Disrespecting Your Defender

Moshe Ya'alon thinks that President Barack Obama is a wimp and that Secretary of State John Kerry is mentally incompetent. If Ya'alon were a GOP senator, this wouldn't be worthy of comment. He'd be doing what has come to be the job of Republican politicians: to blame every international crisis on Obama's alleged lack of machismo and to presume that action-hero growls will attract votes this November and two years hence. The job requirements do not include providing realistic policy alternatives.

Ya'alon, however, is not one of Obama's domestic political opponents. Rather, he is Israel's defense minister, responsible for the security of a client state that is heavily dependent on a superpower, of which Obama happens to be president.

So it registered several points higher on the Richter Scale of rudeness and irresponsibility when Ya'alon gave a talk last week at Tel Aviv University describing the decline and impending fall of America. In Ukraine, and pretty much everywhere around the globe, he declared, "the United States is demonstrating weakness."  Ya'alon suggested that the interim agreement and negotiations with Iran were a means for Obama to "put off confrontation" with Teheran over nuclear arms and leave the problem for " the next president." By creating an "image of feebleness," he said, America invited new terror attacks on its own soil and, ultimately, defeat in a "war of civilizations."   

Is this the same America that gives Israel billions of dollars in military aid, that provides Israel with sophisticated arms, that defends it in international forums? Ya'alon was underwhelmed by such considerations. American aid, he said, should be "seen in proportion," since helping Israel is in America's own interest, and since Israel has developed the Iron Dome and Arrow anti-missile defenses, which presumably add to American security. Ya'alon, it seemed, had bought one of the t-shirts sold in Jerusalem souvenir shops to tourists that says, "Don't worry America—Israel is behind you," and missed the irony.

But then, the entire talk raised questions about the defense minister's ability to grasp Israel's international situation. Most obviously, Ya'alon managed to strain relations with the United States for the second time this year—or, to use the term favored by U.S. politicians trying to prove their pro-Israel creds, he opened up a large amount of daylight between the Israeli government and the administration.

Beside that, Israel's defense minister (whoever holds the post) handles ongoing military cooperation with America. The likelihood that Ya'alon will be invited soon to visit the Pentagon or State Department to discuss arms, intelligence-sharing, joint exercises or regional strategy has just dropped. I can only feel pity for the director-general of his ministry or the army chief of staff who travels in place of Ya'alon and has to explain his boss to icy hosts. The military relationship will continue; it won't work as smoothly.

Just a little less obviously, Ya'alon has himself promoted the misperception that the United States is "feeble." To explain how foolish this, I ask you to think back to the standard middle-school friendship between a skinny kid and a muscular one who protects him from the hallway bullies. If the skinny kid starts telling everyone that the big guy is really afraid of fights, who's likely to get hurt first? True, Israel isn't exactly a weakling, but a large piece of its deterrent is the regional understanding that it has a superpower's support. Damage the image, and you damage the deterrent.

This is the second round of Ya'alon's peculiar charm offensive. In January, the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot published leaks from conversations in which the defense minister attacked Kerry's efforts to negotiate a two-state agreement in general, and in particular his proposal for security arrangements between Israel and the Palestinian state-to-be.  The defense minister described Kerry's diplomacy as driven by "an incomprehensible obsession and messianic delusion." The only thing that could save Israel was for Kerry "to win the Nobel Prize and leave us in quiet," Ya'alon said. ("Quiet," it seems, is how Ya'alon foresees the consequences of permanent Israeli rule over the West Bank.) Ya'alon didn't deny the comments. It took him a day, and a press statement from State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki labeling his words "offensive and inappropriate," before he issued a brief apology.

This time around, Ya'alon has been even slower to retreat. His verbal offensive was reported last Tuesday in the daily Ha'aretz. By the next day, Kerry had called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to complain, and a "senior official" in Washington had told the Israeli media that Ya'alon was "undermining" the U.S.-Israel relationship. At the State Department press briefing, Psaki began remarking daily about Ya'alon's "pattern" of statements that "don’t reflect the true nature of our relationship with Israel." As of Friday, according to Psaki, the administration was still waiting for Ya'alon to apologize; as of Monday morning Israel time, the defense minister hadn't done so. Translated from diplomatese, State was saying that Israel's top defense official was an ungrateful lout and serial offender, and Ya'alon appeared entirely unmoved.

What's driving Ya'alon? Clearly, he believes that force is the only answer to crises. The U.S. decision to negotiate with Iran rather than bomb it, and the choice not to answer Russia's Crimean gambit militarily—never mind the risk of nuclear war—don't make sense to him. Ya'alon is an ex-general, but not all ex-generals think this way. Some learn from years in uniform that armies can't solve all problems. Ya'alon never learned to think outside the box of the war room.

Besides that, Ya'alon wants to succeed Netanyahu as leader of the Likud Party and as prime minister. To appeal to the party's base, he is playing on two classic themes of the Israeli right: First, Jewish pride demands that political independence be absolute, protected entirely by Jewish strength; second, that the Jews as a small people deserve the backing of the Western superpower of the day. The two beliefs don't fit together. But you can understand people best through their contradictions, and the right wing of Zionism has assiduously cultivated this contradiction since pre-state days. Put together, they produce grandiloquent statements and a constant sense of being betrayed by the reigning superpower. This is the script that Benjamin Netanyahu has followed.

Here we come to the crux: Netanyahu has done very little to challenge the assumption that Ya'alon is saying out loud what he'd like to say himself—indeed, what he has said at times. Knowing that America's image is important to Israel's deterrence, it would have been smart for Netanyahu to celebrate Syria's agreement last year to give up chemical arms and Iran's willingness to negotiate as evidence that the mere possibility of an American attack makes nations shake.

Instead, Netanyahu treated both breakthroughs as signs of American weakness. No Israeli politician has more consistently behaved as a participant in American politics, trying to stir public opinion against Democratic presidents and ignoring the potential price. If Netanyahu hasn't done more to put Ya'alon in line, it's no wonder. The defense minister is speaking—gruffly, with a smaller vocabulary—in his master's voice.

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