Four years ago, when Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon was named vice prime minister and minister for strategic affairs, he considered hiring Naftali Bennett for the position of director-general of his ministry. At the time, Bennett was a fresh-faced, charismatic 36-year-old who sported an impressive resume, which included a stint as the chief of staff of then-opposition chief Benjamin Netanyahu.
Who knows? Perhaps if Ya’alon had hired Bennett, it would’ve spared the Likud the headache it is dealing with today, having to fight Bennett for votes that are migrating rightward. In an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom, Ya’alon denies past reports that he was pressured by officials in the Prime Minister’s Bureau to turn Bennett away.
“Bennett was a candidate for the director-generalship of my ministry,” he said. “Ultimately, I wound up choosing somebody else for the post, Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, formerly the head of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Directorate. This was not an appointment that was political in nature, but rather professional. I didn’t rule out Bennett. I just preferred somebody else who vied for the job. I chose someone whom I knew from our days in the IDF. This was someone with whose work I was familiar in Military Intelligence and the Planning Branch, someone who had management and executive experience in civilian life. He does good work.”
Q. What about those who say that Bennett has taken votes from the Likud due to the moderate diplomatic agenda that you have pursued in the last four years?
“Here, I see a number of worrying signs, and this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this in Israeli politics. People say that every scenario points to Netanyahu being the next prime minister. Every poll indicates that the public has deemed Netanyahu to be worthy of being prime minister, and that he is the most qualified in every category. Whether it’s foreign relations, security matters, the economy, and every other issue, Netanyahu defeats all the other candidates. The other parties, like Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, are exploiting this situation and are offering to "strengthen" Netanyahu from the Right, just as Bennett said, or to strengthen the middle class, as Yair Lapid suggests.
“This is a serious mistake, because voting for the others will weaken Netanyahu instead of strengthening him. The Likud with 27 seats had a difficult time maintaining a coalition. So how can people complain about the government having 30 ministers? The prime minister was forced to pay off all sorts of parties who were dragging him here and there. Instead of holding the wheel with two hands, he had to deal with petty politics," Ya'alon says.
“The dangerous trend”
Ya’alon, 62, is quite pleased with the Likud’s policies as the ruling party, though he does note that there were political exigencies at play. “There are those who complain about the freezing of settlement construction for 10 months,” he said. “That was the result of the previous government’s left-wing tilt. Having numerous, small parties in the coalition is a problematic thing. If people want the prime minster to lead, that means they have to vote for his party.”
Q. Do you realize why many people are attracted to Bennett’s image?
“I have nothing but praise for young, talented people who are ready to take the plunge and enter politics, because they understand that it is in politics that decisions are made. But where do they get off thinking that they can be in a position of leadership without having any experience? As brigade commander, did I ever think that I could immediately be prime minister? Some of the candidates in the field are roughly equivalent to company commanders in the army when it comes to their experience and training, and they now want us to believe that they are ready to lead. They should show a bit of humility, a bit of responsibility, a bit of maturity.”
Q. But why are so many young people drawn to them?
“Because it’s impossible to criticize these candidates, nor is it possible to blame them for anything. They haven’t made any significant decisions in the public or political sphere in their lives. You could criticize us because we’ve made a lot of decisions. When you make decisions, it’s never between the best possible decision and the worst. The best is always found in slogans and speeches. When these things are put to the test, we are always subject to the prevailing circumstances, be they political, diplomatic, coalition politics, or budgetary. At the end of the day, we need to divvy up the pie, so there will always be someone who criticizes you because you didn’t give a big enough piece to this, that, or the other.
“In addition, there are votes for parties who are creating a lot of buzz. Within Habayit Hayehudi, there is also a lot of buzz. It’s a trendy thing, and there’s a lot of excitement over something new that hasn’t stood the test of time. Could these young people serve as cabinet ministers? This is a dangerous scenario that the public has the power to stop by simply behaving responsibly at the ballot box. The Likud-Beytenu offers a slate of experienced candidates. It is led by the man who occupies the prime minister’s chair and has proven the value of his experience in the last four years, which adds up to a total of seven years as prime minister.”
Q. There is an entire bloc of people who officially registered with Likud but will eventually vote for Bennett. Do you think there need to be changes made to the party’s internal bylaws?
“There were similar claims made regarding certain individuals within the Likud who register as party members just to vote in the primaries but on Election Day cast their ballots for a different party altogether. This is a very serious matter. It’s dishonest, but I have a hard time seeing how it is possible to change the system. There are also those who say that merging the list with [Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor] Lieberman turned off longtime Likud supporters. I can’t speak to how accurate that is, nor can I definitively state that I know what would’ve happened if we had not gone through with the merging of the lists. As of today, and into the future, the list offered up by the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu is twice the size of the second-largest list. From this standpoint, this is like a chess maneuver for these elections.”
“Golden calves smashed to pieces”
According to the former army chief, the Likud has no reason to form a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox because “this artificial division of those who are for and against the ultra-Orthodox is simply not correct.”
“Obviously, if we are a large coalition, then the influence wielded by certain elements are more limited, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the ultra-Orthodox or others,” he said. “If the Likud finishes the election campaign as the strongest party, we will deal with issues that we didn’t have a chance to complete, chief among them the cost of living. We will also foment a revolution in the area of housing. As for universal conscription, I proposed a formula that has already been accepted and will call for a more equitable sharing of the burden of national service, all of this with the ultra-Orthodox parties in the government.”
“The numbers show that in the last four years, this is indeed the trend. We’re not talking about a drop in the ocean. People just don’t understand this. I’m in favor of integrating the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs and having them shoulder an equal share of the national obligations from a social and economic standpoint. These things are dependent on one another. We have increased the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts without having to send them to jail. In 2012, 2,400 ultra-Orthodox Jews enlisted, and in 1999, I took them into the army [as chief of staff] as one platoon that totaled 100 soldiers. In 2007, they grew to 300, which is a battalion. Now we are talking about 2,400, and this year we will reach 3,000 conscripts.”
Ya’alon is a dyed-in-the-wool realist. It is through this prism that he offers scathing criticism of Tzipi Livni. In his view, her campaign slogan — “Hope will triumph over fear” — which implies that the Likud-Beytenu is killing national hope, is “delusional.”
“The public doesn’t buy it,” Ya’alon said. “In the past, they tried to sell us hope, and it brought us the delusion, alongside terrorism, that claimed 1,000 lives. Then they tried to sell us on the notion that if we left Gaza, it will bring quiet. This also turned out to be a delusion, and we woke up with thousands of rockets.”
“Kadima with Livni tried to sell us on the notion of the ‘realignment plan,’ which, thank God, did not take place,” he said. “Imagine if we had to deal with a Palestinian entity that fires rockets into central Israel, a terrorist enclave. Imagine having snipers firing on neighborhoods in Jerusalem, mortars from Bethlehem that land in the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s a good thing that the realignment, as marketed by [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert, eventually blew up. I like to refer to it as the golden calf that ended up smashed to pieces.”
“What especially angers me is that Tzipi Livni, who was Olmert’s foreign minister who led the negotiations with Abu Ala [then Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei]; who experienced firsthand the Palestinian insistence on refusing to agree to an end of the conflict and an end to all claims; who saw how Olmert offered Abu Mazen 100 percent of the territory, including parts of Jerusalem, as well as the right of return, still says that there is a partner while blaming Netanyahu as the intransigent party. She even has the gall to make these accusations abroad, like at the Saban Forum and other events. Personally, I was not surprised by Abu Mazen’s rejection, because he has never said that the occupation began in 1967. Instead, he insists that the occupation is 64 years old. This is hope? No, this is a delusion.”
“Stop talking about a solution,” he said. “Let’s instead talk about a path that we must follow, and that path is construction. We need to invest in education, infrastructure, settlement, science, and technology. This is the real hope. There is no partner for an agreement.”
“Yachimovich as a partner”
Q. Ya’alon cannot envision a scenario in which Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t put together the next coalition. He is sharply critical of rival claims that they are ready to immediately inherit the mantle. Will Ya’alon have a difficult time sleeping at night knowing that Shelly Yachimovich is prime minister?
“Certainly,” he said. “Sleeping calmly with Shelly as prime minister? No way! I would presume that she, too, will have a hard time sleeping restfully.”
There are those who argue that the country needs a civilian-minded leadership rather than one drawn from the military. Take, for example, Barack Obama, who leads the free world despite having no prior military experience.
“In the U.S., the system is different. There, you have to prove leadership, but the president also builds a team of professionals around him. Here, it all comes down to the ministers. It doesn’t matter if you call the forum the kitchen cabinet or the Forum of Nine, or six. Either way, the final decision is made by one man, the prime minister.”
“We’ve already seen what happened when we had inexperienced leadership at the helm, with Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz. We saw how the enemy regarded this leadership. It hurt our deterrence. With Kadima in charge, inexperience was clearly the Achilles heel. I am intimately familiar with all the things that take place surrounding the prime minister by virtue of the experience I’ve amassed [as minister] and also as head of Military Intelligence and chief of staff. Do you know what kind of burden the prime minister needs to bear when he must give authorization for a military operation? That’s not all. Afterward, people complain to him about economic and social issues.”
“The prime minister in Israel doesn’t have what the U.S. president has — a group of people around him who do the work. The system here is different. The cabinet ministers are the close advisers. So now Shelly Yachimovich is going to jump up and declare, ‘Either I’m prime minister or opposition chief’? Give me a break. She should first sit in on some cabinet discussions so that she could at least know the right questions to ask during critical moments.”
There are precedents in which people have been appointed to high office without having military backgrounds.
“It’s not a question of military experience. The question is whether you have the ability to handle things better. A civilian could amass experience on diplomatic and security affairs by being a minister that would allow him to gain experience in those areas. There are people who did not reach the higher ranks of the military, like Netanyahu. He wasn’t high in the chain of command, but he did amass experience in various posts that were related to foreign policy. In fact, when he first became prime minister, he had a lot of difficulty. I was his head of Military Intelligence, and I saw this firsthand.”
Ya’alon is concerned over former Israel Security Agency chief Yuval Diskin’s outbursts against the premier. “This is unacceptable,” he said. “When the civilian leadership huddles with those who were appointed to nonpolitical jobs, there is a secrecy surrounding the talks that allows for a real discussion so that everyone can say what they think. Relaying those statements to the outside world in one way or another — and to do this in such a slanted way — is an error.”
“I sat in on all of these meetings, which dealt with the most sensitive issues. These are sensitive discussions over the Iranian issue, the Palestinian matter, how to react in certain situations regarding Gaza or Syria. The prime minister is attentive, and he is ready to listen to people. Sometimes there are disagreements. We have also disagreed at time. Sometimes he accepted my opinion, and sometimes I accepted his opinion. What can be better than having an open discussion? I witnessed too many commanders who out of populist motives refused to have frank discussions. I’ve heard all of the criticisms from the last four years. At the end of the day, have we embarked on any kind of adventure? Also, the professional echelon is not party to all of the discussions. For four years, we acted responsibly. You could look back at the previous government and compare the manner in which it prosecuted operations.”
Q. Have you spoken with Diskin?
“I spoke with Meir Dagan on one occasion after he made statements, and I also spoke with Diskin before he was interviewed. To have these statements be published two weeks before the elections doesn’t smell good. At the end of the day, I have yet to meet anyone who after all the dust has settled thinks that we need to reconcile with a nuclear Iran.”
Q. Can Diskin be tried for the things that he said?
“I don’t think we need to go the legal route over everything that’s said. But there are things here that should’ve been filed under the category, ‘It is not done.’”
Q. Do you think that the three-year legal moratorium for anyone who served in a senior position in the security echelon and wishes to enter politics is appropriate?
“I’m very much in favor of the law because I saw how people viewed chiefs of staff toward the end of their terms in office as potential political threats. Three years of being ineligible to enter politics wards away these suspicions. Also, if someone who headed a defense agency has any thoughts about politics just before being discharged, it mustn’t influence his professional opinion. This is an appropriate time frame, and it should be enforced.”
Q. It seems as if the Iranian issue has disappeared from the election campaign. Is this deliberate?
“Yes, it’s true that it has disappeared from the campaign, but it hasn’t disappeared from the government’s agenda. The prime minister views this as the top issue when it comes to foreign affairs and defense policy. Any level-headed person can see that the Iranian regime is not just acting against us, but throughout the region, from Afghanistan to Syria.
“There always needs to be a credible military option in the background, so that the Iranian regime is placed before a dilemma that would require it to choose between having a nuclear bomb and surviving. We led the charge in a responsible manner, and ultimately we were the ones who put this issue on the agenda. We led the West to take stern action against them. This is not enough. So from our standpoint this issue remains at the top of our list of priorities.”
Q. So what now?
“The waiting is a result of the new administration that is coming into office in the U.S. even though it’s the same president. I believe that we will once again see the Americans take action. President Obama said that he would act to prevent a nuclear Iran. We are not eager for war. With my military background, I always say: ‘The military option is always the last.’”
Q. Does the appointment of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense attest to the fact that the White House is not on the same wavelength as we are?
“I think that over the course of the last four years, Prime Minister Netanyahu has led a policy toward the U.S. that is based on shared interests and values. At times, however, there are disagreements. When they arise, you pay a price, but you don’t clash over the issue. Instead, you take steps toward the president. On matters related to basic national security interests, however, you need to make a stand. Where does this lead to now? I don’t know. Whoever is afraid of the prospect of the U.S. abandoning us needs to understand that Israel-U.S. ties are not a one-way street and they are not personal. In the teeming Middle East, the only entity that is closely and acutely tied to American interests is Israel.”
Q. Are you concerned over the Hagel appointment?
“I don’t want to get into domestic American political issues, and I don’t think that this or that appointment will change the joint interests upon which such an intimate, close relationship has developed. I know what you’re talking about. I have received two citations from the president of the U.S. — once when I was chief of staff and the second time as head of Military Intelligence. This tells you something about the depth of the relationship. And I wasn’t alone. There were a number of other people who received citations.
“As for Hagel and his past remarks, let’s first allow him to go through the confirmation hearings. I believe that during those hearings he will explain what he meant when he said what he said. When he enters office, I’m sure that the depth of the relationship will bring him to understand just how important and deep these joint interests are.”
Q. Will you be the next defense minister?
“Why are you asking me about the Defense Ministry? Why not ask me about the Environmental Protection Ministry?”
Q. It’s natural to ask, don’t you think?
“Yes, it is natural, but we’ll wait and see. We can’t divide up the bear’s hide before we’ve even set out to hunt.”
Q. Have you heard from the prime minister regarding whom he intends to appoint as defense minister?
“The prime minister has decided not to promise anything to anyone, and he is adhering to this rule. We’ll wait and see.”
Q. Did the outgoing defense minister, Ehud Barak, whom you accuse of pulling the government leftward, cause damage to the state?
“I prefer to look forward. Obviously, the Labor Party pulled the government in a certain direction. Then, Ehud, with his opinions, pulled the government in his own direction. There were issues on which we didn’t agree. Operation Pillar of Defense was flawlessly executed. I think that this is the appropriate time to thank him for his service to the state both in the military and in politics. After all, he did serve for the benefit of the State of Israel.”