Ariel Sharon’s former advisers and surrogates would probably burst out laughing if this comparison were presented to them. Israel’s former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon would also probably reject it. But less than a week after the earthquake that shook Israeli politics, it is no longer entirely fanciful to imagine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu losing power—like he has in the past—to a decorated general who assures “Middle Israel” that he will keep the country safe while also appealing to a segment of the Israeli center-left. Ya’alon, who quit the government last week amidst negotiations to replace him with the Soviet-born Avigdor Lieberman, a security hardliner who never saw combat in any army, is already discussing a joint run with other disappointed Likudniks, such as former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and perhaps even Yair Lapid—who likes to emphasize that he grew up in a household that supported Menachem Begin. Two other former IDF chiefs of staff—Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz—are also seriously considering entering politics, a development that would only further weaken Netanyahu’s hold on the argument that he is the best-suited candidate to deliver security to Israelis.
How serious is all this talk? Here’s what Moshe Arens, the former Likud Defense Minister, who is famous for being the person who jump-started Netanyahu’s political career by appointing him to a senior position in the Israeli embassy in Washington in the 1980s had to say about the Ya’alon saga, just two days ago:
All Israelis were lucky to have Ya’alon as defense chief these last few years, and this luck now seems to have run out. Choosing between an excellent defense minister serving in a narrow coalition and firing an excellent defense minister and obtaining a few more coalition votes should have been easy. But Benjamin Netanyahu made the wrong choice. … The confidence of much of the public that Likud can be trusted to assure Israel’s security—confidence that has kept Likud in power for many years—has been shaken by this recent escapade. … A political earthquake is in the offing.
Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t watch a lot of television. But if there’s one show that Israel’s prime minister does try to catch, it’s the Friday evening news broadcast on Channel 2, the country’s most popular outlet. Netanyahu believes that this program, in which a group of five or six of Israel’s most recognized analysts and correspondents discuss the political developments of the passing week, influences the public discourse in the country more than any other.
If Netanyahu was watching the program last Friday, he probably didn’t enjoy it. The main issue being discussed in the studio was Netanyahu’s surprising decision, announced just two days earlier, to fire his Defense Minister, former IDF General Moshe Ya’alon, and replace him with one of his fiercest political rivals, Avigdor Lieberman.
The six-member panel, sitting around a round table, mostly discussed the political aspects of Netanyahu’s move. Some said it was yet another display of his political genius: A year after Lieberman refused to enter Netanyahu’s coalition, forcing the prime minister to rely on a narrow and shaky majority of only 61 members of Knesset (out of a total of 120 in the Israeli parliament), Netanyahu had finally convinced the leader of the Russian immigrant “Yisrael Beitenu” party to put the past behind, in return for the second-most influential post in the Israeli government.
Others argued that the move had backfired, after Ya’alon—who learned about his humiliating dismissal through reports in the press—refused to accept Netanyahu’s condolence offer to become Foreign Minister, and instead went on the attack. Announcing his resignation from the government, the tall and bald-headed Defense Minister delivered a scathing attack on Netanyahu, warning that “extremist and dangerous elements … have taken over Israel and the Likud movement. This is no longer Menachem Begin’s Likud, the Likud I joined. These elements are threatening our house and everyone inside it.”
As the other journalists in the studio were talking politics, Channel 2’s veteran military correspondent Roni Daniel suddenly asked his colleagues to keep quiet for a minute, because he had something important to say.
Daniel, a retired lieutenant colonel in the IDF, has been a regular presence in every Israeli living room for more than two decades. Unlike most senior journalists in Israel, who are considered liberal and left-leaning, he has long been a hero of the center-right. Segments featuring him yelling at pro-Palestinian activists and Arab members of Knesset have caught fire on social media; soldiers at military bases he visits line up to take “selfies” with him; and last year, he received a glowing interview in the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon (owned by Sheldon Adelson), which complimented him for his “patriotic tone of coverage” during the last Gaza war, and highlighted his attacks on the “leftist, thought-police junta” controlling the Israeli media.
That’s why when Daniel asked to say a few words about Ya’alon’s ousting, nobody expected what was about to come—not his colleagues in the studio, not the viewers at home, and certainly not the prime minister (if indeed he was watching).
“I’m not a young man anymore” Daniel, 67, said in an angry tone. “I grew up in a Kibbutz near the Jordanian border. I plowed the fields. I was told to go the army—I went to the army. They told me I need to become an officer—I became an officer. Reserve duty? They told me—you need to become a battalion commander, so I became a battalion commander. I fought in all the wars. And after this week I feel, for the first time in my life, that I’m not sure I want my kids to stay here. I’m not sure that’s what I want.”
When another reporter tried to ridicule his statement, Daniel banged his fist on the table and yelled—“I’m speaking from the bottom of my heart here.” It was an extraordinary emotional moment, even in an age of faux-dramatic reality TV. If there’s an equivalent in 2016 Israel to Lyndon Johnson’s comment about “losing middle America” as a result of losing Walter Cronkite on Vietnam, losing Daniel was probably it.
Netanyahu has been despised by large segments of the Israeli media for his entire career, and he has found it to be a blessing. During the last elections, the attacks on him by some newspapers became so grotesque, that even when accurate, damaging stories about him were published, many voters refused to believe them. But Roni Daniel is a different case. He has never attacked the prime minister like this before and in fact was asked more than once by Netanyahu to become his official spokesperson. Now the prime minister’s political maneuver, which put Lieberman in Ya’alon’s chair, had caused the gruff, popular analyst to publicly say he feared for the country’s future.
The source of Daniel’s anger wasn’t just the fact that Ya’alon, a decorated former general, lost the Defense Ministry to Lieberman, who had served only one year in a non-combat role in the IDF. What enraged Daniel was the notion that Israel’s “holiest of holies”—national defense—had become a political bargaining chip. Israelis are used to political tricks of all sorts, but the Defense portfolio is considered by many to be sacrosanct. Whoever sits in that ministry is responsible for the lives of Israel’s sons and daughters. The only criteria for this position, ideally, should be the professional qualifications required to help best protect the country—not the prime minister’s political interests.
Two days after Daniel’s emotional outburst, Netanyahu tried to contain some of the damage. In a press conference he held in Jerusalem, the prime minister said: “I hear the voices in the media, the attempts to spread fear and despair. If I may, I want to quote someone, who once said—‘enough with the sobbing and the crying.’”
As I listened to Netanyahu, I had to rub my eyes to make sure this was really happening. The man Netanyahu had just quoted was Ariel Sharon—formerly, his greatest political rival and personal nemesis—who had used that sentence in reply to complaints by senior officers in the Israeli police in 2004 and then made it a symbol of his philosophy of governance: Israelis needed to stop crying and complaining and start taking care of their future. Which is exactly what Sharon then did, by pulling Israel out of Gaza. To hear Netanyahu quote Sharon was just as strange as to watch Roni Daniel talk about leaving the country.
However, the more I thought about it, the more Netanyahu’s choice of words made sense to me. Netanyahu has probably thought about Sharon, who had tormented him more than any other political rival, quite a lot over the last few days. Ever since Sharon fell into a coma in 2006, there has been a large vacuum at the center of the Israeli political map, creating a quite comfortable situation for Netanyahu, who in the last Israeli elections faced a pair of weak challengers from the left and achieved an impressive victory. Yet the events of the last week provide a new opening for a centrist alternative to emerge and challenge Netanyahu. A prime minister who has lost the faith of someone like Roni Daniel risks losing the support of many moderate right-wing voters—people who will always prefer him to the weak and fractured Israeli left but would seriously consider supporting a party that’s “in the middle” of the political spectrum.
The last time Netanyahu ran against such a party, in the 2009 elections, he only barely won and was forced into a centrist coalition with the Labor Party as a result. The time before, in 2006, he badly lost, leading the Likud to its worst election result in history. History is known to repeat itself, especially in Israeli politics. And yet, in the case of Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Ya’alon, it is about to take a weird turn that no one could have ever expected.
In many ways, it was Ariel Sharon who turned Bibi Netanyahu and Moshe Ya’alon into political allies to begin with.
In July 2002, Sharon appointed Ya’alon as IDF chief of staff. Ya’alon entered the job just months after Operation Defensive Shield, which was the turning point in Israel’s battle against the second Intifada. Sharon felt that Israel could not afford a return to the dark days of the previous winter, during which suicide bombers exploded in the country’s largest cities on an almost daily basis. As the most experienced officer among the military’s senior command in the field of counter-terrorism, Ya’alon bore the responsibility to prevent that from happening.
In his first months on the job, Ya’alon was greeted with suspicion by many people on the Israeli right, including prominent figures in the settlement movement. He had grown up in a working-class family affiliated with the Labor Party, lived for years in a left-leaning Kibbutz, and was considered close to the slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In 1996, as the IDF’s chief intelligence officer, Ya’alon became the target of angry criticism from the right, after saying publicly that a string of Hamas terror attacks in the midst of that year’s Israeli election was “an Iranian attempt to intervene in our internal politics.” The hidden message behind his words was that Iran was trying to hurt the moderate Shimon Peres, who was working to improve Israel’s relations with the Arab world and to empower the hardline Netanyahu.
Sharon wasn’t bothered by all of that history. For him, Ya’alon was first of all the former commander of Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s elite commando unit, who in 1988 personally led a team from that unit to carry out the assassination of Khalil al-Wazeer, “Abu-Jihad,” Yasser Arafat’s deputy and the top terror-mastermind of the PLO. Ya’alon and his soldiers broke into Abu-Jihad’s home, in the suburbs of Tunis City, and killed the world-famous terrorist at the entrance to his bedroom. It was one of the most challenging operations in the history of the IDF, executed more than 1500 kilometers from Israel’s shores. In the operation’s radio network, Ya’alon was called “Bogart”—a funny takeoff on the dumb nickname he has been stuck with since his early childhood, “Bogie” (pronounced Boh-ggie). Israel never took responsibility for the attack, but it was a widely known secret that Ya’alon not only commanded it but also personally verified that Abu Jihad was dead.
Sharon was also aware of the fact that Ya’alon’s left-leaning image was misleading. The general had changed his worldview in the mid-1990s and adopted a more pessimistic and skeptical approach toward peace talks with the Palestinians. That happened, according to Ya’alon’s own telling, after he caught Yasser Arafat repeatedly telling outright lies to Israeli officials about terror cells operating in Gaza and the West Bank. Sharon considered Arafat a despicable liar who couldn’t be trusted—and was reassured that his top general thought the same.
But it didn’t take long for their relationship to hit the rocks. In October 2003, Ya’alon met with a group of senior Israeli journalists and surprised them by criticizing Sharon’s policies toward the Palestinians. For months, he explained to the group, the IDF and the Shin Bet had been asking the government to take some pressure off the Palestinian population in the West Bank, increase the number of Palestinians who could enter Israel with daily work permits, and take other steps to empower the Palestinian Authority’s recently appointed prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, whom Ya’alon believed could be nurtured as a moderate alternative to Arafat.
One leading newspaper quoted Ya’alon as saying that “the government’s policy is disastrous,” a quote Ya’alon denied using. Nevertheless, Sharon was enraged. His office issued an ultimatum to Ya’alon: apologize, or resign. Ya’alon chose the first option, although only half-heartedly. He insisted that all he did was voice the professional assessment of the IDF and that some of his words were misunderstood and taken out of context.
Ya’alon belongs to a generation of Israeli generals who fought as low-ranking officers in the 1973 War, which broke out after the government ignored constant warnings by the IDF intelligence corps that the Egyptians were preparing to attack Israel. In reply to Sharon’s anger, Ya’alon claimed that he couldn’t stay silent over what he believed was the possibility of a new outbreak of violence. The main lesson of 1973, he believed, was that Israeli officers should always speak their mind, since the consequences of remaining silent were much more dangerous than those of contradicting the government.
People who worked closely with Sharon at the time didn’t buy this explanation. In briefings, they pointed out that just a few months earlier, when Israel was working with previous Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (the man who would later succeed Arafat in 2005), Ya’alon supported a much harder stance toward him and resisted calls by other IDF generals to “cut him some slack.” One Sharon adviser told the press that “Ya’alon is contradicting himself on this matter.”
The prime minister’s people thought the entire affair smelled of opportunism, not principle. Ya’alon’s surrogates fought back against those accusations, explaining that Ya’alon had changed some of his recommendations based on new developments on the ground and that suggesting otherwise was an attempt to divert attention away from his professional analysis.
The next clash between Ya’alon and Sharon was even worse. However this time, the IDF chief of staff positioned himself to the right of the prime minister. In early 2004, Sharon shocked the country by announcing his plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip, including the evacuation of 17 Israeli settlements there. Most of the Israeli security establishment supported the plan, although there was some criticism about specific elements of it, such as the withdrawal from the “Philadelphi Route,” the narrow strip on the border between Gaza and Egypt, which would later be flooded with weapons smuggling (and later, by water).
Ya’alon, however, chose to differ. He thought the disengagement was a terrible mistake, which would send a signal of weakness and fatigue to Israel’s enemies. Ya’alon didn’t think Israel should stay in Gaza forever, but he believed the right way to get out was not unilaterally, but only after signing an agreement with the Palestinians. At first, Ya’alon sounded his warnings behind closed doors—but as is always the case in Israel, his assessments soon leaked to the press. Ya’alon—once again citing his 1973 reasoning—refused to deny or soften them. That, in turn, immediately turned him into one of the most popular figures on the right.
Ya’alon’s popularity grew when Sharon’s Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz—who was also Ya’alon’s predecessor as IDF chief of staff—decided to end Ya’alon’s tenure after only three years in office. Technically, it wasn’t an ousting, since every chief of staff’s term is officially limited to three years; but in most cases, the IDF’s top officer receives an extra year behind the wheel, during which he gradually prepares whoever is chosen to replace him for the top job. Ya’alon was notified that he was going to be an exception to that unwritten rule. In the media, the event was described as a humiliating dismissal.
Once again, Sharon’s close advisers viewed Ya’alon’s conduct as self-serving and accused him of laying the foundations for his future political career while still wearing his uniform. Once again, Ya’alon accused them of smearing him for no reason but to silence his principled opposition to their plan. Either way, his ouster from the military paved Ya’alon’s way into the Likud, where he was accepted with overwhelming joy and flattery.
In 2005, the same year he got rid of Ya’alon, Sharon also parted ways with the party he himself had founded in the 1970s in order to set up a new party, Kadima. The Likud, he explained, had become too extremist, overtaken by forces who put their own interests before those of the country. “I don’t recognize my party anymore,” he explained. In the 2006 elections that came right afterwards, Likud—led by Netanyahu, who had voted for the disengagement four times before changing his mind and opposing it—was crushed at the polls, and Kadima formed a center-left government.
This painful collapse made Ya’alon’s decision, in 2008, to join the Likud a reason for celebration: Three years after Sharon, arguably Israel’s greatest general ever, dumped the Likud, the party once again had a bona fide war hero on its team. Netanyahu said that “Ya’alon brings with him the moral values of Israel’s founding generation—courage, honesty, truthfulness, and in one simple word, Zionism. We are blessed to have him.” Some people found it weird that Ya’alon, the former Kibbutznik and Rabin protégé, was now singing the praises of Begin and Jabotinksy. But Likud’s party members and voters loved it.
As a newly appointed cabinet member in Netanyahu’s 2009-2012 government, Ya’alon didn’t disappoint his new supporters on the right. A few months after the government was founded, Netanyahu had to reprimand him for calling Peace Now, a pro-peace group founded by former IDF combat officers, “a virus in our society.” In 2014, now as defense minister, he managed to get Netanyahu in serious trouble with the Obama White House (perhaps the last area in which the prime minister needed external assistance), after he called Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic” and ridiculed his attempts to devise a security plan for the day after Israel’s future withdrawal from the West Bank.
Despite these incidents, however, Netanyahu was convinced that Bogie was an absolutely untradeable asset for the Likud. Over the last two decades, almost all of Israel’s former generals and spymasters have harshly criticized Netanyahu and attacked his policies on both Iran and the Palestinians. Former IDF chiefs of staff, Shin Bet general directors, and Mossad top operatives have publicly described the prime minister as “a fake messiah,” “an ego-maniac,” “a pathological liar,” “the worst manager I’ve ever worked with,” “a danger to Israel’s existence,” and “a coward who loses his balls at critical moments.”
In that regard, Ya’alon was a rare exception: a decorated former general who was actually to the right of Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue and shared the prime minister’s scathing criticism of the Obama Administration’s policy toward Iran (although, in private conversations, Ya’alon has reportedly remarked that Netanyahu’s apocalyptic descriptions of the Iranian threat to Israel are exaggerated).
Ya’alon was also viewed by Netanyahu as the most convincing voice Likud had in the public debate about Palestinian statehood. Unlike most strong opponents of the two-state solution, the secular Ya’alon never talked about things like the sanctity of the land or the promises made in the Bible. He also refrained from making racist statements about Arabs. Instead, Ya’alon had one simple and consistent argument against making concessions to the Palestinians: It was bad for Israel’s security.
“I’m not a supporter of ‘greater Israel,’ ” Ya’alon liked to explain in speeches and interviews. “I supported the Oslo Accords. I was willing to give up territory in return for peace. But the Palestinians are not partners for that kind of deal—at least not in the foreseeable future.”
And if all of that wasn’t enough, there was even another reason for Netanyahu to treat Ya’alon as one of the few people he could trust: The defense minister was known for his cautious and calculated approach toward the use of military force. Netanyahu is always mindful of the fact that at least three of his predecessors lost their jobs because of wars that had gone bad. He has been one of Israel’s least daring leaders when it comes to war.
Nowhere was the Netanyahu-Ya’alon shared skepticism toward large-scale military moves more evident than during the 2014 Gaza war. While much less experienced ministers in the security cabinet, such as Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, advocated for a full-scale invasion of Gaza, Ya’alon and Netanyahu insisted on a running a slow, cautious, and according to their critics, hesitant operation. On the one hand, the result was 51 days of fighting, longer than any Israeli war since 1948; on the other, Israel lost 71 soldiers during that period—significantly fewer than what would have probably happened if Lieberman and Bennett’s proposals had been accepted.
For all those reasons, when Lieberman came to Netanyahu after the last elections and said that his condition for entering the government was the Defense Ministry, Netanyahu replied that it was out of the question. Lieberman got the message and took his faction to the opposition, leaving Netanyahu with a crippled coalition of only 61 members of Knesset (out of a total of 120). From the back benches of parliament, he began tormenting Netanyahu in ways that no other party leader could even dream of. After all, no one knows Bibi better than Lieberman, who was his closest aide in the mid 1990s and then served as foreign minister under him for five years. He knew exactly what were Netanyahu’s weak spots, and now all he had to do was to press them—again and again and again.
To make things even easier for Lieberman, Netanyahu experienced a series of failures in the year that has passed since his election victory. First, he lost to Obama in the fight to stop the Iran deal. Then, a new terror wave broke out, costing the lives of more than 30 Israelis and bringing back tragic memories from the days of the Second Intifada. Lieberman used both developments to portray his former boss as a weak, tired, and outdated prime minister, who deserved a gold watch and a retirement ceremony before clearing the way for sharper, tougher leaders.
Lieberman also sent some direct punches at Ya’alon, blaming the defense minister for not being tough enough on Hamas during the Gaza war and drawing a connection between that accusation and the terror wave that began a year and a half later in the West Bank. “No one takes him seriously,” Lieberman said of the man who kept him away from the position he had asked for. “He needs to start letting the IDF do its job.”
Netanyahu, hiding behind the PR pseudo-name “sources in Likud,” shot back at Lieberman with a particularly nasty press release, stating that “the only whistle Lieberman had ever heard next to his ear was that of a tennis ball”—a witty reference to the former immigrant’s complete lack of any military experience. “He is a man who has never led even a single soldier to battle and never had to take a single operational decision in his life. He isn’t even qualified to be a television talking head on military issues.”
Lieberman wasn’t just attacking Netanyahu and Ya’alon with verbal bombs, however. Some senior Likud politicians suspect that he was also involved in the attempts by two Likud members of Knesset to extort unreasonable demands from Netanyahu on different social-economic issues, threatening to take down the fragile coalition if their demands weren’t accepted. One of the pair, MK Dudi Amsalem, is considered personally close to Lieberman. The trolling by Amsalem and his colleague MK Avraham Nagosa was the main reason Netanyahu decided he had no choice but to broaden his coalition. The threat of going to new elections, after months of deadly terror attacks, and with Lieberman constantly attacking him from the right for being “weak on Hamas,” was too dangerous.
But there remained one problem: Lieberman was still demanding the Defense Ministry to himself, and Netanyahu was still reluctant to give it to him. That’s why for a period of two months he held secret and intense negotiations with the Labor Party, hoping to bring Isaac Herzog and the party’s 24 Knesset members into a “unity government,” that would come with an important bonus: the ability to put forward some kind of gussied-up peace initiative, in the hope that it would hamper an attempt by President Obama to push forward a resolution against settlements in the U.N. Security Council. Herzog was personally eager to enter the government, but his talks with Netanyahu turned out to be a waste of time.
Amidst all this maneuvering, Ya’alon only became truly worried about his place in the government in late March, following the “Hebron incident,” in which an IDF soldier was caught on film shooting to death a severely injured, neutralized Palestinian terrorist. The soldier acted against the IDF’s rules of engagement, and his commanders immediately ordered an investigation into the event. While the soldier claimed he shot the terrorist, who had earlier tried to carry out a stabbing attack, because he feared he could be wearing an explosive vest, the commanders at the scene strongly disputed this account. The IDF senior command, most notably the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, backed the commanders at the scene—one of them a decorated officer who stopped an armed terrorist from murdering dozens of high-school students in 2008. Ya’alon followed suit, stating that the incident was strictly against the military’s moral code. A few hours after Ya’alon’s first reaction to the incident, Netanyahu put out a similar statement, distancing the state of Israel and its military from the unruly, immoral behavior of that one specific soldier.
The backlash to Netanyahu and Ya’alon’s comments was brutal. For the next 24 hours, their Facebook pages were filled with thousands of angry comments, accusing them of “selling out the soldier” to the Arabs, leftists, and Israel’s enemies. Stoking the flames was Lieberman, who seized the opportunity and expressed unwavering support for the soldier, even after it turned out that he was a supporter of the racist “teachings” of Meir Kahane. Appearing next to the “modern day Dreyfus” at his military trial, Lieberman accused Ya’alon and Netanyahu of betraying Israel’s troops in the name of hypocritical morality.
Netanyahu realized the damage this was causing him within the “base” and made a quick U-turn, distancing himself from the positions of the senior command and of his own defense minister and calling the soldier’s parents to express his support. Ya’alon was appalled by the phone call—since when does the prime minister in a democratic country call the family of a person who had just been accused of manslaughter?—but more important, he immediately understood its’ political implications. After two years during which he and Netanyahu were inseparable partners, Netanyahu was now siding against him—together with Lieberman.
A few weeks later, the defense minister and the prime minister again found themselves on different sides of a public outrage—and this time, there was no second guessing about the depth of the crisis between them. On the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, the IDF’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, delivered a speech in which he warned about dangerous trends in Israeli society—racism, xenophobia, and political extremism—that were reminiscent, he claimed, of “trends that appeared in Europe and in Germany 70, 80, and 90 years ago.”
Golan, a distinguished officer with a résumé full of battlefield heroics, whose own family lost many of its members in the Holocaust, did not intend, he said, to “compare Israel to Nazi Germany,” as headlines in the Israeli and international press later claimed. He wanted to warn about the danger posed to Israel by certain fringe elements—such as the almost 5,000 people who participated in a hateful demonstration against the IDF over the Hebron incident. The reaction on the right to his speech was beyond furious, with prominent journalists and Likud politicians calling on the Prime Minister to fire him.
Late that night, Netanyahu called Ya’alon and asked him to seriously reprimand Golan. But Ya’alon refused to do so. He had carefully gone over the general’s speech and concluded that he was being accused of a comparison he didn’t make. “I will tell him to issue a clarification,” Ya’alon told Netanyahu, “but not an apology.” Then, the next morning, Ya’alon amazed the entire political system by issuing his own statement, giving complete and unwavering backing to the deputy chief of staff, and urging the military’s senior command to speak up its mind without fear or censorship.
While Ya’alon probably would have chosen a different analogy, his assessment of the situation in Israel wasn’t very far from that of the decorated general. Still very popular with the more moderate leaders of the settler movement, such as Dani Dayan (Israel’s newly appointed Consul General to New York) and Pinhas Wallerstein (one of the “founding fathers” of the settlements), Ya’alon, like every defense minister before him, had become an enemy in the eyes of the more extremist elements of the settler community.
A turning point for him was the murder of the Dawabshe family in the Palestinian village of Duma last summer, an attack that was carried out by Jewish extremists from a nearby settlement. Ya’alon started comparing these extremist elements to ISIS and Hamas, first privately and then in public. Now he found himself in an awkward position: criticized from almost every corner of the right-wing, but hailed and praised by the center-left.
Netanyahu, however, refused to give any kind of backing to his defense minister. “It wouldn’t have cost him anything to say—look, I don’t agree with the comparison Yair Golan made, and that’s why I demanded him to put out a clarification, but I strongly denounce the attacks on this excellent officer and on our excellent defense minister,” says a person close to Ya’alon. “And yet he didn’t. It wasn’t hard to understand where this is going.”
In the public brawl over Golan’s speech, one voice was consciously silent: Lieberman’s. He didn’t attack the general, giving up an opportunity to score some easy political points with the “base” he and Netanyahu are both competing for. Perhaps he already knew that in a few weeks, he would need Golan’s advice.
One careful observer of Israeli politics had already reached a similar conclusion: Israeli President Ruvi Rivlin. He has been a close ally of Ya’alon for years—both of them are strong opponents of Palestinian statehood, yet are despised by the growing extremist, populist, and racist elements within the right wing for speaking out against mistreatment of Arabs in Israeli society. In the aftermath of the Yair Golan affair, Rivlin called to warn his old friend that his time was running out. “It’s a matter of weeks, if not days,” he said.
Up until that point, Ya’alon seemed to be operating on automatic pilot. He didn’t appear to have a political plan—he was simply doing, and saying, the things he believed in. But what he had heard from Rivlin, and from other friends in the political system—including members of Knesset in the Labor Party, who were convinced that Netanyahu’s negotiations with Herzog were meant to divert attention from the talks with Lieberman—convinced him that he had to start preparing for a grand exit.
That’s why a week after Yair Golan’s speech, Ya’alon delivered one of his own, speaking at a ceremonial event for Israel’s Independence Day with the IDF general staff. “I call on you, the commanders of the IDF, to say what is in your heart,” he told the crowd. “My demand of you, which ought to be your demand of your subordinates, is to keep acting in accordance with your humane conscience and moral compass and not according to which way the winds are blowing.” Everybody in the crowd understood that this was Ya’alon’s farewell speech—the legacy he wanted to leave behind him.
The next morning, Netanyahu invited him to his office, in order to “clarify” that it was unacceptable for senior officers to criticize the government in public but that they were free to do so behind closed doors, in the relevant security forums. At the end of the 50-minute meeting between the two of them, which was very tense, both sides refrained from putting out statements to the media for almost four hours. Three days later, Netanyahu announced that he was handing the Defense Ministry to Lieberman. Ya’alon acted like he was surprised by the decision, but he obviously wasn’t. It was Netanyahu who was caught by surprise when Ya’alon delivered a resignation speech, characterized by clarity, precision, and just the right amount of emotional display. And when Ya’alon bemoaned Likud’s deterioration and talked about extremists who had taken over the party, it was hard to miss the voice of another famous politician who, just like him, was a former general with biographical connections to the Labor Party: Netanyahu’s old nemesis, Ariel Sharon.
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Amir Tibon is the diplomatic correspondent for Israeli news website Walla.