Why Kerry Must Listen to Israel’s Skeptical Right

The U.S. should listen to 2-state skeptics and Oslo opponents who not only occupy important posts, but also represent mainstream Israeli public opinion.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

In his recent opinion piece, Reuven Pedatzur advised U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to give Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon a wide berth in any future negotiations towards advancing a two-state solution. If Kerry is serious about these discussions then, Pedatzur writes, “[Kerry] would do best to skip the leader that sits in the Defense Ministry.” In justification Pedatzur cites numerous remarks by Ya’alon expressing skepticism about the two-state solution and the feasibility of concluding an agreement with the Palestinians in this generation.

Pedatzur himself was not responsible for the article’s headline (in English): “Kerry, beware the Bogeyman”, apparently an attempt to jazz up the more staid “John Kerry, don't count on Ya’alon” in the Hebrew. However pundits on the Israeli left have been calling Ya’alon “bogeyman” (a play on his nickname, Bogey) ever since he served as Chief of Staff from 2002 -2005 and directed Operation Defensive Wall. That operation was responsible for pulverizing Yasser Arafat's terror apparatus and restoring personal security to Israel's citizens. The outcome proved that terror could be defeated militarily rather than appeased by further concessions.

Ya’alon is detested by the left for the same reason that Ehud Olmert is more reviled on the right than even former Meretz chair and Haaretz columnist Yossi Sarid —both Olmert and Ya’alon crossed the ideological aisle, albeit in opposite directions, and renounced the subculture that had reared them. Ya’alon grew up in ‘red’ Haifa and for many years was a member of Kibbutz Grofit to which he periodically returns to milk the cows.

As head of Israeli Military intelligence Ya’alon was an early backer of Oslo. His exposure to intelligence sources and his innate intellectual honesty allowed him to observe the true intentions of the Palestinians and to revise his thinking. The decisive moment came in 1996, when Prime Minister Shimon Peres dispatched him to meet Arafat and convey the demand that he arrest Mohammad Deif, the mastermind of Hamas’s suicide bomber offensive. Arafat feigned innocence and responded "Mohammad who?", undoubtedly thinking that he could sucker Ya’alon as easily as the Israeli progenitors of Oslo. Arafat was unaware that Ya’alon had incontrovertible evidence that Mohammad Deif had occupied the same chair opposite Arafat only a week previously and the two were colluding in Arafat's “good cop, bad cop” scam. Ya’alon told Peres never to dispatch him to see Arafat again.

It is precisely for this reason that Pedatzur's advice to John Kerry to ignore Ya’alon is off the mark. Kerry, in his remarks to the House Foreign Affairs committee last week, said that both Israeli and Palestinian sides have "enormous mistrust" for each other. To believe Kerry and his fellow peace processors, this mistrust is somehow irrational and based on a misperception and could be neutralized by a combination of suasion and cajolery. Ya’alon could help disabuse Kerry of this assumption. Ya’alon's pessimism is not rooted in ignorance but in a thorough understanding of the other side.

Pedatzur's advice represents one of the failings of the Oslo process: The refusal to consider the arguments of its opponents and skeptics respectfully. Taken to an extreme, an equivalency was created between them and the rejectionist Islamist terror organizations. They were mere spoilers and therefore one never encountered them in the newspapers or journals - such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Washington Post - read by the American foreign policy elite. These papers exclusively hosted what the New York Times once described as "far-sighted Israelis". Frequently the same journals that decried the "monolithic" (i.e. pro-Israeli government) approach of American Jewry to Israel and welcomed the arrival of leftist voices such as J Street were quite content to block out dissenting voices themselves.

While this discriminatory approach was always mistaken, it could have been understood in the original, heady days of Oslo when the negotiations commanded a healthy majority in Israeli public opinion, and Yossi Sarid could boast that Oslo's opponents would be excluded from power for generations unless they changed their tune. Ya’alon's views- as even Barack Obama conceded in his Jerusalem address -represent the mainstream of Israeli public opinion. Ya’alon and the majority of Israelis cannot be bypassed.

Pedatzur's counsel to Kerry also reflects frustration with a unique situation that has arisen in Israeli political history: A Likud Prime Minister who is more dovish than either his foreign or defense minister. Historically, the situation was usually the reverse: Menachem Begin had Ezer Weizman and Moshe Dayan. Yitzhak Shamir had Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in their unity government, and then David Levy when that government broke up. The first Netanyahu government also had Levy as foreign minister and the previous Netanyahu government had Ehud Barak as Defense Minister. When frustrated with an Israeli Prime Minister, the Americans sought to establish an alternative axis based on his more malleable senior colleagues.

As Ya’alon currently holds the Defense Ministry while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is held in trust by Zeev Elkin (pending the outcome of Avigdor Lieberman's trial), the traditional strategy is checkmated. This perhaps explains the interest in Yair Lapid and even the decision to promote Lapid and relegate Netanyahu from Time Magazine's premier league of 100 influentials. The more malleable bypass road now presumably runs via the Ministry of Finance.

Kerry should not indulge in such fantasies. Lapid has a full plate with the economy. Shimon Peres, although he frequently oversteps his role as a strictly ceremonial president, does not offer an alternative. As American policy in the region has been neither stellar nor consistent nor brought real results, Kerry could even profit by grappling with discordant views.

Dr. Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

The separation fence as it passes through Qalqilyah. Credit: Alex Levac
Moshe Ya'alon.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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