Why Israel’s Defense Minister Would Be a Perfect Leader for #NeverTrump

Fighting a risky battle against an ugly tide, Moshe Ya'alon is admired by Israeli leftists and liberals who despise his views on peace.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.
Tomer Appelbaum

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon’s nickname is Bogie, and for most two-state supporting lefties, he lives up to his homonym. An offspring of the Labor Movement who claims to have supported the Oslo Accords at their inception, Ya'alon now opposes the so-called “peace process” with the zeal of a convert.  As negotiating partners, he maintains, Palestinian leaders are beyond salvation.

Ya'alon’s hardline views, as well as his security credentials as a former IDF chief of staff, have propelled him to the top ministerial post in Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. But he remains an odd man out in his own Likud party, not only because of his socialist background. He is an outspoken champion of LGBT rights, for example. He refuses to turn a blind eye to blatant transgressions of Jewish settlers in the territories. More importantly, Ya'alon won’t bend to the evil winds of racism and nationalism sweeping Israel. He has resisted the escalating political efforts to turn the Israeli army into an arm of the government’s right wing ideology. 

This is why Ya'alon has suddenly emerged as an unlikely hero for a great number of Israelis who otherwise abhor his rejectionism, as well as some of those who endorse it. In Ya'alon’s showdown meeting with Netanyahu on Monday in the wake of his public call to army officers to speak their minds openly and freely, the Israeli center as well as large chunks of its left were probably cheering him on. In the twisted logic of today’s Israeli reality, the hawkish former general and many of his peers in active service are seen as the last line of defense for Israeli democracy and the rule of law.

For most outside observers, such a reversal of traditional roles may be hard to fathom. Armies are not renowned for their defense of dissent and free speech nor are they viewed as sticklers for due process. Human rights activists and supporters of Palestinian rights will have a hard time reconciling what they consider to be the brutal ways of the “occupation army” in the West Bank with its portrayal as the guardians of Israel’s freedom and conscience. If the army is the last line of defense against creeping fascism, outside critics might argue, then the battle is already lost.

They may be right. Perhaps this is but a last gasp of the “old Israel” that aspired to maintain a semblance of decency and of an army that at least pretended to sanctify that oxymoronic ideal of “purity of arms”. Yet this is what Israel has come to in recent years, especially since Netanyahu’s surprising victory in the 2015 elections. His government has declared war on state institutions that refuse to toe its line. Large swaths of public opinion have turned rabid and racist, as Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan tried to explain in his Holocaust Day speech, before Netanyahu set his political dogs on him. The prime minister himself vacillates between reckless indifference to the havoc his coalition partners are wreaking on Israeli democracy to actually leading their nationalistic assault on remaining pockets of resistance. 

Against the backdrop of a radicalized ruling coalition and opposition leaders who expediently follow in their footsteps, Ya'alon, Golan and current Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot have bravely come down on the side of right versus wrong. Were it not for their firm and principled stand, the Israeli soldier who cold bloodedly killed a disarmed Palestinian terrorist in Hebron last month would have been acclaimed as a national hero and military role model. By steadfastly standing up to the howling racist hordes that Netanyahu has done nothing to quell and by openly resisting the politicians’ push to dispense with the niceties of the army’s rules of engagement, Ya'alon and his generals are preventing Israel from sinking ever lower into a moral abyss. Obviously, they are also fighting for their own independence, but theirs is not just a turf war: a kowtowing army that tells the country’s leaders only what they want to hear is a sure fire formula for eventual military defeat.

Ya'alon, of course, is barely known in America. He has none of Netanyahu’s experience, exposure or command of English. He is a complete novice in PR shticks and tricks, at which Netanyahu is an unrivalled master. He’s been in politics for over a decade but still stands stiff in front of television cameras and awkward when kissing babies or pressing flesh in campaign appearances. He is known as a straight-talking politician who often says the wrong thing at the wrong time; when he does so in English, it is with the grating saw-like accent of a sabra who, unlike Netanyahu, has not spent much of his life abroad.

Thus, those Americans who have been following the latest developments are likely to instinctively back the Netanyahu that they know and many of them admire over Ya'alon, who hardly speaks their language. Among Netanyahu’s hard-core constituents in the Republican Party and the conservative right, complaints about eroding Israeli democracy and threats to the rule of law are usually viewed as typical liberal-leftist whining or much ado about nothing. Pro-Israel conservatives respond to claims of rampant racism and creeping fascism in Israeli society with the same disdain they reserve for complaints of groups such as Black Lives Matter, the ACLU and gay marriage advocates. But right wing Israelis who have never liked Barack Obama react in much the same way to criticism of Donald Trump.

Many of Netanyahu’s staunchest supporters are now at the forefront of the conservative right’s opposition to Trump. Think Bret Stephens and Charles Krauthammer or even Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham. Just as Ya'alon refuses to bend to populist winds, many supporters of the #NeverTrump movement refuse to jump on Trump’s rolling bandwagon. Despite their hatred and fear of Hillary Clinton, Trump is beyond the pale for them. Not only is his ideological commitment suspect, he represents the worst of the Republican Party, rather than the best. They might deny the analogy, but by cynically exploiting the xenophobic and racist undercurrents in America, Trump could very well emulate Netanyahu and lead America down the same dark road that Israel has already embarked on. 

In many ways, they are the Moshe Ya'alons of the GOP, at least as seen by many of their leftist critics. #NeverTrump conservatives are just as hawkish, just as intransigent, just as uncompromising as the Israeli Defense Minister in their view of the world, but in a showdown between their politics and their integrity, they have chosen the latter over the former, and may well pay the price.

The number of anti-Trump holdouts, however, is dwindling fast.  As in Israel, political expediency is winning the day. The people behind  #NeverTrump are reportedly looking for someone who will challenge Trump from the right, apparently without much success. Without such a leader, they will soon disappear. They could have used a politician like Yaalon, obstinate and ungainly as he may be, who insists on swimming against the prevailing current.  They need a man (or woman) for all seasons, one who would realize, as Sir Thomas More explains in Andrew Bolt’s play, that “when avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought....we must stand fast a little - even at the risk of being heroes.”