Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon laid out a vision for a new Middle East that seemed decidedly similar, if not identical, to the positions of his boss-turned-rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday morning, Ya’alon described a Middle East in the throes of its “biggest crisis” since the spread of Islam throughout the region in the seventh century.
Today, he said, Israel is in the position of being an enemy of several Sunni Arab states’ enemies, making it a de facto ally of those countries.
The larger wars and conflicts in the region have also pushed the Palestinian issue down on those Arab countries’ lists of priorities, he said, speaking in the Olive Room of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem at a briefing organized by The Israel Project.
Those views are shared by Netanyahu, whom Ya’alon has repeatedly maligned since being ousted from the government in May 2016.
Ya’alon served in the Likud from 2009 until earlier this week, when he officially left the ruling right-wing party. He served as defense minister from 2013 until he was dismissed last year following a series of clashes with the prime minister, most notably on the Elor Azaria case, in which an IDF soldier shot dead a disarmed, incapacitated Palestinian assailant.
Since leaving the government, Ya’alon has repeatedly accused Netanyahu of acting out of political expediency rather than true leadership, and compared him to a “weather vane,” going whichever way the wind blows.
In his resignation speech in May 2016, Ya’alon vowed to return to politics and run for the leadership of the country. In the 10 months since, he has met with a variety of politicians, as well as former defense officials, in a likely bid to either form a new political party or join an existing one.
He has remained mum on the particulars of his plans to run against Netanyahu in a future election, but has indicated that all options are on the table.
“I believe that I have something to offer,” he said Wednesday, citing his time as chief of staff and experience in government.
Away and at home
In terms of foreign policy, Ya’alon described Israel as sitting pretty in relation to the rest of the Middle East.
He warned of three rising “extremist” movements in the region: Shiite Iran and its partners, Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon; the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Turkey; and the more extreme Sunni terrorist groups, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
But he indicated that the threat from those groups puts Israel in good company.
“We find ourselves in the same boat as the Sunni Arabs. We share common interests because we share common enemies,” he said.
That state of affairs is facilitating unprecedented — and still not officially recognized — relationships with Saudi Arabia, Gulf emirates and Muslim countries in Africa, as well as improved ties with already-friendly countries like Egypt and Jordan, he said.
Ya’alon also referred to what some describe as the “Arab Spring,” and others the “Islamic Winter” — in which the hope for increased democratization of Arab countries in 2010-2011 turned into sectarian violence in the years that followed — as an opportunity of sorts for the Jewish state.
With vicious civil wars in Syria and Yemen, bitter violence in Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State throughout the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dropped off the international community’s radar, Ya’alon said.
“The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is irrelevant for a while,” he said, though it “still exists and we still need to deal with it.”
‘The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is irrelevant for a while,’ but it ‘still exists and we still need to deal with it’
However, citing the Palestinian education system, which teaches “the young generation to hate Jews and Zionists, [that we are] colonialists and that the biggest settlement is Tel Aviv,” Ya’alon said there will be “no final settlement in the near future.”
Israel should therefore shy away from long-shot peace efforts and “manage the conflict,” he said, keeping the situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from boiling over into large-scale violence.
In addition, the government should “advance our interests,” while still adhering to Israeli law, he said. To Ya’alon, that means some continued settlement expansion, but not annexation of parts of the West Bank, as Education Minister Nafatali Bennett has proposed in the Knesset.
For now, the Palestinians and Israel are like “Siamese twins,” with shared economic and security systems, he said.
Palestinians use the Israeli shekel for their currency — “and not by accident.” Israel, meanwhile, relies on Palestinians for cheap labor, legally employing over 100,000 West Bank residents inside Israel proper (along with many, many more who work illegally, without permits) and another 60,000 who work inside Israeli settlements.
“Can they survive without our economy?” he asked rhetorically.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority also closely cooperate on many security issues in the West Bank. The Palestinian security services often provide intelligence to the Israeli military, while the IDF offers some level of additional protection for the PA.
“Can Abu Mazen survive” without the IDF operating in the West Bank? he asked, using the nickname for PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
“Let’s avoid slogans,” Ya’alon said. “All slogans are good for are likes on Facebook, but they aren’t policy.”
Ya’alon, like Netanyahu and other right-wing politicians, called for increased autonomy for the PA in the West Bank, rather than full statehood, and maintaining the detente with Hamas in Gaza.
“We’re not going to reach a final status solution, but I also don’t want to rule [the Palestinians],” he said.