Ya’alon: Conflict is rooted in denial of Jewish state, not settlements

Defense minister offers veiled rejection of US stance on cause of latest round of violence, reveals he initially supported Oslo accords

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Ashton Carter, left, and Moshe Ya'alon, right, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC on October 27, 2015. ( Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)
Ashton Carter, left, and Moshe Ya'alon, right, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC on October 27, 2015. ( Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — While asserting the importance of the US-Israel strategic relationship, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon pushed against those who believe that settlements or Israel’s presence in the West Bank are at the root of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, stressing instead that the conflict rests upon Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

Speaking at the prestigious National Defense University in Washington, DC, before senior US and international defense officials, Ya’alon told the audience that “the challenge is that there are too many parties who are unwilling recognize Israel’s position in the region as a Jewish state.” He cited Iran’s “Islamic ideology” that he said “does not allow any non-Islamic entity to be on this land of Israel.”

“It’s quite a unique challenge when it comes to security, [and] quite a unique challenge when it comes to politics,” he added.

Ya’alon, considered a hawk within the Likud Party, also revealed that he had initially supported the Oslo peace accords, presented by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before his assassination in 1995.

“Israel is aspiring for peace. As one who has experienced wars, I am anxious to have peace. I can tell you personally that I supported Oslo,” revealed Ya’alon, who was at the time serving as a division commander in the West Bank. “I thought compromise might be a good idea to reach peace and tranquility.”

“As one who has experienced wars, I am anxious to have peace. I can tell you personally that I supported Oslo. I thought compromise might be a good idea to reach peace and tranquility.”

Ya’alon said that he came to realize that there was a critical limitation to the process. “Unfortunately neither Yasser Arafat at that time and Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] today…even those two who are considered relatively moderate in the West are not ready to recognize our right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people,” he said.

Ya’alon dismissed as “lies” claims that Israel’s occupation in the West Bank, settlements or the status quo on the Temple Mount stood behind the latest round of violence.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “they are able to manipulate not just their constituencies, but they are able manipulate even western like-minded people by that false propaganda.”

The defense minister is in the US to discuss renewing a defense partnership with the US, in a visit seen as key to mending a relationship heavily stained in recent months by bad blood over the Iran nuclear deal, as well as other issues.

Ya’alon repeated the concept of “Western like-minded people” again during his speech, but never indicate what or who he intended.

In the past few weeks, the State Department – and Secretary of State John Kerry himself – have been criticized for seeming to imply that the growth of settlements or changes to the status quo at the contentious Jerusalem site have led to the recent escalation in violence.

“Those who claim that the problem is settlements – they murdered Jews before the construction of any settlement in the West Bank,” he asserted later in the speech. “It is quite frustrating that Western like-minded people are ready to be deceived, manipulated by this kind of propaganda forgetting the most important distinction between good and evil, going to relativism and other distinctions of victims and victimhood.”

“Yes the Palestinians are victims – of their leadership,” Ya’alon quipped, noting a long list of partition and peace proposals that have been rejected on behalf of the Palestinians from the British Mandate onward.

Ya’alon also cited what he described “the denial of accountability” which he said “has become a precious strategic asset.”

Abbas, he said “is not accountable for the Gaza Strip, he is not accountable for what is going on with terrorists trying to stab Jews, he is not accountable for anything.”

“He is too weak to be accountable,” Ya’alon complained.

Ya’alon and Kerry have had a frosty relationship since 2014, when the Defense Minister was quoted in Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot as making derisive comments about Kerry’s involvement in regional politics.

In his Tuesday speech, however, Ya’alon concluded by stressing the significance of US-Israel ties, a theme he has repeated during his visit to Washington DC.

Calling for a strategy of “moral clarity,” Ya’alon argued that the “one country that can be the leader in the world in the 21st century is the United States.”

“That’s why we so appreciate the relationship between our country and the United States,” said Ya’alon. “Based on common values as well as common interests. For us the relationship between Israel and the United States is a cornerstone of our national security concept. We are so lucky to have such an allied friend [even when] we have disputes among friends over certain issues.”

Ya’alon said that he “hope[s] that the United States is enjoying what we do in our region” and said that he had “no doubt that the United States is a strong ally in this relationship.”

“I am here this week in Washington to discuss the future of this relationship — how can we meet future challenges for both of us – the US and Israel, bearing in mind a future situation that is going to be characterized in the Middle East by chronic instability over a very long period of time,” he concluded.

Ya’alon is in Washington to discuss long-term security planning and funding arrangements with his counterpart, Carter. His visit comes as part of the renewed process of negotiating a new 10-year security memorandum of understanding to replace the current one, which will expire in 2017.

The memorandum, a centerpiece of US defense aid to Israel, is expected to continue the annual grants to Israel, which today sit at approximately $3 billion per year.

Introducing Ya’alon before the speech, Carter played up the warmth of the ties between the two countries – and his respect for the often outspoken former IDF head. Carter described Ya’alon as “one of the finest defense officials in the world,” and as a “friend and a strategic thinker.”

Carter said that regarding security partnerships, the US “appreciates what we get as well as what we give.”

“The United States stands with Israel and we always will,” Carter proclaimed. “Israel is a cornerstone of our strategy in the Middle East and its security is a top priority for America, for our military and for President [Barack] Obama and for me personally.”

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