Is Ya’alon single-handedly destroying US-Israel relations?

After several attacks against Washington, senior US official wonders why defense minister ‘seems intent on undermining the relationship’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon in Jerusalem on December 29, 2013. (photo credit: Ohad Zweigenberg/Flash90)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon in Jerusalem on December 29, 2013. (photo credit: Ohad Zweigenberg/Flash90)

With Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman striking a more moderate tone of late, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has apparently become the new bad boy of US-Israeli relations. In what appears to be a role reversal in an absurd “good cop, bad cop” plot, Liberman, formerly persona non grata in Washington, has been cozying up to the Americans, while Ya’alon keeps on digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole with astonishingly nasty statements that threaten the already fraught peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and could seriously damage bilateral ties.

Exactly one year after Israel’s thirty-third government was sworn in, Ya’alon this week underlined his status as Jerusalem’s new critic-in-chief of the Obama administration, with a series of harsh attacks that have already started taking their toll on bilateral relations. A senior US official on Tuesday blasted Ya’alon’s “disturbing pattern” of insults directed against the American government, accusing him of “undermining” the US-Israeli relationship.

“We were shocked by Moshe Ya’alon’s comments, which seriously call into question his commitment to Israel’s relationship with the United States,” an anonymous senior administration official told Israeli correspondents in Washington. “Moreover, this is part of a disturbing pattern in which the defense minister disparages the US 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.”

It started in January, when the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported that Ya’alon deemed US Secretary of State John Kerry “inexplicably obsessive” and “messianic” because of his tireless efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, something Ya’alon said will not happen in his lifetime. The defense minister later apologized; his office released a statement saying that Israel greatly appreciated Kerry’s efforts and that Ya’alon “did not intend to insult the secretary and he apologizes if the secretary was hurt by the remarks attributed to the defense minister.”

But Ya’alon, a former vice prime minister, did not cease to attack Washington for its alleged weakness in dealing with crises all over the Middle East and in other parts of the world, including the Russian-Ukrainian standoff.

Earlier this month, he implied that Kerry had failed to act as an honest broker on the peace negotiations issue, saying that the Palestinians “maybe got from Kerry” the impression that Israel was prepared to free Israeli Arab terrorists in the context of the peace talks. The Israeli government gave no such indication, Ya’alon said in an interview with Channel 2.

On Monday Ya’alon issued another scathing attack on the administration, saying Israel could not rely on the US to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, accusing America of displaying weakness, and warning that its perceived pusillanimity was inviting terrorism against US targets.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (R) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2014 (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy/Flash90)
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (R) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2014 (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy/Flash90)

Jerusalem could not afford to rely on US President Barack Obama to lead an action against Iran’s nuclear program, Ya’alon reportedly said. Israel had believed that “the one who should lead the campaign against Iran is the US,” but instead, “the US at a certain stage began negotiating with them, and unfortunately in the Persian bazaar the Iranians were better,” he said. Therefore, “we have to look out for ourselves.”

That was too much for the US, which on Tuesday published what the Haaretz daily went so far as to term “one of the most harshly worded personal condemnations in the history of relations between the two countries.”

Ya’alon on Wednesday refused to comment on the issue. But he probably wasn’t intimidated. A few hours after the dis from Washington, Army Radio quoted a “senior Israeli minister” as saying that America’s weakness in the Ukrainian crisis showed that Israel could only truly rely on itself, since Washington cannot be trusted with Israel’s security, even if it promised ironclad arrangements to protect the country’s borders after a peace deal with the Palestinians.

There are several suspects — the defense minister is certainly not alone in his critical view of US policy on Russia — but it’s safe to assume that Washington doesn’t rule out Ya’alon as the possible source of the comments. (The US embassy in Tel Aviv declined to comment.)

To be sure, Ya’alon has never been afraid to say what he thinks. He’s no opportunist; he has staunchly defended his hawkish worldview in countless speeches and interviews over the years. But most politicians known as firebrands during their time as back-benchers see things differently once they attain senior government positions. Not so Ya’alon. The former IDF chief of staff sticks to his guns, calling it like he sees it, even if it means infuriating Israel’s most important ally — one that supports the Israeli defense establishment to the tune of $3 billion annually.

“I don’t think that he’s deliberately trying to harm US-Israel relations; no Israeli wants that. This is a personal matter. Ya’alon is a very direct person; he speaks his mind,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American-Israeli relations and US Middle East policy at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The defense minister is correct in what he says, according to Gilboa — Obama’s geopolitical moves are “problematic” and “weak,” he said — but Ya’alon would be well-advised to keep quiet. “He’s right, but I don’t think he should have said it.”

Some analysts believe that Liberman and Ya’alon have basically traded places as the bogeyman of Israel-US ties for political reasons. The Yisrael Beytenu leader — who once told the US it was wasting its time in trying to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, but who recently called Kerry a “true friend of Israel” who is “leading the process correctly” — wants to remake his image as a reasonable and moderate statesman, seeking to overtake Netanyahu from the left, pundits reason. Ya’alon, on the other hand, seeks to endear himself to the nationalist right. After all, it’s not the US administration that will be voting in the next Likud primaries.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks with Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon during a session in the Knesset, June 2009  (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon during a session in the Knesset, June 2009 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But while Liberman’s recent change of tone seems like a deliberate political maneuver to reach for the premiership, Ya’alon’s shots against the US appear more like unfiltered comments from a man who says what’s on his mind, consequences be damned.

“He really thinks so,” Gilboa said about Ya’alon’s latest outbursts. “He just speaks his mind.” The Americans should already understand that Ya’alon doesn’t mince words, and their horrified reactions to his statements are “childish,” the Harvard-educated scholar said. “It’s not necessary to come up with this kind of rhetoric every time he speaks.” Rather than responding to each of Ya’alon’s barbs, they should “get their act together” and tackle the issues pertaining to Iran, Syria, Russia and the Palestinians in ways that would remove Ya’alon’s doubts, he concluded.

Will Obama, Kerry and the rest of the American administration be convinced by that argument? Or will they, offended by repeated disparaging from one of Jerusalem’s most senior ministers, draw different conclusions?

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