The Israeli author Meir Shalev, in his first book on the Bible, has a brilliant interpretation of the life and death of King David’s top military officer. The narration is fascinating from top to bottom — animating the unholy alliance between “the hypocritical and manipulative” prophet Nathan and the devious Bathsheba, who marries her husband’s murderer and then seeks to see her son, Solomon, rule. But the relevant section here, on the day that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is officially ousted from office, is the Bible’s last words on the great general: “And he was buried in his home in the desert.”
Yoav Ben Zeruya, the son to the king’s sister, and the man whose death David ordered in his last will and testament, lived in the capital during his many years of loyal and cruel and bloody service to the crown, but he kept his home in the wilderness, Shalev notes. “He remained the son of Zeruya, the courageous and honest man from the desert,” Shalev writes. “Perhaps that is what made him such a great military officer; and clearly it was what made him such a small politician.”
Ya’alon on Friday, looking somber and speaking quietly, announced that he was leaving office and will presumably return to his kibbutz in the desert [he does have a home in the center of the country, too]. He indicated that a time would come in which he would return to the political fray. It is an area in which his acumen is unproven.
As a defense official, though, his legacy will be marked by three events: the handling of the war in Syria, the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, and his position, both political and operational, regarding the rising tide of far-right sentiment. I’ll address them in order.
Defense ministers are often judged by their conduct during wars. Ya’alon’s greatest achievement, it would seem, has been the masterful way he has, since taking office in March 2013, kept Israel out of the war in Syria, even as Hezbollah pushed and poked at Israel’s red lines.
The events of January 18, 2015, are instructive. On a Sunday afternoon, a few miles east of Quneitra on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights near the Israeli Druze town of Massadeh, a pair of aircraft tracked and destroyed two moving vehicles. The cars set out from Beirut at the behest of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and were carrying not only several senior Hezbollah commanders, but also an Iranian general. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, a general in Iran’s Qods Force, was killed. So, too, was Jihad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah official whose father was the organization’s chief military commander. The Syrian rebels in this area do not have aircraft. The Syrian regime is aligned with Hezbollah. There was only one actor who could have carried out this strike.
The following day, as war drums started to beat, an Israeli security source told Reuters that the Iranian general was not the target of the strike. It seemed to be an admission of ignorance, an anonymous apology. A few days later, Ya’alon sat for an interview with Army Radio. The first question was, Did you know who was in the car? Ya’alon, with none of the preening that these questions sometimes promote, said that the Defense Ministry had issued a statement contradicting the Reuters report and claiming that it had not come from the IDF or the Defense Ministry. “I think the clarification is sufficient to clarify the matter,” he said.
Hezbollah is not just a Lebanese party and militia. It is the tip of the Shiite spear in the Arab Middle East, and it understood early on in the Syrian civil war that if its patron, Bashar Assad, falls, the tip of the spear might be cut from the shaft. Neutrality was not an option. But it never lost sight of the first of its true goals — the destruction of the State of Israel. And so it sought repeatedly to use the war to its advantage by, at first, transferring arms, and, later, by entrenching itself on the Golan Heights. This is a strategic goal of the organization; a way to pressure Israel, as it did so successfully from south Lebanon, without having its constituents pay the price.
On that January day, it would seem, and allegedly on many other days during the long years of war in Syria, Ya’alon did not blink, safeguarding Israel’s national interests in a way that has kept Hezbollah at bay and Israel out of the war. Crucially, he did this while creating a system that enables Israeli army medics and doctors to treat wounded Syrians by the border and in Israeli hospitals, and to provide baby food and blankets to the villagers [and vouch for the safety of the Hermon-area Druze]. It’s a tiny drop in a large bucket but it has allowed Israel to keep at least some of its humanity intact as the carnage continues.
Red line policies, an English-speaking audience needs no reminding, rarely work. There was the fear that Hezbollah’s savvy leadership would use Israel’s policy to force it into a war that, like the Lebanese Civil War of the seventies and eighties, neither side could win. Ya’alon’s execution of the policy, open and seemingly consistent, along with his ties with foe-like friends and friend-like foes, enabled Israelis living on the Golan Heights to continue life as normal as the winds blowing off the cyclonic war to our northeast drew in more and more actors and riled even the equanimity of the European Union, threatening to unstick its glue — open borders. And yet Israel, a tiny nation perched on the very edge of the eye of the storm, has remained untouched. This is an achievement of supreme importance.
The incoming defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, can expect to be tested and tested early. Let’s hope, even pray, he is able to navigate the Israeli ship of state with the same élan.
Without rehashing the entire 50-day war, it seems fair to say that most Israelis felt that with Benjamin Netanyahu and Ya’alon at the helm during the summer of 2014 they were guided by experienced and cautious leadership, one that may have exercised too great a degree of caution. The army’s operational low point during the campaign, for example, came in Shejaiyeh. For years Hamas had readied itself for an assault that, during the first days of the war, came in precisely the fashion that the Islamist organization had predicted.
The question is one of alternatives. Liberman, who criticized the decision makers from within the cabinet that he himself sat on, proposed defeating Hamas. This would have taken many months: a house-to-house struggle with a mounting death toll on both sides and either anarchy or Israeli re-occupation in the end. Perhaps he said this simply because he thought it electorally advantageous and perhaps in order to sow doubt within Hamas ranks, but it is hardly a tenable option at present. Instead, in the wake of the Second Lebanon War and Gaza 2014 — two wars that Israel appeared to finish with a tie against a far weaker enemy — the issue is the duration of the war and the duration of the quiet that follows. The subsequent quiet is still being measured. The duration of the war, via more daring and less anticipated actions, could have been shortened, and should be during Israel’s next, and unfortunately inevitable, clash.
In this, Liberman, alongside a litany of worrying potential outcomes from his tenure, may bring tidings. As a civilian and an outsider to the defense establishment, he may be able to shake up an army that in June 1982 marched to the edge of Beirut in a week and in August 2014 struggled to advance more than a mile in 50 days. Clearly the missions were different and clearly this is not an endorsement of any sort of Lebanon-like endeavor — the sort of half-baked escapade that someone like Ya’alon would never endorse — but there really can be no doubt that the army’s ground corps could use a surge of money and a spur in its side.
The engine of Israeli politics at the time of its founding was the Socialist Labor movement; the kibbutz was the societal ideal. That engine has run out of steam. Its last hurrah, as a friend of mine has noted, was probably the Four Mothers movement that spurred the withdrawal from Lebanon. Today, the engine is the Gush Emunim brand of religious Zionism. Netanyahu is acutely aware of this. It is why he, a secular Israeli, has been shadowing Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett’s every move, slashing left and right at Bennett’s earliest signal.
Ya’alon fell out of line: first with his decision to send a company of Border Police to Yitzhar in April 2014, shutting down the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva and smothering the local rise of hate crimes stemming from there. And later when he swiftly executed the High Court of Justice’s July 2014 decision to raze the Dreinoff Houses in Beit El, even as Jewish Home MK Moti Yogev said to Israel National News that the blade of a D-9 — the bulldozer shovel used by the army — ought to be raised over the court instead.
Then came the Hebron shooting and the Holocaust Memorial Day speech by Maj. Gen. Yair Golan and it became clear that while Ya’alon is a natural member of the Israeli right in that he opposes territorial concessions at this point in time — and unlike Netanyahu was even willing to pay a price for those beliefs, his tenure as chief of staff terminated by Ariel Sharon for his opposition to the Gaza withdrawal — he is not on board with the full agenda. His right-wing ideology is rooted solely in security, and the once secular Likud party, as Amit Segal noted in the Friday edition of the religious Makor Rishon newspaper, is “at the peak of a process of becoming religious.”
On Sunday, Ya’alon left the Defense Ministry. He plans to return from his desert home and to unseat Netanyahu. It’s an aspiration harbored by many of the disappointed and secular Jabotinsky-ites who have fallen from the party’s good graces. Politicians like Gideon Sa’ar and Dan Meridor and Moshe Kahlon.
None has succeeded. But none has ever worn a general’s rank either.