The Political Dilemma Facing Israel's Defense Minister

The new strategic danger Ya’alon sees is the danger from within. The populistic right-wing’s anarchistic attack on the state, the army and state institutions has become the central threat to Israeli sovereignty.

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Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

Every person has the right to one weird hobby. My weird hobby is asking people who have come into contact with Israelis in power which of the people they met they consider serious. Which of the state’s senior officials is doing his work intelligently and responsibly?

I posed my hobby question to a very intelligent man at a garden party a few years ago. The man, who had come from the diaspora to navigate Israel’s economy and whose political positions are pretty dovish, was silent and thoughtful for a long while until an atypical smile spread across his face. Bogie, he said, referring to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Ya’alon’s worldview is not mine, but he’s the only one in the cabinet who does his homework properly. The former chief of staff doesn’t do a sloppy job and doesn’t fake it. He isn’t one of the guys and he doesn’t kiss and tell. Ya’alon is a true patriot, who works quietly and persistently for the good of the state.

The answer didn’t surprise me. I’ve been following Ya’alon for 15 years and am familiar with his advantages and flaws. In many ways, Ya’alon is unusual in the Israeli political scenery. He is rigid, awkward, erudite, opinionated and obstinate. It’s hard for him to be in public and difficult for him to make the public like him. He lacks the pally, shoulder-slapping lightness and he is profoundly serious.

But, unlike his image, Ya’alon is a creative man who thinks outside the box. He is not subject to any ideological paradigm or tribal example. He has no political corruption or burning desire to please and win a headline. Both the defense minister’s insights and mistakes are the result of deep, interesting thought processes.

This is why for a very long time there was something very frustrating about Ya’alon. He’s not stupid, not messianic and certainly not racist. So how come he found himself between Yariv Levin and Miri Regev? What is he doing in the Likud central committee? And how has he become the perpetuator of the occupation and the defender of the settlements?

The answer is: The Palestinians. The trauma Ya’alon experienced as head of Military Intelligence during the Oslo process and as chief of staff during the second intifada made him lose all trust in the neighboring nation, with whom we share the land. Yasser Arafat turned the man who used to be a Rabin follower into a Likudnik. The anger at the partner who failed him and at those Israelis who continued to stick to the partner who failed made Ya’alon fly off the handle and led him into the right-wing.

But something fundamental has changed over the past year. The minister in charge of the occupation greenhouse started seeing what kind plants were growing in his greenhouse. The murder at Duma shook Ya’alon. So did the way the settlers' leadership misled him and deceived him, protecting those who carried out hate attacks on Palestinians and peace activists. Gradually, the dairy farmer from Kibbutz Grofit became ripe for a move counter to the one he had made in the previous decade.

As far as Ya’alon is concerned, the Palestinians are the same Palestinians and the danger of withdrawal is the same as it was, but the Jews are no longer the same Jews. The settlers have changed, the Likudniks have changed and Facebook belongs to Arab-hating soccer fans like La Familia.

The new strategic danger Ya’alon sees is the danger from within. The populistic right-wing’s anarchistic attack on the state, the army and state institutions has become the central threat to Israeli sovereignty.

In contrast to other politicians, Ya’alon is no rating weathercock. After the shooting incident in Hebron, he had the courage to say what needed to be said. But the consequences of that penetrating statement could be far-reaching. Ya’alon, without planning it or meaning to, has burned his bridges. He no longer has a political future in the current Likud. The only way open to him is to carry out an upheaval in Likud, or generate a big bang outside Likud and return to the way of Yitzhak Rabin.