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Why Is Yaalon Not Playing By the Rules?

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is not playing by the rules. Members of the Israeli Cabinet are not supposed to be publicly telling the truth about American foreign-policy failures. But while it is to be expected that minor officials will mouth off on occasion about heavy-handed U.S. attempts to prop up the Palestinians or pressure the Jewish state into concessions, the man who is in charge of the Israeli defense establishment is supposed to understand that candor about the Obama administration interferes with his primary duties, which involve close security coordination with Washington.

Yaalon first pushed the envelope on U.S.-Israeli relations back in January when he had the bad manners to talk about Secretary of State John Kerry’s “messianic” obsession with Middle East peace that seemed divorced from the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians. But when he disparaged the U.S. as too “weak” to deal with Iran and that Israel was going to be forced to act on its own, that was too much for the Americans. A “senior American official” responded with what Haaretz termed a “blistering personal attack” in which Yaalon’s commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship was questioned.

What’s going on here? Why is Yaalon, previously known primarily as more of a defense intellectual than a firebrand, twisting the U.S. tiger’s tail in this manner? Is it part of a strategy cooked up by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu aimed at showing the Americans that Israel won’t be intimidated by pressure tactics? Or does it have to do with Yaalon’s political ambitions? And do Yaalon’s doubts about America’s trustworthiness reflect mainstream Israeli thinking on the subject?

Those who assume the defense minister’s impolitic comments are part of a clever coordinated strategy in which Yaalon is playing bad cop to Netanyahu’s good cop with the Americans are probably wrong. Israeli politics is rarely that neat and tidy. Netanyahu has rightly come to the conclusion that no good will come from publicly challenging the U.S. on the peace process at the moment. It’s even more far-fetched to think the prime minister would have approved of a senior colleague’s decision to dissect the disastrous mistakes the U.S. has made in other conflicts such as the current crisis over Russian aggression against Ukraine, especially coming from the man who must work closely with the U.S. defense establishment. Yaalon was forced to walk back his personal attack on Kerry in January. It’s likely that he will need to do the same with his even more pointed blast at the Americans.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Yaalon’s views as extreme. The defense minister is not alone in thinking that the Obama administration’s retreats in the Middle East and weakness in dealing with Russia have undermined Israel’s security. American failures in Syria and Ukraine undermine faith in America’s ability to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The question is not whether Yaalon was right about doubts about the U.S. but whether this is something the defense minister should be saying in public rather than in private.

The answer to that question is obviously not. Though, as Yaalon rightly notes, U.S. security cooperation to Israel is mutually beneficial rather than a gift, it still ill behooves the top defense official of an American ally to behave in this manner.

This kind of display does strengthen Yaalon’s support among the Likud party faithful and other right-wing members of Netanyahu’s coalition. Were Netanyahu to step down or to decide not to run for reelection in 2017, it would make a lot of sense for Yaalon to be trying to shore up his right flank in a campaign for prime minister. But Yaalon is not likely to succeed Netanyahu. The prime minister is, after all, only one year older than his defense minister. Though Netanyahu is not that popular among a Likud membership that has grown even more right-wing in recent years, Yaalon is a typical former general whose political skills don’t match those of his boss. Nor is it likely that Netanyahu would split the party as Ariel Sharon did in 2005 leaving Yaalon with a chance to lead its rump.

Yaalon’s frustration with the U.S. is understandable. He may also be worried about whether the prime minister will buckle under American pressure. But he wouldn’t be the first former general to be outmaneuvered by Netanyahu. If he keeps popping off in this manner, he may discover that this kind of truth telling isn’t as politically useful as he thinks.



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