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Yaalon’s Unwelcome Peace Process Truths

Give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some credit. In his first term as Israel’s leader in the 1990s, he might well have issued a statement like the one attributed to Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon yesterday in which the former general trashed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and damned the security plan that he presented to Israel this month as “not worth the paper it’s written on.” Since returning to the prime minister’s office in 2009 Netanyahu has done his best to keep the relationship with Washington from overheating. If there have been a series of scrapes with the Obama administration, that is largely the fault of the president’s desire to pick policy fights with him and the prime minister has done his best not to overreact. No matter how wrong Israel’s leaders may think their American counterparts are, little good comes from public spats. As Netanyahu knows, the only ones who benefit from exposing the daylight between the two countries’ positions are the Palestinians and other foes.

But apparently Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon hasn’t gotten the memo about not telling off the Americans. In an apparently unguarded moment, the former general spouted off about Kerry, the peace process, and the Palestinians yesterday, and the subsequent report in Yediot Ahronot published in English on their Ynetnews.com site brought down a firestorm on the Israeli government. Though Yaalon walked back his comments in a statement to the media, he did not deny the accuracy of the original Yediot story. This indiscretion won’t help Netanyahu in his dealings with either Obama or Kerry. It is especially foolish coming from a cabinet minister whose department has worked closely with the administration on security measures throughout the last five years to Israel’s benefit in spite of the political differences between the governments. But leaving aside the diplomatic harm he has done his country, honest observers must admit that what Yaalon said was true. The question facing both Israel and the United States is not so much what to do about Yaalon or other members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet who can’t keep their mouths shut, but at what point it will behoove the two governments to acknowledge the futility of Kerry’s endeavor.

Having already conceded that Yaalon was stupid to say such things within earshot of a reporter, the defense minister gets no sympathy here for the abuse he is taking today in Israel’s press as well as from parliamentary allies and foes. The Israeli government has to be frustrated with Kerry’s persistence in pushing for concessions from them, especially when they see no sign of moderation on the part of their Palestinian peace partners who will not accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn nor renounce the right of return for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. But as damaging as pressure on Israel to accept the 1967 borders and the division of Jerusalem may be, so long as Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is prevented by the reality of his people’s political culture and the threat from Hamas and other opposition groups from ever signing a deal that would end the conflict, Netanyahu knows that the best policy is to avoid an overt conflict with the U.S.

That said, Yaalon’s reminder of the absurdity of Kerry’s quest does help clarify the situation for those naïve enough to believe the talks have some chance of success.

Yaalon’s assertion that the negotiations are not between Israel and the Palestinians but between the Jewish state and the U.S. is self-evident. The PA has repeatedly demonstrated that it won’t budge from uncompromising positions against realistic territorial swaps or security guarantees, much less the existential questions of refugees and two states for two peoples. All that has happened in the past year is that Israel has been prevailed upon to bribe the PA by releasing terrorist murderers for the privilege of sitting at a table again with Abbas.

Nor can there be any real argument with Yaalon’s assessment of Kerry’s behavior when he described the secretary’s crusade as “inexplicably obsessive and messianic.” Few in either Israel or the United States, even those who are most in favor of his efforts, thought he had much of a chance to start with and there’s been no evidence that the odds have improved. His crack that “all that can save us is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace” makes no sense since the only way the secretary will get such an honor is if Abbas signs on the dotted line. But it probably also reflects what Abbas is thinking since his goal is to prevent an agreement without actually having to turn one down publicly.

Yaalon is also right to dismiss the security guarantees Kerry has offered Israel in exchange for a withdrawal from the West Bank. The example of the Gaza withdrawal—which Yaalon opposed when he was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, a stand that led to his term being cut short by former prime minister Ariel Sharon—as well as the situation along the border with Lebanon illustrates what happens when Israel tries to entrust its security either to Palestinian good will or third parties.

But perhaps the most incisive of Yaalon’s controversial comments was his assertion that Abbas’s future was dependent on Israel’s remaining in the West Bank, not on its departure from the territories:

Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) is alive and well thanks to us. The moment we leave Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) he is finished.

Without an Israeli security umbrella, Hamas or more radical Fatah factions would have deposed Abbas a long time ago. His administration over most of the West Bank is simply impossible without Israeli help. Pretending that this isn’t the case is one of the key fictions that form the foundation of Kerry’s conceit about giving Abbas sovereignty over the area and why such a deal or a unilateral Israeli retreat, as some are now suggesting, would repeat the Gaza fiasco.

Most Israelis would applaud any effort to separate the two peoples and desperately want an agreement that would end the conflict for all time rather than merely to pause it in order for the Palestinians to resume it later when they are in a more advantageous position. Though the minister shouldn’t have criticized Kerry publicly, until the secretary and those who are supporting his pressure on Israel and not on the Palestinians can answer Yaalon’s politically incorrect comments, the peace process is doomed. 



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