The White House hazing suffered by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon as he landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on Friday should surprise no one, least of all Ya’alon. One cannot humiliate and insult senior officials of the U.S. administration and expect the red carpet to be rolled out at the Department of State, or the door to the Oval Office to be opened.
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Yet Ya’alon was surprised. He thought U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had forgotten that Ya’alon had called him “messianic and obsessive.” He thought that senior White House officials had forgiven him for preaching that the United States is showing weakness all over the world, and that American assistance to Israel should be seen “in proportion.”
Ya’alon’s remarks to the Washington Post before the public humiliation showed the extent to which he is detached from reality. He tried to convey that it was business as usual, and said he and Kerry had overcome the crisis. Twenty-four hours later, that sounded like a bad joke.
Ironically, it was U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who strengthened Ya’alon’s misreading of the terrain. Instead of explaining to his Israeli counterpart how much anger had accumulated against him in the corridors of the U.S. administration, Hagel embraced and kissed Ya’alon in front of the cameras.
After each of Ya’alon’s insulting remarks that further increased tensions between Jerusalem and Washington this summer, the defense minister published weak follow-up statements. But the U.S. administration made clear to Ya’alon more than once in recent months – both in public and privately – that he had to publicly and unequivocally apologize. But Ya’alon preferred to ignore the warning and to regard the crisis as a minor and transitory nuisance. To this day, he has not truly apologized.
This week, when Ya’alon returns to his office in the Kirya [defense HQ] in Tel Aviv, he should invite over one of his predecessors, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who can tell him from personal experience what he must do. A leak from a 2002 meeting between Ben-Eliezer and Vice President Dick Cheney during media interviews turned Ben-Eliezer into persona non grata in Washington.
Ben-Eliezer had to send a personal letter of apology to Cheney; apologize over the phone to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Elliott Abrams; and subject himself to a few months’ cooling-off period, during which he did not go to Washington. Only then, after a meeting with Cheney when the latter came to Israel, was the embargo on Ben-Eliezer lifted.
Ya’alon is trying to play down the significance of the boycott against him. At every opportunity he mentions his good relations with Hagel and the fact that his really important meetings were with the defense secretary. But Hagel could not save him when the White House stopped the delivery of Hellfire missiles to Israel during Operation Protective Edge. If Ya’alon really thought that was a bureaucratic snafu, he was wrong.
Ya’alon’s poor conduct has made him one of the only Israeli defense ministers ever to be ostracized by the American administration. And when an Israeli defense minister is ostracized, that means real damage to national security. Until he apologizes, he will not be a legitimate partner for dialogue with any senior official except Hagel.
Ya’alon has managed to do the impossible and make quite a few people long for Ehud Barak’s years as defense minister. Barak had many faults, but he made a decisive contribution when it came to ties with the United States. In his meetings with President Barack Obama, he corrected quite a lot of the damage caused by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his close advisers.
Today, there is no one to smooth things over with the White House. Ties between Netanyahu and Obama are bad; Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, is on the outs; and now the defense minister is being given the cold shoulder. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has good ties with Kerry, but no more than that. The White House may like Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, but knows these two cannot deliver the goods. Thus, Israel has no effective channels of communication with the administration. With all critical diplomatic and security issues on the agenda, that is a great worry indeed.