Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon gave a speech yesterday at Tel Aviv University during which he said some things that have got the White House pretty annoyed. Ya’alon inferred that President Obama wants to play out the clock and punt dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue to the next president, fingered the U.S. for demonstrating weakness in a variety of areas including in its response to the Crimean crisis, pointed out that U.S. military aid to Israel is not entirely altruistic but operates to American benefit as well in the areas of intelligence and technology, and finally predicted that U.S. weakness will come back to haunt it in the form of terrorism and direct challenges from revisionist powers. All in all, it was quite the rhetorical broadside. I will refrain from extensively commenting on Ya’alon’s last point except to note that by the standards of many of Ya’alon’s ideological compatriots and Likud fellow travelers who excoriated John Kerry when he predicted that the failure of the peace process will lead to greater international isolation of Israel and accused him of advocating for Israel to be treated as a pariah, Ya’alon has now done something far more serious than offer a prediction that the U.S. will suffer future attacks.
In response, an unnamed senior Obama administration official hit back at Ya’alon for undermining security ties between the U.S. and Israel and calling the entire relationship into question. To quote, “We were shocked by Moshe Ya’alon’s comments, which seriously call into question his commitment to Israel’s relationship with the United States. Moreover, this is part of a disturbing pattern in which the defense minister disparages the U.S. administration, and insults its most senior officials. Given the unprecedented commitment that this administration has made to Israel’s security, we are mystified why the defense minister seems intent on undermining the relationship.” This is not the first time this year that the White House has responded to comments from Ya’alon that it deemed to be over the line, as in January it was leaked that Ya’alon had disparaged John Kerry, which drew a disappointed, albeit less harsh, American response.
What is driving Ya’alon here? Ultimately, causing a rift with the U.S. is not going to benefit Israel in any way, and Ya’alon is presumably smart enough to know that trying to rhetorically peer pressure the U.S. into taking a more confrontational approach with Iran is not going to work. Furthermore, Ya’alon knows from intimate firsthand experience, first as IDF chief of staff and now as defense minister, just how close security cooperation between the two countries is, and so pretending that it’s not such a big deal rings hollow. In addition, the timing of going after Obama personally just as the U.S. is actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and figuring out the security parameters of a longterm presence for IDF troops in the Jordan Valley is an awful strategy. If Ya’alon wants to ensure that the White House becomes more sympathetic to Palestinians complaints about Israeli intransigence, this would be one good way to go about it.
Certainly some of Ya’alon’s frustration is real. It is no secret that Israeli officials are worried about the direction of events in the Middle East, particularly with regard to Iran, and fear the U.S. stepping back from the region. What looks like cautious realism in the West Wing is viewed by Israelis as weak-kneed appeasement and wavering, whether it be negotiations with Tehran, an unwillingness to intervene in Syria despite repeated threats to do so, not bolstering Hosni Mubarak or dealing more harshly with the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. In addition, as Jonathan Schanzer points out, Ya’alon is upset about the U.S. not giving Israel weapons systems that would help in an Iran strike. Perhaps all of this boiled over at once and Ya’alon just couldn’t contain himself.
Or, perhaps there is more at work here, and Ya’alon’s outburst was a bit more politically strategic. Bibi Netanyahu has long had a real problem within his own party, and it is only compounded by the current peace negotiations. The younger and more hardline Likud members don’t trust him, and they have sought to embarrass him countless times, whether it be at Likud conventions, Likud primaries, or looking to amend the party’s constitution. Some of these efforts have been more successful than others, but if Netanyahu makes any real concessions with regard to the West Bank, the party is fated to split apart and there are no two ways about it. All of that is assuming that Netanyahu does not do the deed himself at some point and go the route of Arik Sharon, forming a new party and leaving a rump Likud behind (which would be deeply ironic since Netanyahu was the one who took the helm of the badly weakened Likud when Sharon formed Kadima). Ya’alon has been doing a good job of courting the Danny Danons, Yariv Levins, and Miri Regevs of the world, and they trust him a lot more than they trust the prime minister. Should it come down to needing a replacement for Netanyahu, Ya’alon seems like an obvious choice, and he can keep it that way by consistently espousing hawkish views such as the ones he did yesterday.
On top of this, the mood among Israel’s rightwing is no longer as uniformly pro-U.S. as it has been. There is a deep distrust of the Obama administration of course, but also a sense that the U.S. is moving in a very different direction than Israel. Netanyahu and his circle were genuinely surprised by the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, and simply did not grasp the internal American political dynamics, the changing demographics, or the war weariness of the American public. Throw on top of this the pressure coming from the White House on the peace process, and it just compounds the notion for some that the U.S. is harming more than it is helping. Many Israelis are for the first time in awhile openly questioning whether the U.S. can be reliably counted on, and nowhere is this more prevalent than among the younger Likud ideological vanguard who are the party’s future. Ya’alon recognizes this, and has been subtly playing into it for some time, which is why I think his comments about Kerry in January and his speech yesterday were more coldly calculating than he may want to let on. The other component to this is that Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to be prime minister one day and can only do so through Likud and is thus engaging in some jockeying for position of his own, has been criticizing the anti-American tone since his acquittal of fraud charges and his return to politics and publicly reminding Israelis that they should be wary of ruining the relationship with Washington. To the extent that Ya’alon views Lieberman – a hawkish nationalist who is very at home among the younger Likud folks – as a potential future rival, setting himself apart from Lieberman in a way that the Likud base favors is only smart politics.
At first glance, Ya’alon’s comments certainly seem puzzling, and they will not do any good for Israel itself. The question is whether Ya’alon was directing them toward Israel’s future or his own, and as usual, I think there is a heavy dose of internal domestic politics that is being overlooked. Yes, the frustration is real and is not entirely manufactured, but there is a method to the madness inasmuch as Ya’alon is thinking instrumentally about his political prospects down the line.