Commentary Magazine


Topic: Moshe Yaalon

Kerry’s Diplomatic Double Standards

So, Secretary of State John Kerry is deeply upset and insulted that Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, criticized U.S. strategy and suggested that the United States is exuding weakness. One would think the former senator from Massachusetts would have a thicker skin, and might also consider if there was something to Yaalon’s remarks, however undiplomatic they might have been. Never mind, however. What is truly revealing is how Kerry acts in other circumstances when officials from other countries make similar statements castigating U.S. policy.

Here, for example, is Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, speaking earlier this month: “America no longer creates events in the region; rather it is the Muslims who create events and the Americans are forced to be another actor in decline, although not a dominant player. Meanwhile, the Americans have lost operational power against Syria today and this is a great proof for Muslims.” Kerry’s reaction? Crickets. Obama’s reaction? Nada. And, lest this be seen as an exception rather than the rule, here is an excerpt (and my analysis) of a statement from Tehran that went even further last month. And where is Kerry every time Iranian leaders encourage chants of “Death to America” after Friday prayers in central Tehran?

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So, Secretary of State John Kerry is deeply upset and insulted that Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, criticized U.S. strategy and suggested that the United States is exuding weakness. One would think the former senator from Massachusetts would have a thicker skin, and might also consider if there was something to Yaalon’s remarks, however undiplomatic they might have been. Never mind, however. What is truly revealing is how Kerry acts in other circumstances when officials from other countries make similar statements castigating U.S. policy.

Here, for example, is Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, speaking earlier this month: “America no longer creates events in the region; rather it is the Muslims who create events and the Americans are forced to be another actor in decline, although not a dominant player. Meanwhile, the Americans have lost operational power against Syria today and this is a great proof for Muslims.” Kerry’s reaction? Crickets. Obama’s reaction? Nada. And, lest this be seen as an exception rather than the rule, here is an excerpt (and my analysis) of a statement from Tehran that went even further last month. And where is Kerry every time Iranian leaders encourage chants of “Death to America” after Friday prayers in central Tehran?

The Obama administration’s heightened sensitivity to criticism doesn’t apply to the Palestinian Authority either. Kerry remains silent when his much-heralded partner in peace talks not only rejects American positions but also lionizes terrorists and murderers, hardly an attitude that advances U.S. interests in the region.

Bashing allies isn’t going to bring respect back to the United States on the world stage, nor is forcing allies to genuflect. Diplomatic temper tantrums aren’t going to imbue Kerry with an aura of competence that his policies and actions haven’t managed to achieve. Sometimes, tough words from friends are necessary, even with the moral inversion that currently underpins Obama and Kerry’s words and actions.

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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?

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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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Martin Indyk vs. Moshe Ya’alon

Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon violated the first rule of diplomacy–always compliment the emperor on his wardrobe, and limit your comments to concerns about his well-intentioned but possibly counterproductive wardrobe policy. But as Seth Mandel noted, Ya’alon is not alone in his concerns, and the private expression of them has had no effect on the Obama administration–other than to lead it to attack Ya’alon. Israeli columnist Ron Ben-Yishai writes that Ya’alon’s comments were a long time coming:  

Ya’alon is mainly against the security aspect [of the framework agreement], and [Kerry and his team] are presenting him as the chief party pooper in briefings they are giving politicians and former senior Israeli military officials. Kerry’s personal emissary, former Ambassador Martin Indyk, has not been shy about his opinion on Ya’alon either, and this has all reached the 14th floor at the Defense Ministry building. Ya’alon didn’t like the defamation and the brawl broke out after bubbling for quite a long time in utmost discretion.

In 2009, Martin Indyk wrote that Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians “allow Israel the means to defend itself” sounded “like a new precondition”–a “well-practiced Netanyahu negotiating tactic.” In 2010, Indyk took to the New York Times op-ed page to castigate Israel for approving Jewish housing in a longstanding Jewish area of the capital of the Jewish state. He considered it a “strategic setback” that required reversal as “the litmus test of Netanyahu’s commitment to the common cause of curbing Iran’s nuclear enthusiasm.” In the same op-ed, he concluded that “nothing could better help Obama to isolate Iran than for Netanyahu to offer to cede the Golan” to Syria. Later, Indyk urged Israel to jump out a window for peace.

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Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon violated the first rule of diplomacy–always compliment the emperor on his wardrobe, and limit your comments to concerns about his well-intentioned but possibly counterproductive wardrobe policy. But as Seth Mandel noted, Ya’alon is not alone in his concerns, and the private expression of them has had no effect on the Obama administration–other than to lead it to attack Ya’alon. Israeli columnist Ron Ben-Yishai writes that Ya’alon’s comments were a long time coming:  

Ya’alon is mainly against the security aspect [of the framework agreement], and [Kerry and his team] are presenting him as the chief party pooper in briefings they are giving politicians and former senior Israeli military officials. Kerry’s personal emissary, former Ambassador Martin Indyk, has not been shy about his opinion on Ya’alon either, and this has all reached the 14th floor at the Defense Ministry building. Ya’alon didn’t like the defamation and the brawl broke out after bubbling for quite a long time in utmost discretion.

In 2009, Martin Indyk wrote that Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians “allow Israel the means to defend itself” sounded “like a new precondition”–a “well-practiced Netanyahu negotiating tactic.” In 2010, Indyk took to the New York Times op-ed page to castigate Israel for approving Jewish housing in a longstanding Jewish area of the capital of the Jewish state. He considered it a “strategic setback” that required reversal as “the litmus test of Netanyahu’s commitment to the common cause of curbing Iran’s nuclear enthusiasm.” In the same op-ed, he concluded that “nothing could better help Obama to isolate Iran than for Netanyahu to offer to cede the Golan” to Syria. Later, Indyk urged Israel to jump out a window for peace.

Indyk’s self-defenestration suggestion was contained in another 2010 New York Times op-ed, entitled “For Once, Hope in the Middle East,” where Indyk also wrote that:

Security arrangements were all but settled in 2000 at Camp David before the talks collapsed. The increased threat of rocket attacks since then, among other developments, require the two sides to agree on stricter border controls and a robust third-party force in the Jordan Valley.

In other words, he belatedly conceded that the “all but settled” security arrangements of 2000 would not have been effective against the “increased threat of rocket attacks” and the “other developments” that occurred thereafter, and he agreed that something more was necessary. So he revised his position to endorse a “robust” international force in the Jordan Valley.

The word “robust” is the adjective diplomats use to make unimpressive nouns sound convincing. It is the word Condoleezza Rice repeatedly used to describe the international force in Lebanon, which had no effect on Hezbollah’s rearming other than to serve as a human shield for it. In 1967, the “robust” international force in the Sinai was withdrawn days before the Six-Day War, which helped lead to it. The reasons why Israel cannot rely on international forces for its security are shown succinctly (and persuasively) in this short video.

Ron Ben-Yishai’s article also noted that “Ya’alon, and many in Israel” are skeptical about what is behind Kerry’s current intensive campaign, because:

Ya’alon and quite a few Israeli government ministers believe that the conditions for such an agreement have actually not matured at the moment. The turmoil in the Arab world, the growing tsunami of al-Qaeda activists on our border and the refugees filling Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, are all causing Abbas to be concerned and avoid reaching an agreement with Israel, which might even cost him his life.

Indyk’s effort is part of a co-ordinated campaign to sideline Israel’s defense minister, by a peace processor whose past policy prescriptions for Israel’s security have been consistently wrong, but who–one must hasten to add–is a very snappy dresser.

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Yaalon’s Not Alone

Moshe Yaalon’s comments about John Kerry appear to have been something of a Kinsleyan gaffe, when a politician is caught telling the truth. The accuracy of the comments may explain the swift and pained How dare you response from Foggy Bottom, and Yaalon declined to immediately deny or disavow the comments, instead preferring to apologize for their offense.

Not much attention has been paid to why Yaalon made the comments, though. Israeli officials do sometimes forget the delicate egos of some Western politicians, so it can perhaps be written off as sabra prickliness. But surely Yaalon knows better. If the Israeli administration–this being the most English-proficient one in memory–had concerns, they could have spelled them out in private. Why cause a stir? Shmuel Rosner floats one rather convincing explanation:

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Moshe Yaalon’s comments about John Kerry appear to have been something of a Kinsleyan gaffe, when a politician is caught telling the truth. The accuracy of the comments may explain the swift and pained How dare you response from Foggy Bottom, and Yaalon declined to immediately deny or disavow the comments, instead preferring to apologize for their offense.

Not much attention has been paid to why Yaalon made the comments, though. Israeli officials do sometimes forget the delicate egos of some Western politicians, so it can perhaps be written off as sabra prickliness. But surely Yaalon knows better. If the Israeli administration–this being the most English-proficient one in memory–had concerns, they could have spelled them out in private. Why cause a stir? Shmuel Rosner floats one rather convincing explanation:

It is funny how both left and right use “messianic” as the ultimate insult. But even if Defense Minister Yaalon should not have publically stated that State Secretary Kerry is “obsessive and messianic”, it doesn’t mean he is not right in making this assessment. David Horovitz aptly summed it up in one sentence: “Ya’alon’s been thoroughly dumb. But he’s not entirely wrong”. In fact, a majority of Israelis would say that he is right. And while the Americans have been rushing to get some diplomatic mileage out of Yaalon’s mistake – to “put Israel in its place, perhaps to put it on the defensive as Kerry comes back to continue his diplomatic efforts”, as Herb Keinon remarks – one would hope that this fact was not lost on them. One would hope that they realized that their initiative hardly impresses the Israeli public and its leadership. In other words, if you want to put a positive spin on Yaalon’s carelessness, try this: He was a messenger that had to be sacrificed in order to send a clear message of dissent to the American mediator, a message that no polite disagreement behind closed doors can convey.

The public fracas was the only way to get the message across. The harsh reaction from the U.S. suggests why: this administration doesn’t listen. Washington was shocked by comments that shouldn’t have surprised them in the least, but they famously pay no attention to the concerns of others.

I wrote about this in November, on the heels of Kerry’s Iran deal. The secretary of state was surprised by virtually everything–French objections, Israeli protestations, Saudi warnings, even Iranian declarations–that everyone else had been hearing for weeks, if not longer. Kerry’s single-minded quest for a deal with Iran had led him to stick his fingers in his ears, which had the practical effect of our secretary of state being the last to know much of the relevant information.

And so it’s important to note that whatever the wisdom of his comments, Yaalon’s not alone, even among close allies. The Daily Beast talks to Hew Strachan, the British military historian and defense advisor, and gets a brutal judgment of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and sense of strategy:

Sir Hew Strachan, an advisor to the Chief of the Defense Staff, told The Daily Beast that the United States and Britain were guilty of total strategic failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Obama’s attempts to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels “has left them in a far worse position than they were before.”

The extraordinary critique by a leading advisor to the United States’ closest military ally comes days after Obama was undermined by the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who questioned the President’s foreign policy decisions and claimed he was deeply suspicious of the military.

Strachan, a current member of the Chief of the Defense Staff’s Strategic Advisory Panel, cited the “crazy” handling of the Syrian crisis as the most egregious example of a fundamental collapse in military planning that began in the aftermath of 9/11. “If anything it’s gone backwards instead of forwards, Obama seems to be almost chronically incapable of doing this. Bush may have had totally fanciful political objectives in terms of trying to fight a global War on Terror, which was inherently astrategic, but at least he had a clear sense of what he wanted to do in the world. Obama has no sense of what he wants to do in the world,” he said.

In this sense John Kerry is a symptom of the underlying problem: personnel is policy, especially when it comes to the leader of the free world. There were talented, experienced, and well-respected options for Obama’s top Cabinet posts, so it threw many for a loop when he picked Kerry and Chuck Hagel at State and Defense. But Obama doesn’t appreciate constructive criticism or robust debate. Obama, the Washington Post explained a year ago, “spent the last four years immersed in all of this stuff and can now make decisions based on his own observations not the idea that you always just need to get the ‘best person for the job’.”

This lack of talent was deliberate, and our allies noticed. They then tried to mitigate the damage by raising their concerns behind closed doors. They were ignored, of course. As a last resort, they have taken to voicing their alarm aloud. It’s not always constructive or diplomatic. But the administration would be mistaken to assume that Yaalon is an outlier.

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Belief Undeterred by the Facts

After the Israeli defense minister’s undiplomatic skepticism about the peace process prompted a diplomatic flap earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry announced yesterday that he is “undeterred,” explaining, “I believe strongly in the prospects for peace.” In that, Kerry isn’t alone: An entire industry has arisen around the belief that Israeli-Palestinian peace is imminently attainable, and it is consistently “undeterred” by the facts. For a classic example, consider the joint Israeli-Palestinian poll released in late December under the unequivocal headline, “The majority of Israelis (63%) and of Palestinians (53%) support the two states solution.”

That sounds very promising, until you read the fine print. And then it turns out that most Palestinians don’t support the two-state solution at all–or at least, not the one whose terms “everyone knows.” In fact, when presented with the elements of that “everyone knows” package, defined by the researchers as based on the Clinton parameters and the Geneva Initiative, 53 percent of Palestinians opposed it, while only 46 percent supported it.

Moreover, several specific clauses were rejected by both Palestinians and Israelis, though Israelis supported the overall package by 54 percent to 37 percent.

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After the Israeli defense minister’s undiplomatic skepticism about the peace process prompted a diplomatic flap earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry announced yesterday that he is “undeterred,” explaining, “I believe strongly in the prospects for peace.” In that, Kerry isn’t alone: An entire industry has arisen around the belief that Israeli-Palestinian peace is imminently attainable, and it is consistently “undeterred” by the facts. For a classic example, consider the joint Israeli-Palestinian poll released in late December under the unequivocal headline, “The majority of Israelis (63%) and of Palestinians (53%) support the two states solution.”

That sounds very promising, until you read the fine print. And then it turns out that most Palestinians don’t support the two-state solution at all–or at least, not the one whose terms “everyone knows.” In fact, when presented with the elements of that “everyone knows” package, defined by the researchers as based on the Clinton parameters and the Geneva Initiative, 53 percent of Palestinians opposed it, while only 46 percent supported it.

Moreover, several specific clauses were rejected by both Palestinians and Israelis, though Israelis supported the overall package by 54 percent to 37 percent.

For instance, Palestinians opposed the “everyone knows” plan for dividing Jerusalem (Israel retains Jewish neighborhoods, including the Old City’s Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, while Palestinians get Palestinian neighborhoods, including the rest of the Old City and the Temple Mount) by a whopping 68 percent to 32 percent. That’s consistent with their longstanding refusal to recognize any Jewish connection whatsoever to Jerusalem. But Israelis also rejected it overwhelmingly, 56 percent to 37 percent, consistent with their longstanding opposition to ceding Judaism’s holy site, the Temple Mount. The shared opposition also reflects both sides’ understanding of the proposal’s sheer impracticality (as I explained here).  

By an even larger majority, 71 percent to 28 percent, Palestinians opposed the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state (Israelis, unsurprisingly, supported it). Yet this has long been recognized by international mediators as an essential security element of any deal.

On refugees, the researchers managed to craft a proposal that both parties rejected. Palestinians opposed it by a relatively narrow margin, 52 percent to 46 percent, which initially surprised me: Most polls show much stronger Palestinian opposition to abandoning their dream of eliminating the Jewish state by resettling millions of Palestinians there. But after reading the fine print, I understood why: On this issue, the researchers ditched the Clinton parameters in favor of the Geneva Initiative, which no Israeli government ever has accepted or will accept.

Under this plan, Israel cedes its right to determine how many Palestinians to let into its territory, committing instead to accept the average number accepted by third-party states–some of which, like Jordan, have granted citizenship to millions of Palestinians. Hence it garnered less Palestinian opposition than the standard version, which lets Israel decide how many Palestinians to accept. But, unsurprisingly, Israelis rejected it decisively (50 percent to 39 percent).

Finally, there’s the most important clause of all: Even “after the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the settlement of all issues in dispute,” Palestinians still rejected “mutual recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and Palestine as the state of the Palestinian people,” by a majority of 56 percent to 43 percent. In short, even after all other issues are “resolved,” Palestinians still refuse to recognize the Jewish people’s right to a state of their own.

So what exactly does it mean that Palestinians “support a two-state solution”? The same thing it has always meant, as an unusually honest 2011 poll revealed: not two states living side by side in peace and security, but two states as a stepping-stone to Israel’s ultimate eradication. That’s why they insist on resettling millions of Palestinians in Israel; that’s why they reject any Jewish connection to Jerusalem; and that’s why they can’t recognize Israel as “the state of the Jewish people.”

And as long as that remains true, Kerry’s belief in “the prospects for peace” really is “messianic”–however unwise it was of Moshe Ya’alon to say so.

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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.

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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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Avigdor Lieberman Returns

The most unpopular popular Israeli politician has returned to center stage. Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, was acquitted this morning in Jerusalem on fraud charges that have been following the Moldova-born firebrand around for the latter part of his political career. The case involved a former ambassador who passed to Lieberman information he had on a police investigation, who Lieberman was then accused of promoting. Though the shadow of scandal never deprived Lieberman of advancement in his own meteoric career–he gave the huge Russian immigrant community a party to rally around, making him a kingmaker in the Knesset–it appeared that his legal trouble had finally caught up with him.

That’s because his former deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Danny Ayalon, had agreed to testify against Lieberman. (Ayalon, who had previously been Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and made a habit of running circles around his leftist antagonists on Twitter, was dropped by Lieberman from the party slate before the last round of elections.) But Lieberman won this battle too–and, it seems, his protracted war with the Israeli legal system. When he was finally hit with the latest charges, in late 2012, Lieberman stepped away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu has held the position of foreign minister for Lieberman in the event he would return. And now he has.

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The most unpopular popular Israeli politician has returned to center stage. Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, was acquitted this morning in Jerusalem on fraud charges that have been following the Moldova-born firebrand around for the latter part of his political career. The case involved a former ambassador who passed to Lieberman information he had on a police investigation, who Lieberman was then accused of promoting. Though the shadow of scandal never deprived Lieberman of advancement in his own meteoric career–he gave the huge Russian immigrant community a party to rally around, making him a kingmaker in the Knesset–it appeared that his legal trouble had finally caught up with him.

That’s because his former deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Danny Ayalon, had agreed to testify against Lieberman. (Ayalon, who had previously been Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and made a habit of running circles around his leftist antagonists on Twitter, was dropped by Lieberman from the party slate before the last round of elections.) But Lieberman won this battle too–and, it seems, his protracted war with the Israeli legal system. When he was finally hit with the latest charges, in late 2012, Lieberman stepped away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu has held the position of foreign minister for Lieberman in the event he would return. And now he has.

“This chapter is behind me,” Haaretz quotes Lieberman as saying after the acquittal. “I am now focusing on the challenges ahead.”

Lieberman’s political power does not stem from his job title; it’s the other way around. Yet his relative political independence has always been something of a barometer of his electoral strength, and the argument can be made that it’s on the wane, acquittal or no acquittal.

Lieberman started out managing Netanyahu’s campaigns in the early 1990s, and when Netanyahu became prime minister, Lieberman was arguably the Likud Party’s second most powerful member. Yet Lieberman had found a way to tap into the Russian immigrant community’s desire for authentic political representation–Lieberman was himself a Soviet immigrant–in a way that others, like Natan Sharansky, didn’t. In 1999 he formed his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu. As his domestic constituency grew in influence, prime ministers made it a point to find a place for him in their governments, until they started needing Lieberman more than he needed them.

There was always going to be a ceiling of support over Lieberman for demographic reasons. But it was a high ceiling: Russian immigrants account for about 20 percent of Jewish Israelis. Additionally, in an age of fragmented party politics in Israel, Lieberman’s ability to garner 15 or so seats per Knesset was worth steadily more as it became rare for the winning party to even break the 30-seat barrier.

But it also meant Yisrael Beiteinu was perpetually a bridesmaid, and so a year ago Lieberman merged with Likud. He did so because he is younger than the Likud old guard and was positioning himself to one day inherit the Prime Minister’s Office. But Israeli politics is governed by a centripetal force that keeps the Knesset consistently close to the Israeli political center (which is to the right of where most Westerners think it is) and thus militates against the accumulation of overwhelming power in any one party’s hands. Minor parties are also disproportionately powerful in Israel, so larger parties tend to produce diminishing returns after a while.

Because of all that, the new Likud-Beiteinu party did not gain the vote share of the two parties combined; it simply fell into place as a strangely throwback version of Likud, with Bibi and Lieberman at the helm. It is to that party that Lieberman now returns.

Lieberman’s portfolio remains a powerful one, and self-styled “centrist” flash-in-the-pan parties tend to fizzle, so Lieberman may still be better positioned for the long haul than his political rivals. But oh how he has political rivals! In his absence, Israel saw the rise of another secular nationalist–albeit slightly less nationalist–who is seen as far more palatable to the West in Yair Lapid. And the Israeli political scene welcomed the charismatic tech entrepreneur and pro-settlement politician Naftali Bennett, whose new party won 12 seats in the last elections (and briefly made liberal American journalists lose their minds–something he has in common with Lieberman).

On the left, the Israeli Labor Party is showing signs of life with a new leader, Shelly Yachimovich. Tzipi Livni is still hanging around, and her work on the peace negotiations arguably enabled Netanyahu to let her act as foreign minister the way Ehud Barak did when he was defense minister. Speaking of defense minister, Barak’s departure from government opened the space for Moshe Ya’alon to take the defense portfolio, giving Lieberman another powerful rival within Likud.

And yet, Lieberman doesn’t appear too concerned, perhaps because his career has acquired a reputation for indestructibility. Indeed, there is something comical about the way Lieberman’s political career rolls along like a tank despite the scandals, intrigue, and alienation associated with it. His adversaries have always underestimated his toughness and political skills, a mistake that has consistently served him well and may yet continue to do so.

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Computer Viruses Won’t Stop Iran

Iran’s confirmation that the computers of a number of their officials have been attacked by a new virus will give further ammunition to those who argue that the nuclear threat from the Islamist regime can be neutered by intelligence coups and technology. Like the Stuxnet virus which supposedly flummoxed Iran’s scientists last year, the new Flame worm may cause some havoc in Tehran and the nuclear facilities scattered around the country. And it will give Western and Israeli intelligence agencies and government officials a chance to crow about their capabilities, much as Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon did today.

But even if this is Israel’s handiwork and the damage it does is greater than then the mere temporary inconvenience wrought by Stuxnet, no one should be fooled into thinking a virus will ultimately stop Iran’s nuclear program if the regime is determined to persist in its goal. Any technological attack will spawn a defense and a counter-attack. Though Flame may give Israel and/or the West a temporary advantage in the cyber war being conducted with Iran, it cannot by itself or even in combination with other covert activities such as assassinations, solve the problem. That is only possible by diplomacy or force.

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Iran’s confirmation that the computers of a number of their officials have been attacked by a new virus will give further ammunition to those who argue that the nuclear threat from the Islamist regime can be neutered by intelligence coups and technology. Like the Stuxnet virus which supposedly flummoxed Iran’s scientists last year, the new Flame worm may cause some havoc in Tehran and the nuclear facilities scattered around the country. And it will give Western and Israeli intelligence agencies and government officials a chance to crow about their capabilities, much as Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon did today.

But even if this is Israel’s handiwork and the damage it does is greater than then the mere temporary inconvenience wrought by Stuxnet, no one should be fooled into thinking a virus will ultimately stop Iran’s nuclear program if the regime is determined to persist in its goal. Any technological attack will spawn a defense and a counter-attack. Though Flame may give Israel and/or the West a temporary advantage in the cyber war being conducted with Iran, it cannot by itself or even in combination with other covert activities such as assassinations, solve the problem. That is only possible by diplomacy or force.

Israel’s public skepticism about the P5+1 talks being conducted by the West with Iran about its nuclear ambitions is well-founded. Even though the United States and its European, Russian and Chinese allies deserve credit for not folding completely during the second round of talks last week in Baghdad, the Iranians continue to refine uranium and to get closer to a stockpile that could create a bomb. Iran has every expectation that if it hangs tough, either President Obama or the European Union will crack sometime this summer and abandon plans for an oil embargo in exchange for an inadequate deal that would preserve Tehran’s nuclear program.

Unlike the West’s faltering diplomacy, a course of action that accomplishes nothing except to prevent Israel from attacking Iran, it must be conceded that computer viruses at least have the virtue of slowing the regime’s nuclear progress, though how much, we don’t know. But we do know that for all of the hoopla about Stuxnet, such delays were temporary and strategically insignificant. We can hope for better from Flame, but the odds are it will be just a pinprick, not a decisive stroke. As much as such schemes allow us hope for a solution short of armed conflict, unless a miracle happens and diplomacy succeeds, sooner or later the West and Israel will be faced with a choice between force and living with a nuclear Iran. Like Stuxnet, Flame may put off that day, but it cannot prevent it from happening.

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Another Year, Another Peace Process

Carl in Jerusalem has a perceptive analysis of Secretary Clinton’s statement on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, addressing some of the concerns in my post about the omitted phrase “defensible borders” — a diplomatic term of art that has been dropped without explanation from the lexicon of the Obama administration.

Carl notes another significant omission, this time on the Palestinian side: Clinton referred to the goal of an “independent and viable” Palestinian state but omitted a word that has been insisted upon by the Palestinians:

There’s a key word missing here: contiguous. I have argued many times on this blog that if a ‘Palestinian’ state is contiguous, then by definition the Jewish state would be neither contiguous nor secure. Thus Clinton’s omission of the word contiguous from her formulation, if tracked in the [potential] letter to the “Palestinians,” is significant.

There may be a connection here. If a “contiguous” Palestinian state is not consistent with an Israeli one with “defensible” borders — and vice versa — Clinton may have simply ducked the issue by leaving both words out of her statement.

As the year ends, it is time for a broader look at the peace process, which has to date produced three Israeli withdrawals (from Lebanon, Gaza, and part of the West Bank); three Israeli offers of a Palestinian state (at Camp David, in the Clinton Parameters, and during the Annapolis Process); three Palestinian rejections; and three wars – one from each area of the withdrawal. The enterprise is apparently too big to fail, even though it repeatedly does.

The Obama administration thought it would try its own unique approach – creating daylight between the U.S. and Israel, reneging on longstanding understandings about settlements, demanding pre-negotiation concessions, disregarding the 2004 Bush letter – but has not yet been able to get even new negotiations started. So we end the year just as it began, with a no-state solution that may be the best option under the circumstances.

As we now proceed to the 17th year of the peace process, it is worth re-reading Maj. Gen (Ret.) Giora Eiland’s valuable 2008 monograph for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Rethinking the Two-State Solution,” as well as two other paradigm-changing analyses from 2008: Caroline Glick’s “Israel and the Palestinians: Ending the Stalemate,” and former IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Moshe Yaalon’s “Israel and the Palestinians: A New Strategy.” Taken together, they provide the outline of a more reliable roadmap. Giora, in particular, argues persuasively that the current two-state paradigm is a zero-sum game that will not work even if a comprehensive peace agreement is achieved — and even if it were actually implemented:

Even in such a case, there is no chance that a Clinton [Parameter]-style solution would be stable or sustainable, for at least two reasons: the Palestinian state would not be viable, and Israel’s borders would not be defensible. The combination of these two problems would inevitably catapult the two sides back into a cycle of violence.

A strategy of artful formulations, such as Secretary Clinton’s confident statement about negotiations resolving the goals of both sides – while failing to list the conflicting ones of defensible borders and the demand for a contiguous state — is not likely to be successful. Meanwhile, the sponsor of Hamas and Hezbollah marches toward weapons of mass destruction, unimpeded by an unperturbed Barack Obama.

Carl in Jerusalem has a perceptive analysis of Secretary Clinton’s statement on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, addressing some of the concerns in my post about the omitted phrase “defensible borders” — a diplomatic term of art that has been dropped without explanation from the lexicon of the Obama administration.

Carl notes another significant omission, this time on the Palestinian side: Clinton referred to the goal of an “independent and viable” Palestinian state but omitted a word that has been insisted upon by the Palestinians:

There’s a key word missing here: contiguous. I have argued many times on this blog that if a ‘Palestinian’ state is contiguous, then by definition the Jewish state would be neither contiguous nor secure. Thus Clinton’s omission of the word contiguous from her formulation, if tracked in the [potential] letter to the “Palestinians,” is significant.

There may be a connection here. If a “contiguous” Palestinian state is not consistent with an Israeli one with “defensible” borders — and vice versa — Clinton may have simply ducked the issue by leaving both words out of her statement.

As the year ends, it is time for a broader look at the peace process, which has to date produced three Israeli withdrawals (from Lebanon, Gaza, and part of the West Bank); three Israeli offers of a Palestinian state (at Camp David, in the Clinton Parameters, and during the Annapolis Process); three Palestinian rejections; and three wars – one from each area of the withdrawal. The enterprise is apparently too big to fail, even though it repeatedly does.

The Obama administration thought it would try its own unique approach – creating daylight between the U.S. and Israel, reneging on longstanding understandings about settlements, demanding pre-negotiation concessions, disregarding the 2004 Bush letter – but has not yet been able to get even new negotiations started. So we end the year just as it began, with a no-state solution that may be the best option under the circumstances.

As we now proceed to the 17th year of the peace process, it is worth re-reading Maj. Gen (Ret.) Giora Eiland’s valuable 2008 monograph for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Rethinking the Two-State Solution,” as well as two other paradigm-changing analyses from 2008: Caroline Glick’s “Israel and the Palestinians: Ending the Stalemate,” and former IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Moshe Yaalon’s “Israel and the Palestinians: A New Strategy.” Taken together, they provide the outline of a more reliable roadmap. Giora, in particular, argues persuasively that the current two-state paradigm is a zero-sum game that will not work even if a comprehensive peace agreement is achieved — and even if it were actually implemented:

Even in such a case, there is no chance that a Clinton [Parameter]-style solution would be stable or sustainable, for at least two reasons: the Palestinian state would not be viable, and Israel’s borders would not be defensible. The combination of these two problems would inevitably catapult the two sides back into a cycle of violence.

A strategy of artful formulations, such as Secretary Clinton’s confident statement about negotiations resolving the goals of both sides – while failing to list the conflicting ones of defensible borders and the demand for a contiguous state — is not likely to be successful. Meanwhile, the sponsor of Hamas and Hezbollah marches toward weapons of mass destruction, unimpeded by an unperturbed Barack Obama.

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