Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon is a man full of surprises and twists and turns. Having already made a few sharp U-turns in his life, his policy during Operation Protective Edge is also said to be one such turn.
One of Israel’s prominent, hard-line right-wing leaders today, Ya’alon has been the dominant champion of an approach to the effect that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) must neither launch a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip nor conquer it. At most, Israel must make do with an operation to destroy Hamas’ terror tunnels. As a result of his approach, scathing criticism from within the circles of his own Likud Party and the right wing was leveled at him. Yet he remained undeterred. When Ya’alon makes up his mind about something, he follows his decision through. When he is immersed in one concept or another, he will not raise his head to look around him. He will have no second thoughts and he will not waver. Instead, he will believe in his approach, paying no attention to other alternatives.
Ya’alon was once part of the Labor movement’s flesh and blood. This was the movement that founded Israel, ruling it during the first 29 years of its existence. Born in Kiryat Hayim — a northern suburb of Haifa — he hails from a blue-collar family. His mother was a Holocaust survivor. He joined the Nahal, a program combining military service and agricultural development. By becoming a member of kibbutz Grofit in the Arava region near Eilat, he chose the path of the settlement movement, which was affiliated with the long-standing Labor Party — home to former Israeli Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.
In 1995, Ya’alon was appointed director of military intelligence, a position that opened his eyes, turning this snow-white dove into a voracious hawk. In this capacity as the “national intelligence assessor,” which carries the greatest responsibility in the country, he became privy to the most sensitive material that is gathered by Israel’s well-oiled intelligence machine. It is in this job that the initial doubts as to the true intentions of the Arabs were instilled in him.
He heard them talking, thinking, planning and scheming. By his understanding, they did not really want to make peace. It started to dawn on him that he may have been wrong all along. But even before reaching this realization, Ya’alon found himself in an awkward situation. In 1996, after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Ya’alon made a statement at a press conference that put him at loggerheads with the media but more so with his own conscience. It took place during the wave of suicide bombings that Hamas mounted in Israeli cities. Shimon Peres, having just replaced the late Rabin, was on the eve of a general election, knowing full well that his chair was tottering. The Israeli public refused to come to terms with the fact that buses were occasionally blowing up in city centers. Having received a “pep-up talk” from one of Peres’ close advisers, Ya’alon said that “Hamas’ terrorist attacks were an Iranian attempt to meddle in Israel’s domestic politics.”
What he was essentially saying is that Iran was trying to stir the pot of Israel’s own affairs and influence the outcome of the elections. In other words, Iran was taking action to prevent Shimon Peres from being elected prime minister.
The Iranian plot, if we were to accept Ya’alon’s analysis, succeeded. Peres indeed lost the elections to Benjamin Netanyahu by a narrow margin of a few votes. According to Ya’alon’s associates, this statement weighed heavily on him for a long time. He was regarded as a military official who was trying to interfere in a democratic election. Furthermore, it ran counter to the very truth that had just started seeping into his mind. It appears that back then, the process of his awakening was still premature.
In retrospect, he realized that he had served as a political pawn. By the time he was appointed chief of staff in 2002, he was much more insightful, prudent and suspicious. He did not cooperate with peace initiatives and dovish world views, and the truth of the matter is that it wasn’t called for. Those were the years of the second intifada during which rivers of blood washed over Israel. Ya’alon led the war on terror and its eradication by the IDF and Shin Bet during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 and thereafter, having taken this position two months after the conclusion of Defensive Shield’s operational part.
Toward the end of his term he got himself in another sticky situation by expressing his objection to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement plan” in 2005 to evict all the Israeli communities from the Gaza Strip as well as four more in northern Samaria. Ya’alon’s body language spoke volumes, and Sharon, through his defense minister Shaul Mofaz, decided not to extend his term by one more year, which was the norm. Disgruntled, Ya’alon reluctantly ended his tour after only three years.
Ya’alon’s about-face was completed when he joined the ranks of the Likud Party. The man who hailed from the Labor movement, the kibbutznik who was born in the movement’s bastion in Kiryat Hayim and took all the steps toward becoming a senior leader of the left-wing Labor Party, started batting for the right-wing camp.
On the eve of the 2009 elections, he joined the Likud Party and was instantly and publicly embraced by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Back then, Ya’alon’s wife, Ada, sent long emails to the couple’s close friends, attesting to the mental, conceptual, psychological and emotional revolution that she and her husband had gone through. Those emails, some of which were published in the Israeli daily Maariv, are a fascinating document.
At the end of the day and after a tortuous odyssey, Ya’alon landed his dream position of becoming the defense minister of the state of Israel. Those who did not want him as chief of staff for a fourth year were now getting him as their defense minister, who by then had become the standard bearer of the right in the Likud and the settlers’ loyal ally. He is one of the champions of the theory that Israel has no real partner in Judea and Samaria and that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t really want to make peace and is unable to sign a permanent status agreement with Israel. In light of this, what needs to be done is to manage the situation and improve as much as possible the Palestinians’ economic condition, while building their government and legal institutions and waiting for the generation that will be willing to accept the historic compromise, give up the right of return and recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Then Operation Protective Edge came along. Those who expected Ya’alon to lead Israel, as well as Netanyahu and the IDF, into a hair-raising, bold and reverberating adventure in Gaza were proven dead wrong. At the beginning of this operation, Ya’alon was trapped within an erroneous conception, being convinced that Hamas had no interest in seeing the events escalate. He believed that Hamas had no plan to engage Israel in a round of fighting and that the rocket fire would subside after a day or two. His view emanated, among other things, from erroneous intelligence assessments, causing damage to him and the IDF throughout this operation. Ya’alon misread the fact that not only was Hamas interested in this round of fighting but that it had actually prepared and intended to go to war — the largest in its history — in order to break away from the blockade and dead end.
Ya’alon was vehemently opposed to the demands made by right-wing ministers Avigdor Liberman, Naftali Bennett and Gilad Erdan to broaden the operation, conquer Gaza or at least have the IDF engage Hamas’ core forces in a real, head-on confrontation. At the beginning, the defense minister made do with airstrikes. It was only after the infiltration of 13 Hamas commando fighters through a terrorist tunnel near kibbutz Sufa in Israel on July 17 that he was persuaded, together with Netanyahu, to dispatch large forces on a campaign to “destroy the tunnels.”
On Aug. 1, when 1st Lt. Hadar Goldin from Brigade Givati’s reconnaissance unit (and also Ya’alon’s distant relative) disappeared in Rafah and was thought to have been abducted, Ya’alon, like a solid rock, faced those clamoring to change the rules of the game and switch to the ''landlord-has-gone-mad'' concept (meaning all means permitted) in Gaza. His and Netanyahu’s plan — namely, to finish dealing with the tunnels and then unilaterally pull out of Gaza — remained unchanged. Ya’alon demonstrated stability, resilience and refusal to submit to the heat of battle.
What can be concluded from the above is that you can take a person out of the Labor Party, but it is uncertain that you can take the Labor Party out of a person’s mindset. Ya’alon remains a pragmatic, non-radical, calculated, focused person who shuns adventures. There’s no way you can make a comparison between him and Bennett and Liberman. These events remind me of an incident that occurred in 2003 when Ya’alon was chief of staff. One night, Hamas’ top political and military leaders got together for a rare, perhaps even one-off meeting at a particular building in Gaza. Among the attendants were Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the movement’s founder; Mohammed Deif, the head of the military wing; Ismail Haniyeh; and many of the organization’s senior political and military leaders. This was the height of Israel’s targeted killings and such an opportunity — namely, to cut off all of the Hydra’s heads at once with just one bomb — had never before presented itself.
Yet there was a problem. The meeting was held in a populated building. The Israeli air force wanted to drop a one-ton bomb – the largest at its disposal — to ensure that the building collapsed and its occupants killed. On the other hand, there was a real danger that innocent people would also be hurt. A short while before that, in July 2002, Israel had killed the arch-murderer Salah Shehade. Thirteen civilians were killed in that operation for which Israel came under severe criticism. Having learned his lesson from Shehade’s targeted killing, Ya’alon hesitated. At first, he wanted to abort the operation. “There will be other opportunities,” he said. Later on, together with the political echelon, he decided to reduce the size of the bomb from 1,000 kilograms to 250. Such a bomb would only destroy the floor where Hamas leaders were gathering, the experts said.
The air force ejected the bomb with great precision. The problem, however, was that it was fired at the third floor, where the meeting was originally scheduled to take place. However, at the very last minute, the meeting was moved to the first floor. Hamas leaders were rattled by the collapse of the third floor, but recovered after a minute or two. Dusting themselves off, they escaped unscathed. It is hard to imagine what the situation would have been like today if Deif had been killed on that night 11 years ago.
Even today, on Aug. 5, when an Egyptian-brokered 72-hour cease-fire has been announced and the IDF is pulling out its forces and deploying on the international border, Ya’alon continues to stick to his guns steadfastly: moderation, pragmatism, taking the circumstances and the data into account. He continues to refuse to go into adventures that, though you know how they start, you have no clue as to if and how they will conclude.
Although his conduct during Operation Protective Edge will cause him heavy damage among the right-wing, hard-line settlers, who until recently put him on a pedestal, it will, however, cement his position among the public in general. Ya’alon has been — and remains — a serious contender to succeed Netanyahu, provided that the latter ever plans to leave anything to anyone.