WASHINGTON — Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon called upon the US to play a more influential role in combatting the Islamic State terror group and in the Middle East in general, and warned of increased Russian and Iranian influence in the region, during a Friday evening address at the Brooking Institution’s Saban Forum.
Speaking before an audience that included former peace negotiators Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, as well as a number of members of Congress, Ya’alon described the security ties between the US and Israel as “superb,” even stressing US President Barack Obama’s efforts to speed up the renewal of a key defense agreement between Jerusalem and Washington.
Ya’alon, who has occasionally touched nerves in Washington with his strident criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry, trod relatively carefully when asked if Obama was acting correctly in response to IS and the Syrian civil war.
“This is a global challenge [and] I believe the United States should be the leader of the Western world in order to meet this challenge,” Ya’alon said.
Overall in the region at present, he stressed unhappily, “Russia is playing a more significant role than the United States.” Added Ya’alon: “We don’t like the fact that King Abdullah of Jordan is going to Moscow, the Egyptians are going to Moscow, the Saudis are going to Moscow.” He summed up: “The United States should play a more active role in our region.”
He emphasized that it was desirable “to avoid Western boots on the ground on one hand,” but noted that on the other hand “you can’t defeat Daesh [the Arabic acronym for Islamic State] without boots on the ground.”
“You need to empower local boots on the ground,” Ya’alon added, suggesting that the US should do more to support both moderate Sunni groups and Kurdish forces. “Western troops in our region should be the last resort,” he said.
Ya’alon also emphasized the danger of increased Iranian involvement in Syria, noting that “the only terror attacks in the last two years from the Syrian side in the Golan Heights were perpetrated by the IRGC” – the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. The defense minister said that Syrian President Bashar Assad – who has been propped up by Iran for years – doesn’t like the IRGC operations on the Golan border, but is powerless to do or say anything about them.
In the absence of US leadership in the region, Ya’alon warned, Russia was playing a dominant role in the Syrian conflict. Furthermore, he said, Israel is “worried about” the involvement of Iran in the multi-party talks on Syria convened by Kerry in Vienna.
“The Vienna process, which I’m not sure will be successful, provides Iran the opportunity to gain power, to gain hegemony,” Ya’alon suggested.
Describing Syria as an “omelette, even shakshuka [an Israeli dish with poached eggs],” Ya’alon suggested that the “broken eggs” of Syrian society would be near impossible to put back together again. “Syria is going to suffer from chronic instability for a very long time. We can’t see the end to this tragedy.”
Although Ya’alon has quieted his rhetoric against the Iran nuclear deal since it was reached in July, he stressed that “we still consider the deal a historic mistake.”
“What we have achieved is to delay the Iranian nuclear program for 10-15 years,” he said, describing the end date for this period as “around the corner.” In the meantime, he said, it is no coincidence that Jordan and Egypt have both expressed an increased interest in acquiring civilian nuclear know-how from Russia. Another byproduct of the deal, he said, was a conventional arms race in response to increased Iranian capacity to fund militant groups in the region, now that sanctions are being lifted and foreign money once again flowing into the country.
Ya’alon argued that although the recently released International Atomic Energy Agency report demonstrated that Iran had “cheated the West again and again and again,” he now “believes that they are going to comply” with the terms of the agreement.
“Why? Because they need the money for their economy,” he concluded. “Iran is under economic pressure but is still committed to becoming a military nuclear power,” he emphasized.
Ya’alon also touched upon the recent thaw in relations between Washington and Jerusalem in the aftermath of the fight over the nuclear agreement.
“The relationship between our two defense establishments is superb, superb, not less than that,” he gushed. Obama himself, Ya’alon revealed, has directed that a new 10-year memorandum of understanding regarding defense aid be concluded in the next two months. The renewal of the memorandum is a top priority for Israel, and Ya’alon has met repeatedly with his US counterpart Ash Carter, to discuss it.
Turning to the current violence at home, the hawkish minister condemned Palestinian incitement as a root cause of the months-long uptick in violent attacks by Palestinians against Israeli targets.
“We do not want to rule over the Palestinians,” Ya’alon said, but complained that the prospects for peace were limited by poor Palestinian governance. “Since the dawn of Zionism, we have not had a Palestinian leadership that recognizes the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state,” he said.
Ya’alon advocated a slow, gradual approach toward Palestinian statehood, emphasizing that as defense minister, he would recommend that even in a final arrangement, Israel retain control of the Palestinian state’s “external boundaries.”
“We don’t want to govern them, but we shouldn’t be in a hurry,” he said. “Let’s make progress slowly, slowly.”