker (who is very close to Sara Netanyahu). Nothing is accidental, and it all leads to one conclusion: in the end, Isaac Herzog will have to face his punishment.

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