Hell hath no fury like a politician scorned.
Israel’s former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon shook up Israeli politics on Thursday by announcing that he would challenge his former boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for Israel’s top job. Denouncing Netanyahu, though not by name, for having divided “Jews against Arabs, right against left…to get another month or another year in office,” Ya’alon accused Israel’s leadership of “blinding” Israelis with imaginary “existential threats,” such as Iran to distract them from the serious economic and social justice issues confronting the country, including the high cost of living, racism, sexism, and income inequality.
Ya’alon unveiled his political intentions in a short speech Thursday afternoon at the 16th annual conference at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliyah, a gathering of Israeli and foreign diplomats, politicians, and national security experts and analysts. His announcement was greeted by sustained and enthusiastic applause.
Ya’alon, a highly decorated general who is widely respected across the political spectrum, made his dramatic announcement less than a month after being pushed out by Netanyahu in a cabinet reshuffle that stunned and infuriated many in Israel’s national security establishment. Ya’alon resigned on May 20 after learning that Netanyahu, his former political ally, had intended to replace him with Soviet-born Avigdor Lieberman, a security hawk who has never seen combat in any army and has been one of Netanyahu’s fiercest rivals.
Widely known as “Bogie,” Ya’alon did not indicate whether he would try to launch his bid for prime minister by forming his own political party or by joining an existing one. But those familiar with his thinking said that he was likely to try to form a new party composed of members of Likud, who are also disaffected with Netanyahu’s leadership and members of other parties who may be seeking a center-right candidate with vast military experience and potentially broad appeal on security grounds to the Israeli public. Several Israeli analysts said they viewed by Ya’alon’s re-entry into Israel’s political scene as an act of revenge against the prime minister, who was prepared to unceremoniously dump him to broaden his political base and avoid a challenge to his razor-thin ruling coalition. Several pundits suggested that Ya’alon’s appeal was rooted less in his own popularity than in the growing and widespread disdain for Netanyahu within Israel’s political class.
The Likud party lost no time in denouncing the former defense member’s and lifelong Likudnik’s declaration of war on his former political sponsor and ally. All but accusing him of hypocrisy and political expediency by reversing his longstanding view that Iran posed a serious challenge to Israeli security, the party statement said it was “amusing to watch how quickly Ya’alon changes his spots. Just a few months ago he said: ‘Iran is an existential concern for Israel.’ Today…when he became a politician, he said there are no existential concerns for Israel.”
Ya’alon was not Netanyahu’s only critic. In his speech at the conference, Ehud Barak, who closed the event, said that we were seeing “harbingers of fascism” in Israel. “If it walks like early signs of fascism,” said the former prime minister of Israel, “and quacks like early signs of fascism, it is early signs of fascism.” He later added that if Netanyahu did not “sober up,” those in the room and he would have to bring down the government “in the streets and by the ballot box.”
However stunning, Ya’alon’s bid was no surprise. When he resigned the defense post he had held on since 2013, he signaled his determination not to leave public life. Associates said he had already discussed a joint run with such other disappointed Likudniks as former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and even Yair Lapid, who, like Ya’alon, emphasizes that he was raised in a family that supported Menachem Begin. But sources close to Ya’alon said that while Lapid (who also harshly criticized Netanyahu’s leadership in a speech Wednesday in Herziliya) was unlikely to offer his party’s top slot to Ya’alon, he might wish to strengthen his party’s security credentials with another much respected general.
Tablet has reported that two other former IDF chiefs of staff—Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz—are also seriously considering entering politics, a development that would also further weaken Netanyahu’s claim that he is best-suited to ensure security for Israelis.
Ya’alon told the conference today that despite the leadership’s effort to stoke fear among Israelis, “at this time and for the foreseeable future there is no existential threat facing Israel.” Israel, he said, is the strongest country in the region,” according to a translation of his remarks. “Therefore it is reasonable that the leadership should cease terrifying its citizens and stop trying to give them a feeling that we are on the brink of a second Holocaust.”
Iran’s nuclear program, he said, which was put on ice after the agreement masterminded by the Obama Administration, “does not constitute an imminent existential threat to Israel.” The agreement gives Israel time to “prepare for future events,” he added. Ya’alon also slammed what he called the “violent rhetoric” of Israeli politicians.
Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is the author of the memoirThe Story: A Reporter’s Journey.