While apparently trying to be polite and stressing that he was delivering his critiques “without naming anyone,” Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon launched what amounted to a scathing assessment of Obama Administration wrongheadedness on the Middle East in an extraordinary interview at the end of his trip to the United States.
In comments that were candid even by his characteristically no-nonsense standards, Ya’alon castigated the misconception — most recently voiced by Secretary of State John Kerry — that the failure to solve the Palestinian conflict was provoking extremism elsewhere in the region. He rejected the notion — at the core of Kerry’s failed peace efforts — that territorial concessions by Israel would resolve the Palestinian conflict, calling it “irrational.” And he dismissed the idea — central to the vision of this and other recent US administrations — that Palestinian Authority President is a partner for peace.
He also attacked the notion — accepted by the Obama administration — that a deal should be done with Iran that would leave it with a uranium enrichment capability.
More broadly speaking, asked whether the West “just doesn’t get it” in the Middle East, Ya’alon listed what he said were the misconceptions, misunderstandings, naivete, wishful thinking and ignorance that left the West thinking erroneously, “We the Westerners know what is good for the Arabs.” The product of this kind of mindset, which had falsely contended that mere elections in the region would yield democratization, Ya’alon said bitterly, “is collapsing in front of us.”
The Likud defense minister delivered his onslaught in the course of a relatively brief Question & Answer interview with the Washington Post, published at the end of his visit to DC this week — a visit during which, US officials were quoted confirming at the weekend, his requests to meet with Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and other senior officials were rebuffed by the administration — apparently in punishment for previous critiques aired by Ya’alon and other senior Israeli government ministers.
Nonetheless, Ya’alon did stress in the interview that the Pentagon and the Israel Defense Forces still share an unbreakable bond — he held talks with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday — and that the US and Israel remain strategic allies despite any disagreements that arise between the nations’ leaders. The politicians “have disputes,” he allowed. But “with all the disputes, the United States is Israel’s strategic ally.”
On the Palestinian front, Ya’alon said thinking was “dominated by too many misconceptions. We don’t find any linkage between the uprising in Tunisia, the revolution in Egypt, the sectarian conflict in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mainly, these come from the Sunni-Shia conflict, without any connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The core of the conflict is their reluctance to recognize our right to exist as a nation state of the Jewish people…”
Elaborating, he said: “There are many who believe that just having some territorial concessions will conclude it. But I don’t think this is right… The conflict is about the existence of the Jewish state and not about the creation of the Palestinian one. Any territory that was delivered to them after Oslo became a safe haven for terrorists. Bearing that in mind, to conclude that after the [recent] military operation in Gaza this is a time for another withdrawal from Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] is irrational. If we withdraw now from Judea and Samaria, we might face another Hamastan.”
Ya’alon reiterated his familiar opposition to full Palestinian statehood, saying the Palestinians would be limited to a demilitarized “autonomy,” and flatly dismissed Abbas as “not a partner for the two-state solution. He doesn’t recognize the existence of the Jewish state.” Abbas’s stance against violence “is a tactical consideration,” Ya’alon declared. “He believes he might get more by what he calls ‘political resistance’ — going to the United Nations or to international bodies to delegitimize us. He prefers it to violence because in his experience, terror doesn’t pay off.”
Asked directly if this was “why you said Secretary Kerry should just get a Nobel Prize and go home? Do you think the West just doesn’t get it?” Ya’alon replied: “I spoke about misconceptions. It is a misunderstanding, without naming anyone. It might be naivete or wishful thinking — ‘We the Westerners know what is good for the Arabs.’ To believe that you can have democratization with elections . . . it is collapsing in front of us. And part of it is ignorance, yes.”
Ya’alon also discussed Iran’s nuclear program, and the deal that may be taking shape ostensibly to rein it in. “The framework of this deal is about how many centrifuges should this regime have,” Ya’alon carped. “Why should they have the indigenous capability to enrich uranium? If they need it for civilian purposes, they can get enriched uranium from the United States or from Russia. Why do they insist on having the indigenous capability? Because they still have the aspiration to have a nuclear bomb. With a bad deal — saying, ‘We will keep this regime from having a bomb for a year or year and a half’ — what does that mean?”
He went on: “What about the missile delivery systems, which are not discussed? Why should they have missiles ready to adopt nuclear warheads?… And what about their being a rogue regime instigating terror all over the Middle East and beyond? They are not involved in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Yemen to serve American interests. This is not discussed. By rehabilitating the economy, they might feel confident to go on with these rogue activities, and at a certain point decide to break out from the deal and to have a bomb. That’s why our prime minister said that no deal is better than a bad deal.”
Ya’alon met in Washington this week with Hagel and US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, but US officials said the White House and State Department rejected requests for meetings with Biden, Kerry, and national security adviser Susan Rice. The administration also sought to stop Ya’alon from seeing Power but the objections were made too late to cancel the meeting, according to US officials quoted in US and Israeli media.
The White House and State Department declined to comment on internal deliberations about who Ya’alon should see. At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted that the Ya’alon’s meeting with his counterpart Hagel was “a natural, standard procedure.”
Visiting Israeli defense ministers, including Ya’alon’s immediate predecessor Ehud Barak, have in the past routinely been granted meetings with senior US officials other than their direct counterparts. This week’s refusals came amid increasingly strained US-Israel relations, particularly over criticism of Kerry by several members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, including Ya’alon.
Earlier this year, Ya’alon infuriated officials in Washington with comments accusing the administration of being weak on Iran and questioning the US commitment to Israel’s security. That followed reports that Ya’alon had criticized Kerry for being unrealistic and messianic in trying to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and that the defense minister had dismissed Kerry’s West Bank security proposals as unworkable.
AP, Joshua Davidovich, and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.