Commentary Magazine


What Did Moshe Yaalon Really Say?

Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies at Columbia–and (depending whom you asked and at what point in the 2008 presidential campaign you asked it) friend, acquaintance, or friendly acquaintance of Barack Obama–had an op-ed column in yesterday’s New York Times. The piece was fairly unremarkable in its boilerplate condemnation of Israel’s military operation in Gaza. What caught my attention, however, was the article’s last sentence, in which Khalidi, seeking to illustrate what he sees as Israel’s true goal and motivation, employed an alleged 2002 quote from former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Moshe Yaalon:

The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.

Pretty strong imagery, bringing to mind an Israeli boot planted firmly on the neck of a prostrate Palestinian. The only problem is that the quote appears to be inaccurate–and in fact turns the meaning of Yaalon’s actual words upside down.

The bogus version of the quote does not originate with Khalidi (though he did use it in his 2005 book Resurrecting Empire), but had been circulating on the web since at least early 2003 if not before. It has been cited ad nauseam by Arab news services, neo-Nazi websites and leftist bloggers, though only occasionally with reference to the venue of Yaalon’s alleged remark and never with a hyperlink to the actual article where it supposedly appeared–an August 2002 interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Here is what Yaalon actually said when asked, “Do you have a definition of victory? Is it clear to you what Israel’s goal in this war is?”:

I defined it from the beginning of the confrontation: the very deep internalization by the Palestinians that terrorism and violence will not defeat us, will not make us fold. If that deep internalization does not exist at the end of the confrontation, we will have a strategic problem with an existential threat to Israel. If that [lesson] is not burned into the Palestinian and Arab consciousness, there will be no end to their demands of us….

Responding to a follow-up question, Yaalon elaborated:

…The facts that are being determined in this confrontation–in terms of what will be burned into the Palestinian consciousness–are fateful. If we end the confrontation in a way that makes it clear to every Palestinian that terrorism does not lead to agreements, that will improve our strategic position. On the other hand, if their feeling at the end of the confrontation is that they can defeat us by means of terrorism, our situation will become more and more difficult. Therefore, I say that we must not blur the weighty meaning of this confrontation. When you grasp the essence, it’s clear to you what you have to do. You have to fight for your life.

Tellingly, the same week that Haaretz ran the interview with Yaalon, a rival Israeli daily, Yediot Aharanot, published the transcript of a speech Yaalon had just given to a conference of rabbis in Jerusalem. Its blunt tone drew intense criticism from liberals and leftists, but the sentiments expressed dovetailed with what Yaalon told Haaretz:

It is imperative that we win this conflict in such a way that the Palestinian side will burn into its consciousness that here is no chance of achieving goals by means of terror.

It’s clear, then, that in both his speech to the rabbis and his interview with Haaretz, Yaalon–far from saying the Palestinians had to be “made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people”–was stating that the Palestinians had to understand that Israel would not be defeated by violence and terror.

Further indication that Yaalon did not make the remark attributed to him by Khalidi and others is the fact that two days after publication of the Haaretz interview, Israeli uber-leftist Uri Avnery wrote a column in the Israeli daily Maariv dissecting Yaalon’s statements and listing nine points he found particularly offensive to his (Avnery’s) left-wing sensibilities. There was no reference to any statement by Yaalon about making the Palestinians understand that “they are a defeated people.”

It’s hard to say with any degree of certainty who first circulated the egregious misquote, but one of the earliest and most oft-cited sources is Henry Siegman, formerly a Jewish organizational official and for years now one of Israel’s fiercest critics in the American Jewish community. Siegman has used the misquote in a number of columns over the past six years, though not always consistently.

What is fairly certain is that this is yet one more example of an insensitive or incendiary comment falsely attributed to Israeli officials (one of the most notorious is the statement Ariel Sharon is supposed to have made regarding Israel’s control of Congress) and given eternal life in cyberspace for the comfort and edification of Israel’s enemies.

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