Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon Can Ignite Israeli Politics’ Next Big Bang

Ya'alon can exorcise the nationalist, populist obsession that has taken over the right. He can return Israel to sanity.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon explains his resignation at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on Friday, May 20, 2016.
Moshe Ya'alon.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

In a small room in a commercial area of south Tel Aviv sits the man who could generate the next political big bang. Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon doesn’t have a minister’s office or a red telephone at the moment. With the exception of one devoted assistant he doesn’t possess the machinery that was almost always at his disposal. But he does have something he’s never had – the support of a considerable part of Israeli society.

Without a senior post and deerskin armchair, the former head of the Israel Defense Forces is politically stronger than ever. From his humble office, Ya’alon directly threatens Benjamin Netanyahu’s reign.

Netanyahu and Ya’alon ostensibly were allies. Neither believed in peace now and both tried to prevent war tomorrow. Neither thought it was possible to end the conflict but made every effort to contain it.

But about a year ago the defense minister detected that the prime minister had a pretty radical agenda – he wanted to cut down to size the legal elite, the media elite and the military elite. I won’t lend a hand to that, the minister in charge of the army told his superior. I won’t support an attack on the rule of law and the media, and I won’t let you ruin the army.

From that moment the alliance ceased to be. With increasing astonishment Ya’alon watched Netanyahu’s moral indifference and inaction in view of the lawbreakers in the West Bank, the murder-supporters in Duma and the sympathizers with the itchy trigger finger in Hebron. This is not the man I came to work with, he said. This is not the Likud party I joined. This is not the Zionism I believe in.

Ya’alon has three options. He can stay home, purge Likud or set up a new center-right movement that will run against Likud. Stay home? Of course not. His natural ambition and ideological commitment are now fired by rage (at Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin and the Familia crowd) – not to mention dread regarding the country’s fate.

Purge Likud? Ya’alon feels a deep affection for the moderate Likud people. To him, most of them aren’t partners to the fanatical insanity that has gripped their leaders. If there’s a chance to save Likud from itself, he’ll be glad to do so.

Kahlon and Ya'alon during a weekly cabinet meeting, May 4, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

A new center-right movement? According to the latest surveys, a partnership with Gideon Sa’ar, Moshe Kahlon and Gabi Ashkenazi could win more than 20 Knesset seats. With Yair Lapid and other sane forces a new alignment could fundamentally change the political map.

In the foreseeable future Ya’alon won’t provide a satisfactory answer to the left’s yearnings for peace. He doesn’t believe in Mahmoud Abbas, in a sovereign Palestinian state or in immediate, comprehensive reconciliation.

But Ya’alon could exorcize the nationalist, populist obsession that has taken over the right wing. He will replace hatred (of Arabs, leftists, LGBTs, ultra-Orthodox Jews) with a process of national unification based on mutual respect. Ya’alon will restore values and the state’s institutions, while protecting the courts, human rights and freedom of expression. As he tempers Menachem Begin’s spirit with Yitzhak Rabin’s, Ya’alon will invite the center and center-right to unite under his leadership and return Israel to sanity.

Does he have a chance? Israeli politics is brutal. Public opinion is fickle. This season’s king could be next season’s water boy. But Ya’alon has ability that could make him the igniter of a big bang. He’s the grain of sand around which diverse forces could crystallize. His seniority could convince key players to diminish themselves (for a while) and play a team game.

There’s no certainty Ya’alon will divide the land, but he may make a dramatic contribution to spark an upheaval.

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