For a former chief of staff who now heads the entire security hierarchy dedicated to keeping Israelis safe, picking fights with Israel’s most important ally is not the smartest thing to do.

Believing that you can make spectacularly withering comments about John Kerry and they will stay out of circulation for long? Also not smart. The pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom last week quoted an unnamed Israeli official passing scathing judgment on the American secretary’s peacemaking capabilities. And since that newspaper’s prime competitor, Yedioth Ahronoth, tends to seize on most opportunities to dis and dish dirt on the Netanyahu government, it should have come as no great surprise to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to find his reported critique of Kerry — the “inexplicably obsessive” would-be peacemaker, with his shaky grasp of Israeli-Palestinian realities and his woefully inadequate high-tech West Bank security proposals — plastered all over Tuesday’s Yedioth.

Ya’alon, who can be untenably unsophisticated for so experienced a public figure, should have known a whole lot better. His comments make it certain, if it wasn’t before, that Israel rather than the Palestinians will be held responsible when the Kerry peace effort collapses, as it inevitably will. His intemperate remarks sour those crucial ties with the US and will henceforth render him a political leper in Washington, which means he and the security establishment he heads will be weakened, to the detriment of all Israelis. In a normal country, he’d tender his resignation about now.

Dumb, not entirely wrong

None of which is to say, however, that Ya’alon’s dire assessment of the US secretary’s peacemaking skills is a million miles off target. Ya’alon’s been thoroughly dumb. But he’s not entirely wrong.

In late July, fresh in office, Kerry voiced his confidence that, where all others had failed before, he could chivy Israel and the Palestinian Authority to a permanent peace accord — and by April at that. Such hubris. Ten visits later, he seems to have given up on that delusional goal, and is now reduced to trying to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to carry on talking past the end of his own nine-month deadline in April on the basis of a “framework” agreement.

But even this modest target is proving difficult to reach, unsurprisingly so, since the two sides disagree on just about everything — notably including those security proposals, the fate of Jerusalem, the route of an Israel-Palestine border, and the destiny of millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees. To date, despite all of Kerry’s diplomacy, the modest framework paper isn’t finished — even though, reportedly, it will be a nonbinding, American document that the sides won’t be required to sign.

The Palestinian Authority was never remotely likely to agree to the dramatic policy changes, the reversal of decades of intransigence, required for a peace deal. It has not even begun the process of explaining to its people why it would compromise with the Israelis, whose very presence in the area PA media continues to brand as illegitimate.

And the Netanyahu government was only ever going to be less forthcoming than the Olmert coalition that preceded it, and whose peace terms were rejected by Abbas. Yes, most Israelis back an accommodation with the Palestinians, in good part to guarantee that the country maintains both its Jewish and its democratic character, and they would agree to major territorial compromise, but only if it brings them a realistic prospect of peace. Not, as is the case now, when the utter instability in the Middle East means that a West Bank withdrawal is highly likely to see murderous religious extremists fill the vacuum, ousting relative moderates such as Abbas along the way, and placing all of Israel under rocket and terror threat.

The defense minister’s absent vision

But if Kerry has been arrogant and willfully blind, Ya’alon for his part shows precious little political vision.

The defense minister has shifted dramatically across the political spectrum over time, earlier dovishness mugged by the reality of years tackling Palestinian terrorism and wider Arab hostility. Abbas demonstrated as recently as Saturday what a problematic successor he has proved to the duplicitous Yasser Arafat — too weak-willed to challenge Arafat’s pernicious delegitimization of Israel, retreating to ever more inflexible positions on all the core peace issues. But Ya’alon’s conclusion, that Israel is surrounded by enemies and must simply hang tough and continue to defend itself as effectively as possible, offers no prospect of eventual change.

Lots of people all around embattled Israel loathe the Jewish state and want to see it wiped out. But that leaves Israel with two imperatives, not just one: Defend the country, and do whatever can safely be done to gradually create a better climate on the other side of the divide, to encourage Palestinians and other Arabs who seek a peaceful future, who are prepared to take conciliatory positions, who are truly prepared to live in peace alongside Israel.

No, Secretary Kerry, the path to peace cannot be bulldozed or imposed in nine months. But no, Minister Ya’alon, flooding the moat and pulling up the drawbridge isn’t a long-term answer either.

Realistic goals

Peace needs to be built bottom up as well as top down. Rather than shooting for an impossible target, with a huge risk of violence if all fails, the US should have focused, and still should focus, on using its dwindling leverage to assist those who preach and foster reconciliation, while outlawing and cutting funding to those who foster hatred — educational institutions, media organizations, international agencies and those who finance them.

Israel, for its part, should encourage every opportunity for constructive interaction with Palestinians and other Arabs who seek a better future, and be sure to put its own house in order too, when it comes to incitement by its leaders, media and educators. It should also stop building homes in West Bank areas it does not anticipate retaining in any future accord — for the benefit of its own citizens, and the credibility of its position with the Palestinians and the international community.

Eventually, in a gradually improving climate, it will be up to honest and skilled diplomats, doubtless led by the US, to draw the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships — pushed by their peoples, rather than against the peoples’ will — toward binding agreements that will benefit both sides. We’re not there yet. Far from it. Indeed, compounding all too familiar Palestinian rejectionism, it’s now an open secret that we labor under the additional burdens of contemptuous Israeli shortsightedness and unrealistic American evaluation and expectation.

To make matters worse

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Moshe Ya’alon, whose defenders consider him a principled hawk, has now deprived Israel of any potential benefit, any last crumb of comfort, from the wrenching Palestinian prisoner releases of recent months.  It remains outrageous that Netanyahu, Ya’alon and their colleagues chose to set free dozens of murderers in order to facilitate these doomed peace talks, an abysmal misstep that rewards terrorism and encourages more of it, and betrays the victims’ families, the soldiers who caught these killers at immense risk, and the entire Israeli justice system. The more so when the same end — clearing the path to last summer’s resumption of negotiations — could have been achieved by freezing settlement building, a readily reversible move and one not entirely detrimental to Israel’s wider interests.

Netanyahu, Ya’alon and company put the country through this appalling, avoidable nightmare — setting free 78 evil men, with 26 more to come — because they didn’t dare stand up to the coalition’s settlement lobby and wanted to avoid blame for the failure of Kerry’s peace effort. Wider national interests were at stake, they declared piously. Now the defense minister who couldn’t hold his tongue has ensured that those wider interests have been subverted too. Like I said, in a normal country…